Monday 19 August 2013

Careful with your kinetic flow, Shane...

Neil D'Costa, known for the years he has spent coaching Michael Clarke as well as for his work with Phil Hughes and Mitchell Starc, gave a barbed little interview to the Sydney Morning Herald last week, pointing out various 'fundamental flaws' in the 'non-negotiable basics' of Australia's top order.

Such is the depth of Australia's trauma, another filleting with the knives of the press barely registered, although D'Costa had a few hurtful zingers in his armoury. Yet this was a piece that could be read another way, too, because it was a story that said something about modern coaching.

We are about to enter the second age of the coach. The professional game is reaching an apex of analysis as science reveals more of the physical realities of batting and bowling. It's not quite golf - yet - but it will be one day. As players become highly-priced freelance contractors, why wouldn't they employ a personal coach to micro-manage each aspect of their game? And why would those coaches not become high-earning mini-celebs in their own right? Golf after all has its swing gurus and its putting specialists, its mind-managers and its conditioning champions.

As in golf, a new language is developing to describe function and form, a mix between management-speak and pop-science. D'Costa's piece is studded with it: he talks about 'kinetic flow' and the 'entry and exit points' of various shots. Yet at heart, this new language is another way of analysing principals that are as old as the game.

D'Costa offers this jargon-heavy paragraph on David Warner: ‘Warner has what in swing mechanics is called a reverse swing. His weight is distributed as if he’s a right-handed batsman facing the wicketkeeper. The shoulder facing the bowler is high when, in fact, it should be lower at the time the ball is released. That would enable Warner to enter his shots with the correct weight shift and put his nose over the little toe on his front foot. What I see is Warner’s leaning back. That allows him to cut easily but, when he comes forward, his balance is off. Having too much weight leaning back also makes him susceptible to lbw when the ball is swinging.'

Or as my taciturn former coach Jim Cameron would say: 'lean into the ball' (or 'lean into the f**king ball' - he was Australian) .

D'Costa on Shane Watson: 'Watson has a similar shoulder angle and alignment problem to Warner. He shifts his weight back when he sets up. Watson is a big build, so it’s worth comparing him to Kevin Pietersen or Jacques Kallis, who each get their front shoulders down and stand slightly open at release so they can lean into the ball, chin-forward.'

Or, get your head over the the ball. 

Brad Haddin: ‘You cannot recalibrate your judgment if you move your head and Haddin moves his head around, both when he’s batting and wicketkeeping. Like Khawaja, he drops head when batting and keeping, losing milliseconds of vision.'

Keep your head still.

Usman Khawaja: 'He breaks rule No.1 – keep your head still. He’s tracking the ball by dropping his head. After his dismissal in the second innings of the fourth Test, Nasser Hussain asked ‘How did he miss that?’ The answer is, he dropped his head before the ball arrived and was looking at the ground instead of the ball. Until he changes that habit and is able to track the ball in and out with his head still, the rest doesn’t matter.’

Watch the ball.

We're at a juncture, as the late Bob Woolmer pointed out in the title of his majesterial book, of the Art and Science of Cricket. The fundamental principals of the game have been known to every player since the age of Grace. Science is, at the moment, engaged in explaining why the art works. It has value, and as the demands of its formats drive further, richer evolution of its methods, it will have a widening area of study.

But the oldest lessons should always be learned first, and they don't need decorating. Watch the ball. Keep your head still. Hit it when it's under your nose. The song remains the same.

Friday 9 August 2013

Cricket and ignominy: the man whose trousers fell down

Sometimes the game does not want merely to defeat you. Sometimes it demands something more, a new kind of humiliation or embarrassment, simply because it can.

The other week our opener got out early for not very many, and as he walked sadly towards the boundary rope, a group of Japanese tourists came running up and asked if they could have their picture taken with him. In fact they didn't really ask, they just draped their arms around him and started.

Then one of them took a piece of paper out of his pocket and asked if he knew the way to a local tourist attraction.

Later, when I was batting, I took what should have been a single to third man, but as the fielder ran after it his trousers fell down, so we got two instead.

For the pro, the moment of ignominy is a rare interruption to normal service. Their skill level tends to overwhelm the possibility of farce and their egos are robust enough to shrug it off when it visits. The rest of us have no such shields.

I was once fielding at slip to an off spinner, quite close to the bat. He bowled a short one, the batsman went back to cut and the next thing I knew I was seeing stars. The batter had got a top edge that smacked me on the forehead before I could get my hands up.

Instead of concern or sympathy, all I could hear was laughter. Apparently the ball was traveling remarkably slowly. As the story evolved, the ball got slower and slower, and the time I was on the ground longer and longer. I even heard my dad telling someone about it once, giving a little mime of my hands flapping as the ball got nearer.

Very slowly, of course...

Thursday 1 August 2013

All back to Alf's

A few weeks ago, I took a journey that I have made many times before, but not for many years. It always used to be by car, but this time it was on foot, at least the last part of it was - around the Wandsworth one-way system, past Zodiac Records (still strange and unwelcoming, still forbiddingly shuttered and with its little sign 'open Saturdays 10-6pm') and then halfway up East Hill, on the left, next to Wandsworth House...

It's just a side turning now, blink and you'd miss it, the street sign the only clue to what it was. 'Cricketers Mews' it reads, and it leads to a block of apartments that say all there is to be said about early '90s architecture. They are as unremarkable in their way as the building that stood there before them, beyond the vanished garage forecourt: a whitewashed frontage with a slender side door, and behind it a creaking and gas-lit hall of indeterminate vintage.

Nothing lasts forever, and Alf Gover's cricket school was demolished in 1989, shortly after Alf and his son John sold up upon the grand old man's retirement from coaching at the age of 82 (well, sort of - Alf was born on leap year's day, so technically he was a quarter of that). But Gover's is going to live again for half an hour on Saturday, when Charlie Connelly's documentary is broadcast on Radio 4 (I blogged here on my time there, and got to write a little more about Alf for the Nightwatchman).

There are contributions from Mike Selvey, Sir Trevor McDonald, Mickey Stewart, family members (it was great to hear that John  is alive and well and living the high life in Monaco) and even Nicholas Parsons. Alf's was open to anyone with the fee for a net, as well as to the young pros sent to pass under the eye of the master: thus Viv Richards, Andy Roberts, Barry Richards, Mike Procter, Sunil Gavaskar, Garry Sobers and Brian Lara are joined on the list of alumni by John Major, who used to save his pocket money for lessons, and Harold Pinter, who had a portrait of himself batting there above his writing desk.

But everyone who went has their own cast list, and as I stood outside Cricketers Mews with Charlie mine came back to me with a great and melancholic force: Noble, lovely Alf of course, and John downstairs in the shop; Terry the barman, who'd once delivered a fridge to Dave Vanian of the Damned and who could bowl rapid, skidding bouncers when the mood seized him; my coach Jim Cameron, a wise, hard-living and Biblically-bearded Australian; my good friend Simon, who ended up as one of Alf's coaches himself, and with whom I shared mad, high-speed car-rides back down the A3; old Joe, who started drinking brown ale in the bar at lunchtime and had the last net of the day; Monty Lynch, Surrey's middle-order thumper, battering ball after ball through the long winter afternoons...

More than that, I felt the sounds and smells and look of the place. To me, it still lives, in its way.

I was lucky to meet Charlie again through cricket, and to be asked to take part. It's a particular kind of luck, one we owe to Alf. His over-arching philosophy was not to impose technical perfection (although he could do it, if required) but to offer to everyone a way to love the game for life. That is Alf's greatest legacy.

NB: There are some terrific pictures here. Alf's leaning against the legendary snooker table in the first; in the second he's in his office, just off the snooker room, with his wife Marjorie; the third is up in the nets, which no-one who saw them will forget in a hurry...