County cricket has lost the art of bowling sides out, 1988

A coach's viewpoint


To me, as a cricketer and a coach, the most enjoyable aspect of England's victories in Australia in 1986-87 was the way the players came together as a team under Micky Stewart. They practised properly, and when there was a function to attend, they were all there. The result of such team unity and team spirit was that it produced much success. It would be good, I thought, if that same attitude and commitment were to rub off on their fellow county players when the touring team returned home.

Last season, however, things started to go wrong again. It is easy to be critical, and often unrewarding. Instead, we need to understand why it is not always so easy for our modern first-class cricketers to achieve the success which the public, and the media, have come to expect, especially in Test matches. For a start, it is very difficult for the young players today. Immediately they come into the game, they are playing two or three different types of cricket - even the lads in the Second XIs.

As a coach, I want players to learn to bat all day. It is most important: one has only to look at the performances of Dilip Vengsarkar for India in 1986 and Salim Malik last year for Pakistan. By playing long innings, especially at Headingley where batting was far from easy, they won the matches for their countries. Batting from eleven in the morning until six o'clock has to be the hardest part of the game. It is a lot easier to slog or get on with it quickly. A coach's main contribution is to get into a batsman's head that if he bats all day, his side has a great chance of winning. One has only to think what happened when Bill Athey and Chris Broad played long innings in Australia.

It is always tempting to reach back into the past and consider the Huttons, the Comptons, the Mays and the Barringtons; to hold up as an example the way they used to play Test cricket. It seemed, in their day, that there was always one player, maybe two, who knew how to put together a big hundred. Or, if the wicket was doing something, stay there, not necessarily making runs, until the conditions improved for strokeplay. However, in cricketing terms, their level of concentration was higher; and it could afford to be. Peter May, for example, did not have to play one-day cricket. And, incidentally, imagine what we would have lost if he had. Those glorious drives we remember being despatched with precision to the boundary would have brought him only singles now that fields are set deep, with a sweeper deployed behind the inner fielders. Who stores singles in the memory, however beautifully the stroke is played?

Since May's day, the game has changed enormously. Geoff Boycott, who had the most amazing powers of concentration, could play one-day cricket well, but he did play it a little bit like a three-day game. His Test cricket was completely different. By being an opener, however, Boycott did have the advantage of being able to bat correctly in one-day cricket. This does not apply for a young man coming in at No. 4 or No. 5 with ten overs left. How on earth can he consider making a big score? And the answer is, we don't expect him to. But if he gets a quick 30, a big hand from the crowd and his name in the papers next morning, he thinks, "I've done marvellously. That's all I need; 30 or 40 and I'm magic."

I do think that the younger players today look at it that way. They get in, get their 30 or 40, and their concentration goes. I see it with the MCC Young Cricketers here at Lord's. There are some marvellous young batsmen, but when I look down the scoresheets, their ability is not always reflected in runs. When a batsman has 25 or 30, he should be on his way. He is seeing the ball, picking up the pace and the length of the bowlers; in other words, he's got his eye in; he's done all the graft. And yet here he is, throwing it away. I tell these lads, time and again, that once they get that far, they've cracked it. If you think about the great players, when they got to 25, they got 50, and when they got 50, they went on to a hundred.

The blame cannot be apportioned entirely to limited-overs cricket, although it is played a lot more in the schools these days. In my day, in Yorkshire, players knew little else but the leagues, and we didn't bat much more than 55 overs in an afternoon, even if it wasn't specifically limited-overs cricket. It seems to me, rather, that the attitude and temperament of people in general have changed. Many youngsters today would rather make big money doing something that requires little skill instead of taking up an apprenticeship. It's the same with travel. If we were going from Headingley to, say, Hove, we'd work out a nice, easy route, break the trip for a good meal at a pub along the A1, and not bother if we didn't get to our hotel until after midnight. Today, it seems to be A to B as fast as possible. Travel has come to mean movement. And I sometimes think that today's cricketer bats the way he drives. Life has become instant everything, and yet we are living in an age when there is supposed to be more leisure time.

Nor do the players talk about the game as much. If Yorkshire were playing Middlesex at Lord's in the 1950s, both teams would go together for a drink on the first night of the match. It was compulsory. And the talk would be cricket talk. As a youngster, I squeezed in between Denis Compton and Bill Edrich, and I probably did not open my mouth. I simply listened as Bill and Denis chatted about the game to Johnny Wardle, say, or Bob Appleyard. They were all nearing the end of their first-class careers, yet they were still intensely interested in techniques, and how other cricketers were playing the game. It was fascinating for us young players; it was part of our cricket education. Today, let's be quite honest about this, there are few people who want to listen.

One who does in Martin Crowe, but you've a different young man there. He has set out his stall to be the best batsman in the world. He's dedicated. I wonder sometimes what would have happened had David Gower been as dedicated as Martin Crowe, because David is a marvellous batsman, a great timer of the ball and wonderful to watch. On the other hand, it is possible, human nature being what it is, that he might have been only half the player he is.

Several times last year Martin, who was in tremendous form for Somerset, came to see me because he felt there were elements of his game that needed improvement. He felt I might see something that hadn't been seen down at Taunton. That is no reflection on the staff there. So often at counties the coach is with the youngsters; with the second team rather than the first. Therefore, the only time he sees the first-team players is in April - and then it is mostly gym work and fitness training. It's often too wet and cold for outdoor nets, and in addition the players, having in many instances spent the winter playing abroad, aren't always as keen as they used to be when April comes around.

April apart, the only time many of the coaches get a chance to see a first team player is if he's having a dreadful run and is given a week or so in the Seconds to sort himself out. However, I do think that there are times when the player has to go to the coach. A coach can't go on saying, You should be doing this, you've got to do that; not to a top player. He has to want help.

The situation in which Graham Gooch found himself last season provides a good example. He should never have been in the position he was, because one or two years ago some of the old players were getting worried about his stance and the way he was picking up the bat. Perhaps someone should have said to him then, Come on, Graham, stop all this silliness. Play as you normally play. But it would have been difficult then, because he was getting a lot of runs. All of a sudden, when he was getting a run of noughts, the whole world started saying that something had gone wrong. It was too late then.

The players - some of them - say that they're happy with this stance with the bat held in mid-air. Personally, I don't like it. They also have these heavy bats which have virtually put spin bowlers out of the game, because a mis-hit now goes to the boundary whereas, with a lighter bat, it wouldn't have carried beyond the fielder threequarter-way back. What concerns me about the stance is that the batsman can easily pick the bat up incorrectly. It starts pointing towards slip, then towards second slip, and before the batsman knows it his feet are wrong. Once that happens, everything goes. I firmly believe - in all walks - that life revolves around a basic teaching. When golfers and tennis players have trouble with their game, they go back to basics with a coach. And I feel that this is what cricketers should do.

I am not advocating that everything must be straight from the text book. If anything, coaches have become a bit too text-bookish over the years. The most important thing about coaching is not to lose the natural ability of a player. The best players in the world have always had their own little idiosyncracies, but they haven't ignored the basic tenets of the game.

What I see as a decline in technique does disturb me, and I'm equally disturbed because we are not doing enough as a game to halt it. I am a fortunate man, being based at Lord's, because I feel I'm at the centre of cricket. I see the players when they're here for Test matches and when they come for the county games. We have superb indoor and outdoor nets, plus modern aids such as video cameras so that players can actually see what they are doing. It has led me to think that perhaps cricket should have a place where first-class players can go to sort out their game - just as other sportsmen have. A change of environment. When you have a son or daughter growing up at home, you don't always notice how they're changing until, suddenly, it has happened. And I think cricketers have that problem at their counties. It needs someone not so close to home to look at their game with a critical eye. That's why I would like to see a cricketer, who was going through a bad patch, spend a few days at a cricket farm, working with coaches who could help him through his problems.

I went through a bad spell myself when I came back from Australia in 1971; but we Yorkshire bowlers were lucky in those days in having Bill Bowes as our travelling coach. Bill was writing for the Yorkshire evening papers and consequently was always with the team. After a day's play, we could go up to him in the bar or at the hotel and ask what we were doing wrong. Nearly always he'd be able to tell us. Bill also used to be there at pre-season training, along with Arthur Mitchell, the Yorkshire coach, and Maurice Leyland, and I for one would always turn to him when I needed help. Today, I have a lot of respect for Ken Higgs as a coach for fast bowlers. He has a dry, hard sense of humour, which is a great asset for a fast bowler, and you have only to look at those on the staff at Leicestershire to see how good he is at his job. If I want help with slow bowlers, I'm always pleased when Fred Titmus is available.

But the whole concept of bowling has changed in recent years. The game today revolves around bowling twenty overs for, say, 40 or 50 runs. Once, not so long ago, if a bowler took four for 80 or 90 from fifteen overs, his team were in with a chance. Now, the aim is to stop the other side scoring runs. You have only to look at the fields that are set; at how quickly the fielders move into defensive positions, even in County Championship cricket. In schoolboy cricket I've seen a sweeper on the boundary. I think that's criminal, but television has shown them what the first-class players are doing, and they're the ones the young cricketers copy. Sadly, in English cricket we've lost the art of bowling sides out. The bowling is tighter than it has ever been, but the length bowled is also just that much shorter. That means bowlers no longer swing the ball, for if it isn't pitched up, it isn't going to swing.

I realise that one-day cricket is a big money-maker, but as things stand at the moment, without being a Test player, a young cricketer won't get to play in the big one-day internationals. So we come back to the five-day game, and the breeding ground for that in this country is the three-day game. I think as coaches we have to concentrate on this level and say that our aim is to produce good three-day county cricketers and Test cricketers. Then we might also have better cricket.

© John Wisden & Co