Can science help the mortals play like gods?, 1998

The appliance of science: a view from the lab

John Illman

When Ray Illingworth was England manager, he was up against teams that had dietitians, exercise specialists, physiotherapists and doctors. Illingworth gave the impression he could do everything himself. England kept losing. With David Lloyd at the helm for England against the South Africans this summer, there will not be such a marked contrast in management style.

But while the new methods are widely accepted in South Africa and Australia, they continue to attract hostile criticism from the other Barmy Army - the diehard English traditionalists. They insist that Len Hutton and Denis Compton and David Gower and Ian Botham made the record books without the benefit of computer analysis, nutritional programmers and the psychological "immersion approach".

Would science have made them any better? Possibly not. According to one theory, great players perform well within their limits and may therefore benefit less from stretching those limits than lesser mortals who have to do their utmost all the time. So perhaps the key question is: can science help the mortals play like gods? The answer lies in two related strands of scientific endeavour. The first is tailored to the individual, and addresses issues like diet, training, coaching, physiotherapy and psychology; the second relates to broader issues of human potential, which science is only just beginning to unravel.

Cricketers' diets are certainly starting to improve. Until recently, English cricketers ranked second only to sumo wrestlers among the world's most overfed sportsmen. They were badly fed too, and some still are. Professor Ron Maughan, chair of the British Olympic Association's Nutrition Steering Group, says: "In an Olympic final, there is only a small difference between a gold medal and obscurity. Sports nutritionists argue that the right food can make all the difference between first and last."

In cricket, he claims, all other things being equal, diet could be the difference between victory and defeat. The evidence is based partly on research into carbohydrates, the main muscle fuel during strenuous exercise. Carbohydrate foods include bread, potatoes, pasta and rice. A Swedish study compared one group of footballers who ate their normal diet between games with another who took carbohydrate supplements. The carbohydrate group ran much faster and further, especially in the second half, and spent more time sprinting and less time walking.

Coaches and players have long talked about the effect of physiology on the game. Remember Mike Brearley? But, while science may be winning the battle for the cricketer's stomach, the battle for his mind highlights the innate conservatism of the English game. Perhaps, at heart, we all see ourselves as amateur psychologists: coaches do not want to concede their territory to other experts. But how many of them can help all those young players who look great in the nets but crumble under pressure? The evidence speaks for itself in the number of promising youngsters rejected as not having what it takes.

We can all quote examples of top players with formidable psychological abilities. Ian Botham apparently taught himself to focus his concentration into the few seconds before bowling and then to switch off and relax between deliveries. It sounds so simple and obvious. But why don't more people do it? Desmond Haynes studies stress management and positive thinking - telling himself over and over again that he was the best batsman in the world and that the bowlers were second-rate. Again it sounds simple, but it can take years to develop these skills. Sports psychologists claim young players can be taught them and thus bypass the extended process of learning by experience. This might not be cricket as we have known it, but the most advanced coaches are all ears.

The increasing use of mind games in cricket is based on research which has been shown to have practical value. But so-called basic research often begins without anyone knowing where it might lead. It is the glorious pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake - the basis of all scientific progress from the development of the wheel to the heart transplant. For instance, work has been done lately into the gift of timing. A player like Geoff Boycott does not delight us the way David Gower or Brian Lara might at their best. As an article in New Scientist put it, they seem to conjure with time, bringing an unhurried genius to the game.

But what is their real secret? Research shows that raw reaction times do not appear to be the answer. When top athletes take standard reaction time tests, such as hitting a switch as soon as it lights up, they are no quicker than average. And yet a cricketer has about five thousandths of a second to hit a fast-moving ball. If he is quicker or slower, he will miss. So the real mystery, as New Scientist points out, is not that some people are so skilful, but that anyone ever hits a cricket ball at all.

Research has produced a partial, if bizarre-sounding, answer. Top batsmen, it seems, commit themselves to playing on either the front or back foot at least a tenth of a second before a fast bowler releases the ball. It is hard to believe, but that is true of most scientific discoveries. And it poses another intriguing question: what do the players react to? They themselves cannot explain. "Anticipation studies" seem to suggest that the superior reactions of top players are due more to learning than to any innate factor. But this does not explain what distinguishes a Gower from a run-of-the-mill county performer.

Perhaps we will never know the answer. And maybe the game will be the richer. Mystery and uncertainty, above all else, are what give cricket its appeal. In a recent lecture to the Institute of Political Science in Sydney, Peter Fitzsimons, a former Wallaby rugby player, coined the word "seriousisation". Australian sport, he maintained, had become too systematic, and had lost its romance. He had a point in a country which runs counselling sessions not only for potential national rugby players, but also for their wives and girlfriends. This may be scientific, but it's not cricket.

John Illman is medical correspondent of The Observer, a keen club cricketer and an accredited coach.

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