February 23, 2017

Why the wrong technique is sometimes right

Orthodoxy is all well and good, but sometimes you need to dump it in the interests of the spirit of play
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It's not all about the follow-through and the foot position © Getty Images

Many cricketers play better when on tour than when they are knee-deep in the grind of another season, and part of it is because the games are less important, the scores kept are purely for club fines and forfeits rather than league position and points. When you add in the cameraderie built up by late-night drinking sessions, hangovers and lazy days getting to know new clubs and grounds, the game simply becomes fun again, and with the pressure off, your game can simply flow. The dodgy B&Bs can take off some of the glitz, but things could be worse. You could be in ancient Greece, where the dodgy B&B was raised to an art form: if it isn't Circe turning your team into a herd of pigs, then it's Polyphemus deciding to eat his guests. Poor form, I think you'd agree. It is perhaps Procrustes who, in his desire to have everything "just so", was the most unpleasant of the lot. He would adjust his guests so that they fitted his beds perfectly: too tall and he'd lop off your feet; too small, and he'd put you on the rack and stretch you until you were the perfect height.

In the same way, orthodox technique is often applied as a "one size fits all" method of coaching. But sometimes the heterodox approach can also lead to great success, especially when allied with that mysterious element called "play". In a previous life I was a musician and teacher, and spent hours with both individuals and bands, helping them sound better. I was a stickler for correct technique, within the boundaries of individual ability, but every so often I would simply ignore what a player was doing "wrong" because the noise they made simply worked. The same principle applied when working with bands, and while judgements as to which bands or players aren't technically adept but make great noise is a wildly subjective art - perhaps a few suggestions in the comments might help the debate - the point is, some people do things simply wrong, but get it oh, so right.

We are, in England at least, at that time when cricketers across the land are viewing the new season with a mix of trepidation and anticipation. Gymnasia resonate with the thud of ball upon shin, the metallic clatter of rebound stumps, and warning cries of "Heads!" as the five bowlers waiting their turn catch up on gossip, having forgotten about the batsman, who has decided the lofted straight drive is the shot of the day. Breakfast tables groan as those muscles that seem strangely cricket-specific take umbrage against their sudden and unprepared for re-deployment. But these nets are next to useless technically, the traditional "bowlers, form a disorderly queue; batter, kill the ball" approach doing nobody any favours, and they're hardly ideal preparation for an uncovered pitch in late April. They are fun, however, if you let them be.

No one has ever simply said, "Hit the ball over there" before. Freed from the need to do it how it's meant to be done, I suddenly found I could do it after all

Cricket can be stressful at whatever level you play, and for me it shows: the natural nervousness at the start of an innings is amplified by Parkinson's, as adrenaline makes my tremor go into overdrive. I don't really enjoy those first few balls, and this shows in my stats: in 24 innings last season I recorded four ducks and nine single-figure scores, but if I made it to double figures, I averaged 41. There are many possible explanations, but I think the most important is that after the first ten runs I simply started to enjoy myself. When this happened (and I started to "play" in the true sense), I forgot about my technique and just tried to make the ball do something. I didn't enjoy my last club net, as I was so intent on batting well. I also batted abysmally.

And so I decided on a one-to-one coaching session, where I suggested some work on my front-foot game, because it's the orthodoxy, and I'm really no good at it: while I'm happy to step back, my front foot gives a whole new slant to the word "recalcitrant". My coach hummed and hawed (he has seen me bat before) and suggested we try a different approach.

My technique would give Sir Geoffrey apoplexy. With low backlift and minimal foot movement, I take a middle-stump guard and stand outside leg, and play so late, the bowler is often celebrating my demise just as my bat appears from nowhere. I'm vulnerable to the late inswinger, though lbw is not a problem, neither is hitting the ball in the air. Run-outs? Just the one last season - ironically a direct hit from the boundary at the bowler's end; that'll be the exception that proves the rule, right?

I am beyond mere tinkering, and it's too late for a technical rebuild, but is either approach always wise? The professional game is littered with talent snuffed out by over-enthusiastic application of the orthodox. Both Jimmy Anderson and Steven Finn were almost ruined by attempts to make their natural "way" fit the cookie-cutter "bowler" page of the modern coaching manual: we live in a "see box, tick box" world. For me, technical work simply makes me think too much and stop enjoying the game.

Boycott and Afridi: two approaches to technique Arif Ali / © AFP

So I was given a field empty between point and mid-off, and told to hit the gap. The bowling was variable in length but either full and straight or just outside off stump. With my inability to get forward, and a weak top hand, you would expect me to struggle. What I did (and this, I'd like to point out, was not due to any great plan on my part) was definitely unorthodox. And rather fun.

Instead of moving forward and to the off side, meeting the ball and clattering it through the vacant covers, I instinctively moved back and across, waited for the ball, and, well, clattered it through the vacant covers. The thing was, I moved my back foot further towards the leg side, thus ending up in the same position as I would have with orthodox movement, only with my front foot just outside the leg stump instead of the off stump, except that it allowed me to play later to a straighter ball. Oh, and instead of fretting about my play, my foot position, my swing, my grip, I actually enjoyed myself. In the 100-plus balls I faced, I was bowled twice: once my own fault, the second a 70mph left-arm-over yorker. That's compared to nine bowled dismissals out of 13 last season.

I've heard the words "Get forward" more times than I care to remember, both in the nets and in the middle. It's never going to happen. But no one has ever simply said, "Hit the ball over there" before. Freed from the need to do it how it's meant to be done, I suddenly found I could do it after all. That is, I forgot about the bat and thought about the ball. It's not playing without fear so much as playing without a care, though not carelessly. It's how Botham played at Headingley in 1981.

There is a right way and there are other ways, and while Sir Geoffrey picks up on the minutest aspect of a batter's technique, he is also the first to say that what really counts are runs. While it's true that orthodox technique is a good thing, it is also true that some of the greatest players have found another way. Muralitharan, Malinga, Trescothick, Chanderpaul, KP, de Villiers... the list is illustrious. While I have no idea whether my average will improve this year, I do feel unshackled from the need to conform.

Coaching, like playing, is about identifying how an individual can get the most out of themselves, not how the coach can make them conform to a template. And cricket is a game. Let's enjoy it.

Pete Langman is the author of The Country House Cricketer and Slender Threads: a young person's guide to Parkinson's Disease. @elegantfowl

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • pete on February 27, 2017, 14:27 GMT

    Swarzi: I fear we must agree to agree, indeed ... I suspect accumulating suitable statistics is beyond either of us but I'd be surprised if orthodox technique were not to provide the most efficient and consistent performance. But, players like Gayle and Chanderpaul perhaps go beyond mere efficiency and consistency, which is why they stand out. For every unorthodox great there's an orthodox one, but they all share one attribute: talent. Perhaps we're in a situation with world cricket having changed so much that what was orthodox now simply cannot cope, and that it's those who see the game through different eyes are those who flourish. As with any discipline, technique, training and hard work can help you make the most of your 'talent', but this necessarily privileges those with most talent. And yes, the WI way of play perhaps demonstrates this better than most. That's why we need to let our players play ...

  • randolf on February 27, 2017, 13:57 GMT

    @ELEGANTFOWL: I agree that we both are saying the same thing and maybe there is no need for any prolonged debate. However, I'm also debunking the idea that orthodoxy is necessarily always the correct method - if it were so, most of the players who're being cloned/coached from their cradle would succeed - but it's the direct opposite - it's the guys with the natural talent who prevail. I'm responding this way because I see how coaching destroyed WI cricket. These so called experts keep interrupting the natural abilities of our guys, whereby, we have not a single world class player now - the last were Chris Gayle and Shiv Chanderpaul - natural technique guys. Hence, the reasons that I'm vehemently debunking the flawed opinion that there is a divine correlation between what they say is the "correct/orthodox" technique and efficient and consistent performance - Steve Smith is strong evidence. Mind you, some coaching is useful, but too much is worthless, in any cricketing jurisdiction!

  • pete on February 26, 2017, 18:55 GMT

    Swarzi: Actually, statistics tell us who performs best, not who is the most able analyst - these may occur in one individual but it isn't a necessary condition. What is established through repetition is experience and may lead to habitual consistency, but again, not necessarily, and the adaptation of particular technical points to suit batsman, bowling and conditions. We've all seen batsmen play 'correctly' and fail, and this is because (as we both contend), there is more at work than just the technique employed. What I think you're actually arguing is, dare I say it, what I am, too. We just use different terms. What is considered to be 'correct' is what is orthodox. But, as we both argue, this is not necessarily the 'best' ... the best technique is the one that allows for the player to play at their best. Hence the column. 'Correct' technique is perhaps best considered a guide or starting point, a way of comprehending the game. It is from that knowledge that we may progress.

  • randolf on February 26, 2017, 14:08 GMT

    @ELEGANTFOWL: In genuine scientific analysis, the "best stats" is the flagship for "profound credibility"; especially when it's not established by fluke; but is instead compiled "overtime", through repetition, experience, habit and "consistency". Hence, any analysis devoid of this truism is not only subjective and useless, but a worthless exercise. Also, I think that your implied premise that there is a correlation between cloned/right technique and "most efficient and consistent achievement" is grossly flawed. I've seen lots of batsmen who are said to have the so-called correct technique failed miserably; because they become too predictable; and as such, opposing captains set fielding positions to frustrate them - and, when the unplayable delivery comes, they succumb to their frustration - quite consistently to! In my view, correct technique in batting is "not an orthodox method taught". It's instead the "natural style" that brings consistent success. Steve Smith, a perfect example.

  • pete on February 25, 2017, 15:27 GMT

    Swarzi: I actually use the word 'orthodox' (right opinion) to describe the technique generally considered the benchmark. And yes, I obviously agree that it's sometimes constricting - with Gavaskar and Richards we have extreme examples of temperament and hand-eye co-ordination. I disagree with the idea that the person with the best stats is therefore best-placed to comment on technique, however: action and analysis are different skills. With regards technique, however, the 'best' or 'most correct' is that way of doing things that allows for the most efficient and consistent achievement of particular performance outcomes. Technique comes to one's aid when talent fades, or form dips. It encourages consistency. And yes, indiscriminately applied, it can hinder more than it helps.

  • randolf on February 25, 2017, 13:23 GMT

    Question: What is a 'wrong technique'? I'm unapologetic in saying that Sunil Gavascar is the most credibile man to believe regarding the issue of batting technique - he's the batsman with the most success against the greatest bowling attack of All Time; and not marginally so, his record against that attack is ridiculously phenomenal! So, what has he said about batting technique? He said that not only is it over-hyped, but particularly "overrated"! To backup his view, his contemporary, Viv Richards, who lots of credible pundits think was better than Bradman, made his own name by "Hitting Across The Line" - and Viv has been the most destructive batsman of All Time. We in the West Indies can attest to the detriments of "cloning" every player with the same "play-straight" nonsense. We're now at rock bottom in cricket; because, the so called coaches are cloning our young batsmen with boring 'play-straight", resulting in us not producing consitent excitement anymore - hallmark of WI cricket!

  • Bala on February 24, 2017, 14:14 GMT

    @Engrahmad: What is considered 'orthodox' or 'textbook' batting technique is not what you claim it is. It is actually a manual for batsmen to play any type of bowling efficiently (minimum of movement), maintaining balance, transferring weight, and with a minimum of risk. It is worth remembering that the 'textbook' was designed in an era of uncovered pitches. Hence, people may now find some of the principles (getting to the pitch of the ball, playing the ball below one's nose, batting outward from the stumps, etc.) exceedingly restrictive. However, they were designed to prevent the batsman from getting out, not necessarily as a means of scoring runs.

  • David on February 24, 2017, 3:48 GMT

    "Orthodoxy" is for those of us with little or no natural talent or hand eye coordination. It just helps us stay in a little longer and maybe score a few runs along the way. If you are able to lob the ball into the local river on a regular basis, no one cares how you do it. However, if you go through the season as a top order batsman and fail to reach double figures, your technique is stuffed!

  • Ahmad on February 24, 2017, 3:18 GMT

    The orthodox technique is flawed on all principles, since it is designed to play medium pacers & spinners-who don't have wrong one, just decently. Why would u play these mediocre bowlers just decently at all?

    Why wouldn't you completely demolish them? Where technique is actually needed is against genuine pace or against spinners who have wrong ones in their repertoire & that is where orthodox technique completely falls short. Since orthodox technique entails u to perform complicated rituals of footwork & bat lifting which makes you too late on the ball, just what happened with Philip Hughes & he paid the ultimate price of following orthodox technique.

    Yes technique is imperative against accurate swing bowling, genuine pace & spinners with doosras. Most successful batsmen, considered by pundits, to have no technique r basically following alternate technique, which is modern & better technique that works. That is "Play stumps aimed balls with vertical bat, showing full face of bat,

  • Andrew on February 24, 2017, 2:46 GMT

    I mean really? Too many bloggers these days who love the game to bits but can't play it to save themselves. Save the columns of technique to guys who really know fellas

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