I believe that cricket coaches should have an oath no different from that of Hippocrates in From the epidemics: “first do no harm”.
The developed cricket countries have lost the natural environments that formed much of their developmental fabric in past times. In those environments, young cricketers learned by watching good players and then mimicking them in fetch matches with family and friends.
Usually any instruction received was rudimentary, and adult interference was generally minimal. In this unstructured environment, players developed a natural style as they learned to compete against older players, learning critical coping and survival skills.
The Indian subcontinent still has many cities where coaching facilities are rare and young people play on the streets and vacant lots without the intervention of formal coaching. This is where many of their current stars learned the game.
MS Dhoni, with whom I worked in India, is a good example of a batter who developed his talent and learned to play this way. By competing with more experienced individuals in various fields early in his development, Dhoni developed the decision-making and strategic skills that set him apart from many of his peers. He is one of the sharpest cricket minds I have come across.
England, on the other hand, have very few of these natural environments and their players are produced in a small group of public schools, with an emphasis on the coaching manual. This is why their percussion has lost much of its flair and resilience.
The games young people invent and play are dynamic, promoting creativity, fun, flexibility in technical execution, tactical acumen and decision-making, which are often lacking in top-level batting.
Environments that try to reduce batting to mastery of technique and break it down into a number of different components reflect a misunderstanding of how complex batting is
Invariably, when an adult gets involved with kids playing cricket, they break down the game and kill its energy by emphasizing proper technique. This reduces a dynamic, engaging environment that promotes learning to a flat and lifeless set of exercises that do little to improve hitting in games.
The growth in structured training in batter preparation has not only brought batting to the fore, it has led to a decrease in batter numbers. Highly structured environments and an excessive focus on teaching players to perform the “correct” technique dehumanize cricket.
The environments that try to reduce batting to mastery of technique, and break it down into a number of different components, reflect a misunderstanding of how complex batting is. High-quality percussion requires good imagination, creativity and the ability to identify and respond to challenges in matches.
In response to this problem, we need to change the training of coaches. By educating them to the source of all wisdom, we should instead empower them to become managers of creative learning environments in which young cricketers learn the game with minimal adult invasion and interference.
In this approach, the work of the coaches is to create the conditions for learning through involvement in the physical learning environment – which requires a certain amount of awareness and decision-making.
There are a number of key challenges to the coaching status quo involved. One is the shift from the idea that the coach has all the knowledge that he transfers to the players as passive receivers, to a coach who facilitates and guides players in constructing their own knowledge as active learners.
I hear those who believe batting is all about technique wonder how these “free range” cricketers will become technically proficient, but I want to remind them that during the first 100 years of Test cricket, that’s how the very best became bred.
In his beautiful book The art of cricket Published 64 years ago, Don Bradman wrote, “I would rather tell a young player what to do than how to do it.” I would go a step further by suggesting that good coaches should also help them learn when and why.
Training should focus on improving the game by situating learning in contexts that, to varying degrees, replicate game conditions, so that improvements in practice sessions lead to improvements in matches.
This doesn’t just mean playing cricket instead of practicing. It means designing and managing custom games and activities aimed at certain outcomes that match the players’ skills, attitudes and motivations and the desired learning outcomes – whether for children learning to play or for top-level batters .
The best coaches ask questions to get players thinking and working together to solve problems. The questions are intended to provoke players to come up with solutions to the problems presented to them.
This does not neglect technique, but instead develops it by allowing players to learn and improve the execution of technique in the context of a match. This develops decision making, flexibility of execution, awareness and the ability to adapt to the range of challenges that batters face.
The greatest hitters developed their talent over a long period of time by playing and learning from an early age in creative, informal learning environments without an over-focus on perfecting someone else’s idea of what an ideal technique should look like.
England would do well to look at their coaching methods and how the best hitters develop their skills as part of an evaluation they are starting after another resounding defeat in Australia. The English at bat was bereft of class, lacking in imagination and lacking resilience on this tour. If I was in charge of English cricket I know what I would do first – but I won’t give that information away for free!
If they don’t do something drastic, they will be accused of acting like the aphorism often misattributed to Albert Einstein: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Former Australia captain Greg Chappell played 87 Tests for them in the 1970s and 80s. He has also coached India and has been a selector for Australia