We can’t pretend nothing’s changed; everything’s changed. McCullum plays baseball cum tennis, with hands eight feet apart, off a wide, elasticated base. Pietersen says ‘kiss the ball’ – it’s all about head – and forget (or trust?) your feet. Nye Donald (a fair symbol for the next, irresistible generation?) has high, twitchy hands, intent on pulls and slaps – and he’s opening. The old certainties are buried.
Or are they?
All of us coaches at all of our levels are scrambling across the fallen masonry. It’s the age of the positive, the pre-emptive counter-attack, the bomb squad. Levels of change, development or challenge have become become so-o tectonically shifted it’s become unthinkable to deal in classical batting… or has it?
A series of Sky Sports Masterclasses have felt central to the annihilation of all we knew; or maybe they’ve simply enacted the moment of kerrplunk. Hussein and Key and Vaughan and Warne; McCullum and Pietersen most memorably perhaps; bawling, often brilliantly, from the war-zone.
We can revel in, learn from or capitulate to this fabulous carnage but whether we work with elite players, juniors or clubbies we have to find a way to move forward through it.
How then, in what feels like a period of peak anarchy, can we generalise or theorise or point to ways that work? When the kiwi great has made a nonsense of a hundred years of good practice? When the South African-English-South African grenades the notions around footwork being key? Is there a coach, in fact, when there are no wisdoms left unravelled? Or what is now sayable, deliverable or true, that the artist previously known as Coach might deal in?
For years there’s been a drift away from the instructional, or that which might be demonstrated by the coach. (And yes, I guess I am talking about batting, largely, here). The much-maligned ECB Coach Education programme, which I am happy to report has seemed somewhere between useful and really good, to me, has moved on dramatically and with some intelligence.
The essential ECB shift towards ‘core principles’ – i.e. allowing batters/players to find a way that works after offering areas of consideration – is bold, positive, liberating, generous. It challenges the coach to ask brilliant, helpful questions rather than regurgitate conditioned ‘knowledge’. It implicitly understands there are revolutions going on and that the genius of individual expression trumps all… or can.
Frankly I’m not in a position to know if things have very recently been further moderated towards freer interpretations of what batters should do – my most recent series of ECB Workshops being undertaken a couple of years ago. I don’t doubt, despite widespread assumptions to the contrary, that the enlightenment (if that’s what it is) continues.
There are naturally a zillion views on the move towards sound but negotiable concepts – cricket coaches being a fascinatingly opinionated bunch. Many have been bolshy about the perceived drift away from expert, cricket-specific coaching and towards what we might call generic skills moderation. Others see that casting off of the coach’s ego and his or her need to directly instruct as a seminal step towards the holy grail of enabling the player to understand, to learn, to own the development. There is much talk of empowerment.
But let’s get to those masterclasses. Not that they’re the sole agents of change here but they do represent something of the crazy, immediate, polemical, possibility-heavy now. I’m going to look briefly at McCullum’s and KP’s.
The New Zealand skipper, Ar Brendon, is loved and respected for his freewheeling boldness. He is Everybody’s Brendon – SooperMac, never mind BMac. He’s (almost literally, given that scything swing of the bat) put all-comers to the sword, most notably the Aussies in that barely believable, record-breaking century in Christchurch in 2016. McCullum brought some of that fearless twinkle to the Sky Sports studio for the masterclass included below.
The Christchurch innings was the embodiment of the shock of the new. It was brash to the point of lurid, it was dancing on graves; maybe it underlined some profound stuff about the age of instagram and fake news, who knows? I’m still reeling. However we view it – and I do know people who see it as some kind of sacrilege – it mattered.
In the masterclass McCullum shows us and talks about his stance, his grip, his set-up. His hands are crazily far apart, with his apparently emphatically dominant right obscenely ready to hoik to leg. His feet are wide, legs bouncy and bent. He looks like a wild child ready to spring and slap. The whole smacks of latent, instinctive action – an unleashing. Grown-up, traditional, straight-batted cricket seems unthinkable from here. He is re-inventing the game.
McCullum does nothing in these few minutes on Sky Sports to diminish our love for his openness, sportiness, generosity of spirit. How wonderful that in trampling the textbooks, his radicalism seems utterly predicated on a kind of glorious old-school honour; Brendon being game.
Pietersen, of course, is different – and he posits a different technical challenge to coaches. Firstly (and generally) it is noticeable that KP, unsurprisingly, is preachier here, more didactic than McCullum. This may be because he feels more wronged, more traduced(?) KP shows us The Model, or possibly A Model, in a way the New Zealander doesn’t.
This model is based on head position – almost to the exclusion of other considerations. It’s implied that feet, for example, don’t matter because they will follow naturally, given assumptions around athleticism, balance, flow. If the head goes to the ball, the striking should be good and consistent and powerful. Just kiss the ball.
Many of us will relish the simplicity here – one of the great pitfalls of coaching surely being that thing where you give the player forty-two things to think about instead of two. Possibly because there are other coaches within earshot; other better-qualified coaches, so the urge to let rip with everything you’ve ever heard anyone good say about issue z proves irresistible. (I know this happens: have seen it, done it.)
KP has something fascinatingly clear and pure around which his processes crystallise. This is arguably to be envied; whether it is to be followed will depend on the coach… and the individual being coached.
The views of KP & McCullum, together with the other contributors on Sky are of course hugely welcome contributions but they do both enrich and un-pick our coaching almanac. The social media world, likewise pours opinion into the flux. So, where are we?
I’ve asked some leading coaches to comment on where coaching is at, following on from all this traumatic/brilliant/befuddling/game-changing stuff. And I’d like to throw this open to all.
Coaches, friends, players: why not stick something in the comments here about what gets you going… or what you’d like to torch?
The questions are merely a way into this: I don’t claim they’re the smartest or most important; I just thought they’d get coaches fairly promptly into the mix of philosophical and technical worlds thrown against each other through (for example) the Sky Masterclasses. Please do have your say on these or anything else about how coaches respond.
MAYBE SUGGEST THE QUESTIONS US COACHES MOST URGENTLY NEED TO ASK OURSELVES(?)
1. Given the radical approach of someone like Brendon McCullum – crazy grip, wide, bouncy, pro-active stance – what do we coaches do with a player who can make the unorthodox work ?
Encourage him or her? Talk about potential flaws? What?
2. Is it still ‘our place’ to mainly guide players towards traditional skills and movements? Straight bats/still heads etc. Or how/when do we intervene?
3. KP talks in his masterclass about ‘kissing the ball’ – meaning his key focus is getting head to the ball – almost to the point of forgetting or not worrying about feet. Presumably the assumption is they will take care of themselves. How do you feel about this?
4. McCullum talks about his hands being quite far apart on the bat and demonstrates a set-up that simply doesn’t fit with traditional, straight-batted cricket. But clearly he has lit up all formats in recent years, with his freewheeling, sporty approach. Does this raise any issues with you?
5. Finally, is there anything you think we need to add in or take out of our ‘textbooks’, our overall view of what constitutes good batting practice – or is there simply no single way to go now, in the light of contemporary, revolutionary changes?
Go on. Stick your oar in.