Barney Ronay divides opinion, I believe. Some imagine him a flashy ‘one trick pony’, kicking up his metrosexual hooves as he gallops from hipster-caff to Sarf Landun bookshop, brewing arresting one-liners before unleashing them on the Great (and hopefully Grateful) Unwashed: us. (The fact that the fella supports Surrey plainly weighs against him, here).
But no. For speaking entirely frankly (and never having met the geezer), I hold the contrary view. He is brill – genuinely brilliant, entertainingly, insightfully, lasertastically so – and you are either a Dead Soul or a miserable barsted not to see it.
The man is after really capturing things (as opposed to just recording), through that coruscating wit of his. This is bold, this is generous, this is life-enhancing: it is also borne of the truly creative mind – and bollocks to you if you think that means it’s in any way bad, sad or twisted.
He is also, despite the Surrey thing – lols – a genuine cricket man, with both a personal and family interest in the game. So… why the rant? Read his column, which, incidentally is ‘straight’ and therefore won’t offend those who struggle with the sparkly bits; poor loves.
If you haven’t quite been arsed to read the column… you’re ver-ry naughty but here’s a precis, of sorts. Surrey are brill because they had integrity and because they train hard and well and some of this is to do with respecting traditional skills: like being able (in the traditional sense) to bat.
Which brings me to my point; which is about coaching.
I have not taken issue with the drift (is that pejorative? Okay, then shift) in ECB Coaching Principles, towards principles, as opposed to what we might call grooving or rehearsing of skills. And yes, I’m talking batting here, mainly.
The emergence, 3 or 4 years ago of Core Principles as helpful, generous, non-prescriptive, appropriate points of discussion or offering from coaches to players, in the ECB Coaching system seemed healthy, to many of us community or club coaches, at the time.
I personally, as a professional coach in the sense of working full-time in cricket – albeit typically with junior players – felt that given the revolutions ongoing in the game, it may no longer be appropriate to direct players. Coach them through their adventure, their learning, their search for that which works consistently for them (if they are reaching or wanting to reach that far)… but don’t insist on particular methods. So – principles around stillness or stability or swinging of the bat, maybe, but not ‘you have to hit the ball like this’.
As I’ve written previously it’s problematic, if not ludicrous, in the age of Pietersen then McCullum then Ingram or Whoever, to speak of universal, inviolable truths. People keep inventing stuff! It was in this context, I think, that the essence of ECB Coaching moved towards Core Principles – allowing for and respecting individual choice or brilliance or engineering of contemporary solutions.
The revolutions have continued, gathered force, even and the eyes of the world are huddled around us. To the extent that batters are received as being more somehow more guilty than ever of, or responsible for, triumphant inventions and/or crass and obvious crimes against batting. Things are different, things are crazy-present, things are polarised. In one format, things are stacked against the bowlers, in another – in September – it seems that no-one can bat for longer than five overs. Things are different.
And yet here’s an article from a very fine cricket writer, who has access to his County Cricket Club, who are Champions – deservedly – and traditional values and traditional disciplines and skills are being identified as key to the success. Ronay quotes Academy Director, Gareth Townsend –
“We’ve gone back to what you might call ‘teaching the fundamentals’, presenting the full face of the bat, playing straight.”
And again, more generally –
‘Going against trends, Surrey have made a conscious move to make defensive technique a priority in the development stages, believing that the other side, the ball-striking aspect of modern cricket, will happen in any case.’
This is music, of course to The Hundred Haters and indeed most County Championship Cricket supporters. The retreat into (or re-invigoration of) That Which We’ve Always Known. The sure knowledge that there is sure knowledge and that it must underpin the execution and the coaching of batting for any length of time.
And time is the thing, yes? With a world mitigating against, it figures that the patience and the grit and the eking out against the odds – against a swinging ball and a skilled practitioner at t’other end – might be qualities challenged by an oppressive, impatient universe. Might point inevitably towards 60-something all outs. But how great would it be if some of us could flick the vees at all this rushing-to-the-end? By coaching the batting-out… of time?
It could be that Surrey, of all people(!) have started something wonderfully unfashionable. They still have ‘haircuts’ but they also have professional pride, guts, and that profoundly unsexy attribute – stickability. They practice for it.
I have no doubt that the ECB Coaching hierarchy continually review their cultures and that they are ahead of any call to look at whether the generosity implied through Core Principles risks a slide towards sloppiness and poor technical skills. Or maybe more pointedly, towards laziness, amongst a younger generation high on The Now?
Batting long will always be an essential component of Championship or Test Cricket. It has a rare quality – impenetrable to some, quietly loved by others. I’m in that latter camp, from where I wonder perhaps, if some of that niche stuff about ‘playing straight’ might yet prove helpful to the flashing blades, in the boomathons? Congratulations to Surrey and to Mr Ronay, for digging in.