At cricket grounds the day before a game, or on the morning of a match, players from the two teams usually turn up for practice sessions.
Till some years ago, all one got to see was a lot of running, stretching, exercising, fielding and catching practice, and batting and bowling in the nets set up on the ground. Over the years, everything has changed. All teams have their own innovations when it comes to training and fielding drills – from the laptops that have become a part of a coach’s kit to simulation of match situations and custom-made gadgets, cricket training today is a hi-tech affair.
I am not sure we’ve seen an upswing in the quality of cricketers because of all this, but at the top level, they are certainly better prepared than their counterparts of a couple of decades ago.
Which begs the question: if technology and innovations are such a part of every aspect of cricket, why are kids in coaching academies still trained the old-fashioned way? Obviously, I haven’t visited every single academy in India, but the ones I did have appeared distinctly behind the times. Yes, there might be a former cricketer – whose name is attached to the set-up – around, but he is unlikely to be there every day, while the other coaches, usually, are picked up from lower grades of cricket and not always trained at the job.
For the most part, young batsmen are asked to get their feet to the pitch of the ball, hit straight and keep the ball down, while bowlers are essentially asked to maintain good line and length and, in the case of spinners, give the ball flight. If a kid shows extraordinary promise, the academy might focus on him more.
I am all for keeping cricket simple, but cricket isn’t really simple, is it? If kids must be readied for the game of today, the training techniques must also be updated. True, ‘face a thousand balls or bowl twenty overs every day’ is important, but is it enough?
On a recent trip to Nagpur, I had occasion to travel to the World Cricket Academy, a two-hour drive from the city at a place called Talegaon. It’s a fishing village. I had met a couple of WCA people last year and was intrigued by what they told me. Both of them are – as is the academy – associated with Rajasthan Royals.
One of them is Zubin Bharucha: one-time Mumbai opening batsman, current Technical Director of the Royals, and a respected cricket brain. During a random, short chat, Bharucha told me about the innovations he has put in place at the academy and how, along with providing training space for the big boys, they also spend time and energy coaching village kids.
I was in the neighbourhood, so to speak, and so I dropped by.
First, at daybreak, we tried out the ‘grille’ that helps batsmen with the swing of their bat and the footwork for the forward defensive shot.
How does it work? Well, take a look at the first picture on this page – that’s to get the footwork right. Some of these grilles are also fitted with a vertical metal rod that forces the batsman to bring the bat down straight, from marginally right of the wicketkeeper (for the right-handed batsman). If the footwork is wrong, you trip on the grille or lose balance. If the bat swing isn’t right, you hit the vertical rod.
That’s not all. In a tribute Bradman-like preparation, the ‘bat’ used for this drill is the approximate width of a stump, while the balls can be described as soft golf balls. The idea is, therefore, to have young batsmen train in middling the ball after having brought the bat down straight and taken a decisive step forward.
On to the next apparatus – this one is to get young spinners to flight the ball. What do you have for it? Three hoops on poles; the one closest to the bowler is the tallest, then, around mid-pitch, one slightly lower and then, just before the good length spot, the lowest one. Run up, release the ball and make it go through all three hoops – that’s the trajectory one sees so rarely these days, the one commentators keep wailing about.
I’ll describe a couple more things. One, the ‘ball’ medium-pacers train with to ensure they always bowl with the seam ‘up’. Picture a normal cricket ball. Place it straight. Then slice off the sides. What you are left with is somewhat like a fat disc, like a roll of Sellotape, maybe, with the seam in place. Wrist position is key. If the release isn’t right, the ‘ball’ won’t pitch on the seam or will swing madly away.
And finally, the apparatus to force medium-pacers to bowl in the channel. Use the same sliced balls, but keep the delivery within two parallel bars that are used to partition the pitch, keeping only a slim area for the ball to pitch in – essentially, about a foot or so to the batsman’s offside.
At the start, I’d said that innovations and technology don’t necessarily make cricketers better – not as far as I can tell. As a non-cricketer, I’m also in no position to suggest that the innovations in Talegaon will work. This column should certainly not be construed as an endorsement of the academy.
But at the very least, the innovations are an attempt at keeping up with the times. Perhaps other academies will take the cue too. Cricket, after all, has changed dramatically over the years. Perhaps the old training techniques for kids need a rethink too.