Shortly before Christmas in Chennai, Joe Root put an old spin on a new theme. Cyclone Vardah had made net practice impossible before the Fifth Test against India, so Root – keen to hone his footwork against the seamers – opted for a concrete road near the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium. Using a pair of batting gloves for a wicket, he briefly revisited simpler times. “Something just clicked into place,” he said. “To go back to being a kid again, and to remember what it’s like to play on a street with your mates, why you love playing and why you first got into cricket – to park all the pressure and think about the game… that was nice.” Two days later, on a different kind of road, he stroked a breezy 88.
As a child, Root developed his classical style in the back garden, where his father and brother threw balls at him. His physical limitations – he could barely get it off the square in his early teens – obliged him to concentrate on a solid technique: he knew he would have to bat a long time to make significant runs. “Whenever I went to practise,” he said, “it was always about trying to be as technically correct as possible.” Plus ça change…
Every player has a story about the influence of their upbringing on their cricket. Despite Andy Caddick’s homage to the bowling action of Richard Hadlee, no two techniques are identical, and a cricketer’s game is a window on his childhood. For all its status, the word of the MCC coaching manual has never been gospel – not least because many players developed everlasting idiosyncrasies long before they first received formal tuition. And if hitting a golf ball against a water tank with a stump was good enough for Don Bradman, the rest of us shouldn’t be too sniffy.
A young Kevin Pietersen worked on his own urban coaching manual round the back of his home in Pietermaritzburg, particularly on an early version of his flamingo shot – back foot in the air as the ball disappears through midwicket. The confined space and bespoke rules (one-hand-one-bounce, out if you hit the wall on the full) meant Pietersen had to develop the wristy placement that became a trademark. Not long after Kevin’s first Test, in 2005, Pietersen’s father, Jannie, expressed disbelief that he had taken his backyard game into the Test arena. Yet the backyard, it turns out, is where many cricketers made their international debut.
Viv Richards would play out West Indies v England with his brother, Mervyn. Moeen Ali and his two brothers, Kadeer and Omar, enacted entire Tests in the garden. And Stuart Broad would pretend he was Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne or Matthew Hayden. “They were so successful,” he said, demonstrating an affinity for Australians that has since waned. “They were winners.” It was a telling insight into Broad’s character, and his backyard tribute later became back-handed: his Australian toughness helped him become the only Englishman to be named Man of the Match in three Ashes-clinching victories.
Steve Cannane’s book First Tests details the unique circumstances in which many of Australia’s greatest cricketers learned the game. It includes the story of how Greg Chappell developed his trademark flick off the hip. The leg side of his backyard pitch was full of fruit trees, protected by wire cages and doubling up as fielders. Chappell could hit the ball safely only between the citrus and the almonds; or, if you prefer, forward square leg and backward square leg.
The manipulation of space, both at the crease and between fielders, is so fundamental to batsmanship that it’s no surprise many greats bore the stamp of their childhood. Gordon Greenidge, Sunil Gavaskar, Geoff Boycott and Ben Stokes all learned to play straight because of the narrowness of their improvised pitch. Greenidge practised on a 12ft-wide concrete strip between two houses, and Gavaskar in a similar area next to his family’s apartment in Chikhalwadi, Maharashtra; such was his mastery of the shot, he even called one of his books Straight Drive. Boycott played in a T-junction in Fitzwilliam, with back gardens all around. “Anybody who hit the ball into a garden was out, no argument allowed, so we were pretty selective in our strokemaking,” he said in his autobiography. “Psychologists can make of that what they will.”
When he mastered the straight-drive, Stokes was wearing whites of a different kind: he was still in nappies. He wasn’t even two when, in the tight hallway of his New Zealand home, armed with a plastic bat, he started rifling his dad Ged’s underarm deliveries whence they came. “He was able to straight-drive the ball down the hallway without a problem, and was pulling the nappies up as he ran,” said Ged. “He just seemed a natural.” Stokes was not told to avoid the wall, but instinctively did so: “I couldn’t talk, other than a bit of jibber-jabber, but I could hit a perfect straight-drive.” Sure enough, the stroke was a startling feature of his maiden Test century, at Perth in 2013-14.
For a young Ricky Ponting, hitting the ball into one particular garden meant a fate worse than dismissal. “Like all kids we built the rules of cricket around the circumstances of our backyard,” he wrote in At the Close of Play. “Over the fence was out, and God help you if the old man caught you wading into his prized vegetable patch to fetch a ball. He loved that garden and it lay in wait from point to long-on, ready to swallow a ball. Drew [Ponting’s brother] reckons I mastered the art of hitting the ball over the garden and into the fence.” Viv Richards had a different motivation for hitting the fence at the end of the garden – it counted as six. That fence created a world of misery for bowlers.
Others were less inclined to hit the ball in the air. Haseeb Hameed, who made his Test debut over the winter, aged 19, started learning the value of keeping the ball on the ground when he was just four. “Even now I can picture myself in the living-room, with the TV to my left and my dad sitting on the sofa right in front of me and throwing balls at me,” he said in The Daily Telegraph. “I don’t remember being told to keep the ball down, but it’s a pretty natural thing to do if you’ve got things on the wall. I also remember I’d have a bat in one hand and throw the ball at the wall and do drills like giving myself room to drive over extra cover.”
If the so-called Baby Boycott was born in the living-room, so was the Little Master. Sachin Tendulkar cut one side of a golf ball so that it was almost oval-shaped and got his aunt to throw it at him in the lounge. The ball would deviate sharply, and Tendulkar said his fear of breaking anything valuable helped him develop the Andrex-soft hands that were among his greatest qualities.
The need to manipulate space seems less obvious in bowling, yet many run-ups have evolved in unusual ways. South African fast bowler Morne Morkel’s anti-clockwise twirl at the top of his mark came about because there was no additional room in the nets, while compatriot Makhaya Ntini went wide on the crease because his spikes clashed with the slabs of concrete at each end of the pitch in his home village of King William’s Town. Lasith Malinga developed a round-arm action to make the ball skid on the beaches of Galle. Generations of Pakistan fast bowlers have learned the magic of reverse swing by playing tape-ball cricket. And Indian death-bowling specialist Jasprit Bumrah worked on the yorker to allow his mother her afternoon nap: if he hit the skirting board where the floor met the wall, it made scarcely a noise.
Bumrah improvised to create a blockhole; others have used their imagination to produce their own equipment. “Poverty is good for nothing,” said the World Cup-winning Argentinian Jorge Valdano, “except perhaps for football.” And cricket. Never mind jaffas: Trinidad’s Sonny Ramadhin pioneered mystery spin by practising with limes and oranges; Yorkshire’s Hedley Verity bowled with lumps of coal. Batsmen have used everything from a broomstick (W. G. Grace) to a coconut branch (Brian Lara). When Boycott says he could play a bowler with a stick of rhubarb, he may even be talking from experience.
As with all forms of education, not everything endures. Paul Collingwood became a bottom-handed player in spite of, not because of, his early experiences. “My first coach was Dad in the kitchen – the smallest kitchen-cum-dining-room you could imagine, about six yards across,” he said. “He bowled at me with a sponge ball and I had to keep my left elbow up – though you’d never know it now – and hit through the V.” Ian Botham was at school when he first made money from cricket. Mr Hibbert, the sports master, put a coin on a good length and said anyone who hit it could keep it. “I cleaned up,” said Botham. But when he later became a golden-armed swing bowler, his boredom threshold was not so conducive to line and length.
In general, though, old habits die hard. Botham’s old mate Richards ascribed his superb outfielding to throwing stones at lizards as a child, a pastime that would decide the first World Cup final, in 1975. Fred Spofforth, a superb short slip, had also made use of nature. As a youngster, he would get somebody to throw stones into a hedge, so he could catch the sparrows as they flew out.
Often the circumstances that influence a young player are beyond their control. Like Root, Alastair Cook developed a strong defensive technique because he did not have the power to hit boundaries. And the classical approach of Keith Miller, who was also small as a child, was not compromised even when he grew into a virile, unfettered six-hitter.
In the modern game, Generation Six deal in the brazenly unorthodox. Sam Billings, one of the foremost exponents of 360-degree batting in the English game, believes his multi-sport upbringing was a major factor in his development. “You look around the world and most of the top performers in all sports have played several different sports as a kid,” he said. “There are so many things that culminate in you being good at one skill.”
AB de Villiers is the most famous example, a jack of all trades and master of each and every one, while a young Jos Buttler started to work on his ramp shot after playing hockey: the ball ricocheted off another player’s stick and on to the crossbar, making Buttler realise the potential for helping the ball on its way with the merest touch. Even sports with little in common can help each other. Billings has taken plenty from rugby: “Spacial awareness, foot movement, balance. Things you don’t even think about, like throwing from the outfield when you’re running full pelt and off balance. It’s very similar to when you take a ball on the back foot in rugby and have to offload it.”
His hand speed comes from a more obvious place – squash, tennis, and particularly rackets, a forerunner of squash that is played in a deeper court, with a harder ball, at almost demented speed. He was encouraged to play at Haileybury by his teacher Mike Cawdron, the former Gloucestershire and Northamptonshire all-rounder. “He was a massive influence on me. Historically, cricketers are very good at rackets because of the speed of the ball and the hand–eye co-ordination, so he tried to get as many of the cricketers playing it as possible.”
School influences and mentors sit in the background, smiling proudly, throughout cricket history. Dennis Lillee attributes his never-ever-say-die attitude to a teacher called Ken Waters. In November 2016, Lillee put out a radio appeal to find him; the pair were reunited over the phone a few hours later. “The fierce determination in him rubbed off on me,” said Lillee. “It wasn’t just about playing the game, it was about winning. I hated losing tiddlywinks, I hated losing marbles. I ended up with thousands of marbles because I won most of my games. He was fantastic, and I owe him a lot.”
The development of character through childhood cricket can be even more influential than technique. And nobody does mental disintegration like a sibling. De Villiers’s brothers were six and nine years older, and believed in the toughest of brotherly love. If they couldn’t get him out, they would happily bowl beamers. “My brothers were merciless,” said AB. “They were monsters. There were always a lot of tears – usually mine.”
Greg Chappell tells similar stories of being intimidated by Ian, a dynamic that worked out reasonably well for Australia. And the Waugh twins benefited from geology as well as biology: the unusual slope in their front garden helped both become ruthless off their pads, and might even have played some part in their Test records at Lord’s, where Steve averaged 115 and Mark 80.
Steve Smith’s ability against spin came from playing on uneven paving. His father would flick a softball in the back garden that would deviate sharply; the flower beds on either side represented fielders, and any ball entering them was out. Lara’s status as one of the great players of slow bowling stemmed from batting against a rolled-up ball of foil; every time it hit his bare legs, he winced with pain.
There is a romance surrounding the idea of the street footballer. Few talk about street or garden cricketers, yet they are probably even more prevalent, such is the scope for quirks in batting and bowling. In cricket, technique is nurture’s version of DNA. The details are unique to each player, yet each player can recognise another’s experience. They are all freaks of nurture.