Technique is a myth.
For every technical perfectionist, there are many more who defy the copybook. Even Bradman, with his unusual backlift, was no stranger to the unorthodox. Yet you could argue that he is the greatest sportsman of all time; certainly the greatest batsman in the stats book. Bradman is far from alone. If I were to ask you to name the technical masters you could give me a list of grand heroes: Dravid, Boycott, Gavaskar and so on. Yet if I asked you to name some greats regardless of technique your list would likely be much longer.
You might argue that within this elite group, there are similarities. All great batsmen watch the ball with a still head. All great bowlers have exceptional balance. The variations are fine, but the core is essentially the same. There's a fair chance you were told these by a coach or heard it from a TV commentator with first-class experience. Reliable sources everyone, so why would you think otherwise?
Except, the more we look into technical elements scientifically, the more we see that even the core of skill has variation between individuals. Some people are moving at the point of delivery. Some people are not watching the ball closely. Some bowlers generate pace with horrible actions. These are tested and proven facts.
It makes sense when you think about it. Cricket is played by the imperfect mess that is a human being. Each one is genetically unique from height to physical strength to preferred hand and eye (yes, we all have a stronger eye). We all move differently and think differently. From that primal soup of genes, we are thrown into a culture that influences us further. To expect a boy growing up on the streets of Mumbai with a tennis ball to have the same method as a girl from Surrey with hours of formal coaching at a club is ridiculous. And, isn't that the joy of cricket anyway: It can accommodate every type of person from anywhere in the world? Not many sports can offer the same inclusiveness, even at the highest level.
I'm a coach for my day job and I was brought up on "proper technique". You play straight. You bowl side on. You iron out flaws in players who are doing it incorrectly. As the years passed I began to soften to what was correct. I started to realise that there is scope for variety, scope for what works for an individual. Then one day I realised that there was nothing left in the correct column any more. Everything was open to negotiation. Coaching was no longer about correcting technique, and all about helping the player find his or her best technique. Sometimes - most of the time - that means shutting up and letting the players work it out for themselves. That takes a heck of a lot of confidence because on the outside you look like someone who knows nothing and has nothing to say. In fact, you know that a player will understand himself far more that you will ever understand him. It's your job to help accelerate that process. That's why mystery spinners appear most often from cultures where there is little formal coaching. Players have to work it out for themselves and are never told they are doing it wrong. The ones who do that best end up playing Test cricket, often out of nowhere.
There is still a role for the coach at every level. Learning happens faster with someone to guide you. It's just that the modern coach has a different approach. Players are given challenges to complete and asked to work out the answer for themselves. For example, trying to hit a ball through a gap in the covers is totally different from being taught the proper way to cover drive. One makes robots, the other makes runs.
A world with flexible technique is a fun world to watch as well as coach. Bowlers and batsmen who are different are much more watchable. Imagine a team of technical grinding batsmen and right arm medium-fast bowlers. Now throw in someone like a Pietersen, who has a crazy uncoachable technique and approach to batting. Add a Narine with the ball and equally individual method. Now we are having a good time. For this reason I'm glad the idea of technical perfection is dying. Cricket is all the better for variety at every level. So, the next time your team's coach - or your son's coach - is quiet instead of prescriptive, or doesn't just run a net and bark instructions, give him a nod of silent recognition that you understand.
David Hinchliffe is director of coaching for PitchVision Academy. He has been a cricket and athletic development coach for over 20 years with experience in England, South Africa, India and Australia. He is interested in all aspects of playing better cricket from drills and methods to new technology and research across many fields. He leads a team that writes and talks daily about playing and coaching issues here.
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