November 11, 2005

Life beyond coaching manuals

By H Natarajan

Majid Khan, the former Pakistani opener and captain, once said that footwork was not necessary for batting. At that point of time – over three decades back – when the MCC coaching manual was considered Gospel, Majid’s statement seemed sacrilegious.

What seemed like the views of a screwball at that point of time has been made to look visionary-like today by Virender Sehwag’s copious testimonies. How could anybody question the efficacy of a method if it consistently produced the desired results?

Sunil Gavaskar, the epitome of orthodoxy and technical perfection, is an unabashed admirer of Sehwag. But you can bet your last penny that Gavaskar himself would never advocate such methods to budding cricketers, because what’s good for Sehwag may not be good for others. Lesser mortals should place their faith in time-tested conventional wisdom in coaching manuals.
Geniuses are born, not made. Legend has it that Garry Sobers used to acknowledge a good ball but in the same breath changed his mind (and the choice of stroke) to send the ball to the boundary! Any good coach will tell you to defend when in doubt. But how can one say that to a genius who goes by the guiding principles of his own textbook!

Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s methods scorn at the coaching manual. Two photos depicting his recent carnage against the Lankans that appeared in the dailies made interesting study: one saw him well outside the off-stump, his right shoulder pointing somewhere between mid-off and the bowler, his feet pointing towards mid-on, the bat finishing behind his shoulder and the ball up in orbit. It looked an unrefined version of a left-hander shouldering arms! That stroke defied description. Another photo from the same match has both his feet a good six to eight inches above the ground while slamming the ball – a half-cut and a half-thump – through the covers. It’s obvious that Dhoni has a good pair of eyes and hands which he co-ordinates in a manner so audaciously unique that it’s beyond the realms of conventional wisdom.

The success story of many in the Indian team like Sehwag and Dhoni is bound to trigger a debate about natural talent from unpretentious centres compared to the sophisticatedly tutored from more elitist places like Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata and Chennai. Moreso, because a centre like Mumbai which was once considered the cradle of Indian cricket now looks like an abandoned maternity home, in a manner of speaking.

I am not sure how many coaches will not admonish a young pupil who shows flair for cutting over the slips. Sehwag does that. He cuts and cuts hard to send the ball flying over the cordon behind, over third man and well beyond among the spectators. Sehwag’s coach must be complimented that he did not curb his pupil’s unorthodox but profitable approach. An inflexible coach can destroy a natural talent. In fact, Sir Don Bradman believed coaching hindered potential champions.

Few believed that Sehwag would acq uire the stature he has today. Most people thought his lack of footwork would bring an early demise to his career. Yet, he is regarded today among the most dangerous batsmen in the world. It was his self-belief that triumphed over the doubting Thomases. Much like Amitabh Bachchan, The Beatles, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley who all overcame humiliations and rejections in their struggling years to reach where they eventually did because of their belief in their own abilities.

Like Sehwag, Tony Greig and Allan Knott chose to be different at a time when balls outside the off stump were treated like outcasts by batsmen. In the 1974-75 Ashes series when Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson went about liked hired assassins breaking English bones, reputations and wickets, Greig and Knott discarded conventional wisdom by hitting the pacemen over the slip cordon. Not surprisingly, they were the most successful in a series that still makes Englishmen wince.

Greig was one batsman who was ever willing to experiment with his approach. It was the 6’, 7” tall South African-born Englishman who popularised the concept of standing erect with bat raised above his shoulder in stance position, which he did that to counter the threat of Bhagwat Chandrasekhar’s menace on Indian tracks.

As Bjorn Borg said: If you have a stroke of your own, one that really works, and you feel right playing it, keep it. Even if it’s not classical.” What Borg - not a classical player himself – said was for tennis, but it can be applied to any sport.

Today, nobody thinks much of the double-handed backhand, but it was an oddity in the ’70s. It got a romantic spin to it when two exponents of the double-fisted backhand, the engaged couple of Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert, won the 1974 Wimbledon. In fact, there are players today who employ the double-fist for the backhand as well as the forehand!

Watching Paul Adams bowling is more like watching an alien trying his hand at cricket while braving severe deformities (see photo above). The coaching manual says the eye should be looking at the spot where one wants to pitch the ball, but Adams’s eyes look skyward and the back of his head at his shoelace! But with 134 Test wickets in his kitty, he hasn’t done badly.

Will any coach try and teach his pupil to imitate Adam’s bowling style? Any such bravado may the end of his coaching career. Simply put, Adams is a freak whose methods are ‘uncoachable’.

If Adams is a bowling freak, then Shivnarine Chanderpaul must be a batting freak. Chanderpaul’s front-on stance is the very anti-thesis of the coaching tenets – the positioning of the feet, the bat and the shoulder is horribly wrong. It could be considered a perfect stance if the bowler was running in to bowl from square-leg! Having said that, Chanderpaul gets into as perfect a position when his bat comes in contact with the ball. It may not be in conformity with the coaching manuals, but that his comfort zone. Something which has stood the international test over 11 years and has given him over 6,000 Test runs at an average close to 48.00. More importantly, Chanderpaul’s stance can upset bowlers seeking the desired length, much like Adams’s awkward action can pose problems for batsmen.

The Don, cricket’s greatest-ever batsman, had an unorthodox stance that saw the face of his bat closed and positioned between the feet. He also had an unconventional preparatory movement while facing a delivery as he lifted the bat baseball-style than straight up in the classical way. His backlift was the subject of research in Britain. Biomechanists at Liverpool John Moores University produced three-dimensional computer images that showed Bradman’s backlift gave him a fraction longer to play the ball. Here is an example of defying the textbook methods and yet proving very productive, especially considering that he was discharged from the army during World War II because of defective eyesight!

The best of cricketers have not been a delight of the purists: Shane Warne walks, rather than runs, for the better part of his longish run-up, Muttiah Muralitharan’s wristy magic has certainly provoked a new chapter to the art of spin bowling while guys like Mike Procter and Max Walker have bowled as effectively on the wrong-foot as those who went by the books.

These non-conformists kept faith in their ways because they found both comfort and results. So, if it ain't broke, don’t try to fix it.


At 12:01 pm, Blogger R.Rajesh said...

Nice incisive article dude. Maybe u should do more research on 'un'coaching and make it into a booklet for aspiring coaches. And i'm serious. if u want i'll help u co author it:-) what say??

At 3:30 pm, Anonymous Pratik said...

I fall in the category of those enlightened by Sehwag. I subscribed to the Steve Waugh school of thought initially ("The boy won't last long," were his exact words), but Sehwag's proven both of us wrong. I always thought that leaden-footed batsmen, no matter how well they played elsewhere, would be found out on green pitches by probing bowlers. For long I have held that against Ganguly. Not in the same class as Dravid and Tendulkar, I would argue. While I still think I was right about that, one of my reasons wasn't right. Watching Sehwag do well in New Zealand got me thinking, and eventually I relinquished my stance on the matter. Laxman, another batsman of similar footing, has also done very well.

I have a question about posting pics on blogs. Do you not need to mention the copyright-owners? Is linking to the original source enough? I take it that if you have pics whose source is unknown, then posting them is out of the question.

Your writing is insightful, perspective and informational. Good stuff.

At 5:07 am, Anonymous Pratik said...

Oh, man. I didn't mean to trigger this response from you, Natarajan. I was asking about the pics since I wanted to post some on my blog. Paul Adams' picture in this article was really good.

At 5:31 pm, Blogger khelnayak said...

Hi natty,
Great read there. The pics were a real toast. The chanderpaul one was too good. :)

I was a bit worried that you had stopped posting. Was about to shoot you a mail enquiring that. Am so glad that you are back.

Would love to read your insights on Zee Sports approach to indian football.


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