The developed cricket countries have lost the natural environments that were a big part of their development structure in bygone eras. In these environments, young cricketers learnt from watching good players and then emulating them in pick-up matches with family and friends. Usually, any instruction that was received was rudimentary while interference from adults was minimal. In these unstructured settings, players developed a natural style while learning to compete against older players during which they learned critical coping and survival skills. Typical Academies do not produce the creative thinkers that become the next champions.
The games that young people anywhere make up and play are dynamic and foster creativity, joy, flexibility in technical execution, tactical understanding and decision-making which are precisely what is often missing in batting at the highest levels. In the games of cricket that youngsters typically play, they are all engaged in designing and modifying the games to suit the space available, the equipment and time they have and in adapting technique and tactics to the demands of the game as the sort of learning outcomes we need at the highest levels of cricket. Invariably, when an adult gets involved with kids playing cricket they break up the game and kill its energy by imposing technical drills on correct batting, bowling or fielding technique. This reduces a dynamic, engaging learning environment to a flat and lifeless set of drills that will do little to improve batting in games and is invariably de-motivating.
We would argue that the growth in structured training in the preparation of batsmen has not only failed to take batting forward but has actually seen a decline in batting. Highly structured environments and an excessive focus on teaching players to perform ‘correct’ technique dehumanises cricket. The environments that attempt to reduce batting to the mastery of technique and to break it up into a range of distinct components reflects a misunderstanding of how complex it is and the need for creativity and the ability to identify and respond to challenges in matches. Batting cannot be reduced to technique honed in the nets because it is always shaped by a range of factors that vary from one situation to the next. This includes the physical conditions such as the nature of the pitch, weather, state of the ball and the condition of the fielders. It also includes the strategy of the team, the tactics needed to achieve it, the stage of the match and the relevant scores that suggest the risk that needs to be taken.
In response to this problem we would change the education of coaches from training them to be the font of all wisdom to becoming managers of a creative learning environment in which young cricketers learn the game with minimal invasion and interference from adults. In this approach the coaches work involves setting up conditions for learning through engagement with the physical learning environment that always involve some degree of awareness and decision-making. Instead of always telling players what they have to do s/he helps them learn and solve the problems that arise in playing practice games.
There are a couple of significant challenges to the status quo of coaching involved with this approach. One is the shift from the idea of the coach as having all the knowledge that he hands down to the players as passive receivers to one of the coach facilitating and guiding players in constructing their own knowledge as active learners. This can be a particular problem with outsiders’ perceptions of a good coach as someone who is clearly in charge, telling players what to do and yelling at them when they don’t do what they are told. The other big challenge is the shift from a focus on what the coach does (behaviour) to what and how the players learn and how the coach can help them learn instead of determining what they learn. We can hear those that believe that batting is all about technique asking how these ‘free-range’ cricketers will become technically adept but we would remind them that for the first 100 years of Test cricket that is how the very best were bred.
In his wonderful book, ‘The Art of Cricket’ published nearly 60 years ago Bradman said that, ‘I would prefer to tell a young player what to do than how to do it’. We would take this a little further to suggest we would also help them learn when and why and this is the focus of Game Sense. Game Sense is focused on improving game play by locating learning in contexts that, to different degrees, replicate game conditions so that improvements in practice sessions lead to improvements in the match. This does not mean just playing cricket instead of training/practising. It means designing and managing modified games and activities aimed at particular learning outcomes that suit the skills, attitudes and motivations of the players and the preferred learning outcomes – whether for children learning to play or for batsmen playing at the highest levels. The practice games or activities present problems for players to solve through discussion with the coach and with each other in small teams and sometimes as a whole team and reflection on what they tried and why it worked or why it didn’t. These games need to be managed by the coach to get the right level of challenge to engage the players and to maximise learning.
As well as the coach designing good practice games and being able to manage them in Game Sense they asks questions to get players thinking and working together to solve problems. This can be a problem for some coaches initially used to telling them what to do. The questions asked are not aimed at getting yes or no answers. They are aimed at getting them to think and work with teammates to come up with solutions for the problems that come up whether tactical, technical (or both) in nature. This does not neglect technique but, instead, develops it by having players learn and improve the execution of technique in a context that is something like the real match and which develops decision-making, flexibility of execution, awareness and the ability to adapt to the range of challenges that always face batsmen.
The greatest batsmen have developed their great talent over long periods of time by playing and learning in creative, informal learning environments from young ages without an excessive focus on biomechanics or the perfecting of ideal technique. The modern obsession with ‘perfect’ technique is creating an homogenized breed of players far less able to adapt to challenging conditions, with less flair and less creativity.
Times change and we cannot go back to the past but we suggest cricket coach education can recapture some of the nature of the environments in which the greatest batsmen developed by drawing on the Game Sense approach. For youngsters learning to play the game, the motivation that Game Sense promotes and the fun it generates while developing an understanding of the game that includes, not only knowing how to perform a skill or technique but also when and why would give them a good start in cricket. It would also make playing cricket more attractive and more engaging for young cricketers.
Batting technique is important and we are not suggesting abandoning it but that where possible it should involve some awareness, decision-making and opportunities for being creative and experimenting. It should provide excitement stimulate imagination and the deep engagement of players in the practice activities and games. There should also be some opportunity to reflect and discuss technique and tactics and how they are interrelated. Here Game Sense thinking has a lot to offer for coaching all levels from introducing young children to the game to preparing elite level batsmen for the challenges of international cricket – In all its forms. It offers a way of recapturing the environments of the past in which our greatest batsmen developed to ensure that our future batsmen have the same exciting flair, creativity and skill while making practice engaging, exciting and enjoyable enough to attract, sustain and excite young players of all ages.