I basked in the sun at the Cooper Associates County Ground, Taunton to watch Somerset take on Hampshire in the County Championship on Tuesday. It was Day one of four. The cricket was enthralling.
Taunton is known for being a batsman's paradise, but the playing surface now has a different composition and the challenge to both batter and bowler is far more spin orientated. 55 overs of the 96 overs bowled on day one were from spinners.
How times have changed!
There is more international cricket, especially Test Cricket, being played on "sub-continental' type pitches than ever before.
India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan (in the UAE) and Bangladesh play their cricket in weather conditions and on soil structures that are conducive to spin but we are now seeing Test matches in the West Indies asking very sub continental questions of selectors, captains, batters and bowlers.
The ICC are holding more and more World events in the sub-continent which means that spin is playing more of a role in T20 and ODI World Cups.
In reaction to this, England have placed a huge focus in recent years on developing batters who can deal with the challenge of a spinning ball.
They have had a significant number of Lions tours to the sub-continent and built specialist batting camps in India and Sri Lanka.
They have also assigned a group of analysts and coaches to really get to grips with the nuances that make the likes of Younis Khan, Rahul Dravid, Kumar Sangrakarra and others so adept and comfortable against the spinning ball.
So it excited me to see the ball jumping and spinning on day one. But it also posed some questions to me as well.
One was: How do coaches in club and school cricket support players to thrive with spinning ball conditions?
We don't have the budgets to send players overseas or to develop playing surfaces like Somerset.
Yet we can create imagery, visualisation and mental stimulus that puts the player in that space and gets them thinking.
Great coaches are good at doing this: Many of the best players go to this place without being prompted. Ricky Ponting was exceptional.KP was too.
The approach that I have been taught is:
- Set the scene or scenario
- Make that mental picture as clear as you can: turn the sharpness, the colour and the contrast up. Make it real.
- Then ask the player to "associate" into that situation.
- At this point the coach can probe with questions around their method, technique, tempo, thought processes, the way they move fielders (both batters and bowlers can facilitate a field change, remember that), how they look to attack and how they look to defend.
This type of practice is what the truly brilliant players do.
The simply 'good' players (of which there are many) rely on physical practice solely to build their skills to face new or challenging circumstances and conditions. The great ones don't.
As coaches, we can help the process of shifting a player from "good to great" without them having to hit a ball.
Then when they eventually get to physically practice or play in spinning conditions their adaptations are sharper, quicker and they are more likely to thrive.
So back to yesterday...
I saw lots of examples of 'good' cricket yesterday which disappointed me a bit. I wanted to see more 'great stuff'. Here is an example of that.
Jack Leach bowled "good". He picked up 3-77 off his 30 overs. Decent stuff on Day 1 from a good young left arm spinner.
However, I think he could have put the Hampshire batters under even more pressure in early spin-friendly conditions.
The pitch started slightly damp, enough to make the ball grip into the top surface and bite. He bowled 3 or four slightly quicker paced stock balls in the first spell that were beauties. One of them dismissed James Vince.
But I never got the feeling that Jack totally read or adapted his pace to suit the surface he was bowling on.
In the first session of the day, it was a surface that reacted most extravagantly to pace on stock balls. Jack was largely too slow in the air to make the ball bite into, and off, the surface.
An extra one or two mph on his stock balls would have made his strike rate plummet.
To be able to develop this subtle you requires significant levels of mental and physical practice.
Shane Warne was a master in testing the pace of the pitch out early with balls of faster and slower pace.
He was effectively trying to find the biting point for the surface he was bowling on. Then he would adjust his stock pace to suit the pitch.
The Taunton pitch dried out over the day and there was less extravagant spin and bounce in the last 2 sessions. Batting got easier.
There was an opportunity in the first part of the day to test the pace of the wicket, find its biting point and make the most of it. Jack didn't do that. He missed the window of opportunity and then had to toil away manfully for the rest of the day.
I hope that he reflects and that his excellent coaches chat with him about this.
By doing so we could find that his 'good' goes to 'great' very quickly.
The role of the coach, at all levels involves drills, practices, throw downs, video analysis and lots of 'stuff' that people can look at and say "look at that coach, isn't he working hard".
This is a given to me.
Can you support your players even by adding in associated discussions that help them adapt, read situations effectively and make more informed decisions when it counts?
It's an additional coaching skill that the very best coaches have in buckets (Fletcher, Woolmer, Farbrace, Flower, Bayliss).
This in turn, helps good players to become great.