I have a confession. I hated bowling machines as a player. I wasn't alone. Yet others loved the same thing. It really is the Marmite of cricket practice.
I found it really difficult to get the timings of my movements right and often found myself rushed and off balance at point of contact. It became very frustrating when others were enjoying every bowling machine session.
So as a coach, I set myself a challenge of finding a way to use machines so that all players could benefit from bowling machine practice by incorporating the "3 stages of effective batting" that we discuss on the ECB Level III batting module:
Stage 1: Picking up visual cues
Coaches generally feed the machine by dropping the ball into the tube.
This works really well for a number of players as they can cope with the ball disappearing into the tube and firing out of a black hole.
These types of players have a preference of focussing intently on something and react well when in pinpoint detail mode. Ask them to pick out the dimples on the ball. They will like that.
If you have a player who is blissfully happy with the normal drop into the tube then keep it up.
But some players find this hard.
These players need to focus less intently and anticipate the time that the ball is released.
So I have taught myself to mimic the bowling action and place the the ball into the tube with a straight bowling arm. The batter synchronises their movements in time with the familiar bowling action and all of a sudden they start to flow.
So if you have a player who is struggling, then try this strategy.
Stage 2: Building effective decision making skills
Grooving is good: Being game ready is better!
We all know that bowling machines are great for grooving shots and the value of hitting hundreds of drives and cuts when you are learning the skill initially is invaluable.
However, people then tend to limit themselves to this approach instead of developing functional practice that makes them ready for the demands of the game itself.
Use the handle on the machine to shift lengths to ensure that a player is having to make a decision on the length of the ball.
Move between hitting length - defend/deflect or leave - and then throw in a half volley and see if the batter recognises that this is a ball to attack.
Or if you are wanting to develop back foot decision making then deliver the ball into length with the odd back of a length ball and see if the batsman is able to decide appropriately.
This is real practice.
Use the swing modes to replicate real bowlers. Don't go silly, make it realistic as the combination of subtle swing changes and shifts in length is a great way to build decision making skills.
Stage 3: Shot execution
Once the player has tapped into their visual preference and has been challenged to develop their decision making ability, the batter is ready to execute with precision.
In my experience, if the first 2 stages are developed then the execution phase takes care of itself.
If you build these strategies into your sessions then the bowling machine is a great tool for everyone. So unlike Marmite, you can change people's minds about having a bowling machine session.