One of the biggest perks of the job as a cricket coach is to see a young batter take on a challenge.
Tom has done exactly this against the short ball. This time last year, Tom took a horrific whack on the side of the head when facing our quickest bowler in less than perfect indoor light conditions. Tom didn’t pick up the ball at all and ended up turning his head as the ball speared in towards his helmet.
The ball struck him without touching the helmet at all. It made a horrid noise and I quickly ran down the net to see how Tom was. In typical Tom style, he picked himself up, got to his feet and told me he was fine and wanted to bat on. I took him off to the Medical Centre.
Tom passed that assessment but I was still interested to see how he reacted to his next short ball. I was keen to test his response so on the following Monday we did a short ball session with 3oz balls on the machine with the odd ball being aimed over shoulder height.
When the higher ball came along, Tom would go into that defensive almost “foetal” position where you are hoping that it misses them rather than moving in an efficient and controlled way.
It was obvious to me that we had a problem. It’s never easy to confront this initially as the player rarely comes out and says “you are right, I’m scared of the ball hitting me when it’s short” but those of us who have played against real express bowlers will know that feeling which we have when ball velocity and direction goes beyond comfortable and exposes our levels of competence and confidence.
Even the most confident that I have coached have spoken about facing a spell of bowling which took them to the same place as Tom was experiencing in December 2016. Kevin Pietersen speaks about batting at the Gabba against Mitchell Johnson in 2013/14 where he was properly fearful and his normally ultra-attacking mindset shifted quickly into self preservation mode.
Our starting point was to build an awareness, even an acceptance within Tom which said “It’s OK to be a little scared as all players, at some point in their careers have felt like this. The best ones have worked through it!”
Building a plan
Now we needed to build a plan to layer up drills to develop technique, confidence and belief.
We started with feeding some tennis balls from the ground up into a space between chest and head height. Initially, I wanted Tom to be positive on all balls. I gave him the intention to “score off every ball” and he pulled and hooked at every delivery. This got his positivity going which was good after seeing the dread in his eyes when a short ball was bowled in the previous session.
We then added decision making into the drill. We stuck with tennis balls at this point but I fed a few high and wide balls in as well as some “hittable” ones. Tom had a go at the first ones, dragging them high up into the net and then started to leave the high balls and strike the “chin to chest” height balls. When Tom’s decision making and execution rate was consistently hitting 95%+ we both knew it was time to increase the challenge.
Cricket balls, different speed and height was our next progression all thrown from close with an underarm feed. Tom was flying now so we moved on to the Sidearm at 80% (approx 70mph) to see if the drills with the cricket ball underarm feeds could be stretched into a open and randomised environment.
Tom picked up length perfectly. Defending when the ball went into length and straight, leaving wider length balls, driving me cleanly when I overpitched and then crucially, striking or evading my bumpers. Tom had lost his “foetal position” when the ball was hammered short into the pitch and was now looking to “attack first; defend or evade second” – this is the mentality of a top player.
Our next phase, and the one that we have reached before our Christmas break was to increase pace (83mph) and take away the normal visual cues by using a bowling machine. I fed the ball and could be as random as this with my set up criteria:
Lengths could move from Yorker to bouncer and anywhere in between: Just by shifting the head of the machine as the ball entered the hole above the turning wheels.
I could change the shape of the ball from 3 away swing to 1 inswing and anywhere between. This is tough for Tom with no physical nor visual cues to work with. His anticipation skills are taken away; therefore, this becomes a reaction and speed drill in essence.
My aim as a feeder was to compete with Tom with the aim of forcing him to misread length and play inappropriately against the short pitched ball.
This can be a brutal session if the players competencies are not spot on!
The process that we went through stood up strongly against the challenge and Tom played magnificently. He picked length magnificently, drive me straight down the ground with ease and pulled anything short until he faced a bumper which was on the money! He looked to play it first then moved swiftly to dodge his head away from the ball at the last moment whilst keeping his eye perfectly on the ball.
That was a great moment.
We watched that ball over and over again on PitchVision. The main aim of this was to emphasise (visually and with supporting languages) the journey that Tom had been on to get from being struck on the head in December 2016 and the understandable loss of confidence against the short ball to a point where he is back in control and dominating the same type of delivery.
It has taken just under a year to go through this process. In my experience, there is no quick fix when it comes to taking on a reticence against the short ball and turning the threat of being hit into a “opportunity to score and dominate”.
Initial honesty, ongoing supportive language, layering of drills and plenty of repetition have been the keys to Tom’s journey against the short ball.
I hope this story inspires you to do the honest hard work to get amazing results. Just like Tom.
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