Cricket (Steel, Lyttelton)/Chapter 13

Cricket  (1888) 
Chapter 13



(By R. A. H. Mitchell.)

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F you want to play cricket you must begin as boy, is a true, if not an original, remark. We remember asking a member of a well-known

A six-year old

cricketing fraternity what promise a younger brother gave of future excellence, and his reply was, 'He's no good—but then he hasn't had a chance, for he was so delicate he couldn't begin till he was six years old.' We do not ourselves presume to say that the game must necessarily be learnt whilst a child is under his nurse's care; but nevertheless we know of no instance, unless Mr. A. E. Stoddart forms an exception to the rule, of anyone attaining to the first rank who has not received his early lessons in the noble game while still a boy. If this be so, it is of interest to all cricketers to consider what training a boy ought to have. Is he to be left merely to the light of nature and his own powers of observation, or is he to be systematically coached, and taught daily how each stroke is to be made and each ball bowled? Many think that a training of this kind can hardly be begun too soon or carried out with too great care and rigour. This may be so; but we are by no means inclined to agree with such a Spartan discipline. We believe that in games, as in life, if a thing is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well; but, although we claim to be second to none in our keenness to see good boy cricketers, we differ in the method we advocate from those who support so severe a system of coaching young boys.

Let us give some reasons in support of our view. In the first place, success in cricket, and not in cricket alone, depends on the enjoyment and interest taken in the game, and we believe that there is great danger of destroying this enjoyment and interest by incessant coaching and teaching at too early an age. In the second place, all coaching has a tendency at first to eradicate individual peculiarities and to cramp a natural style. Mr. W. G. Grace, Mr. A. G. Steel, Shrewsbury, and many other well-known batsmen have peculiarities of their own, which could not have been taught in early boyhood, but which might very easily have been cramped, and perhaps entirely obliterated, much to their detriment, in the hands of even a skilful coach. We do not deprecate all advice even to very young boys, but we dislike anything that tends to interfere with the powers of nature; and although we shall be told that a good teacher merely directs them in the best possible way, we do not think that the advantage likely to be gained will at all compensate for a cramped style or loss of enjoyment What should be taught, and when, we will endeavour to suggest as we proceed.

First, however, one word to anxious parents and teachers of the art. It is quite hopeless to expect that every boy can be made into a cricketer. Countless are the excuses we hear to cover the feebleness and incapacity of would-be players, made sometimes by their parents, sometimes by themselves. They have never been coached, or they have been badly coached; they have been made to play too much, or they can't play often enough; the ground they play on is so rough, or it is so easy that they can't play on more difficult ground. They used to bowl very well; but they were overbowled, or they were never put on; or they are always put on at the wrong end, or the catches are always missed off their bowling. These and many other excuses are urged on their behalf; but those who have watched cricket for but a few years will soon learn to take such futile pleas for what they are worth. No boy can become a good cricketer who has not a natural capacity for the game. The batsman must have a good eye and is all the better for a good nerve; the fieldsman must be active; the bowler—ah! what must he have? Nascitur non fit; we will not commit ourselves at present to his requirements.

In saying this do not let it be supposed that we wish those only to play cricket who are likely to become good cricketers—far from it; but we are concerned with the game as an art and not as an exercise, and do not wish to raise vain hopes of success where success is impossible.

Now let us consider the three great departments of the game in detail; for, although they are necessarily and closely connected, we cannot treat of batting, bowling, and fielding in the same paragraph.

The batsman then first demands our attention, not because he is more useful to his side than the bowler, but because it is here that more may be taught than in any other department of
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the game. Take a boy ten years old—we start with double figures, let it be an omen for his future!—what can we tell him? Very little, we think, but certainly this: never to move his right foot, but to plant it firmly just inside the crease, with the toe barely clear of the leg-stump.

The left foot should also be placed in the same line, but it must be moved into the position which is found to be the easiest for playing or hitting any given ball. The batsman must learn to stand perfectly still with his eye fixed on the bowler's hand, and he must try to think of the ball, and the ball alone; any fidgeting about is apt to interfere with an accurate habit of sight. A boy should also be told to drive the ball in front of the wicket and along the ground. We do not approve of the cut for young boys; it is the batsman's most finished stroke, but it is absolutely fatal when attempted at an unsuitable ball. This is all we think it necessary to teach our juvenile batsman, though occasional hints beyond this may sometimes be useful. Do not, however, cramp a boy who is disposed to hit, but tell him to hit straight; it is easier at a later age to stop hitting than to teach it. For this reason single-wicket matches among small boys are not without their use, as they naturally encourage hard hitting in front of the wicket.

A danger which is not sufficiently guarded against at some private schools is the habit of allowing young boys to play to fast bowling; masters and others take part in the games and the practice, and bowl at a pace which would be called medium in a man's match, but which is very fast for boys under fourteen years of age. The result of this is that boys learn to be afraid of the ball; and if they once show fear they will never become good players. It seems all but impossible to restore confidence even at a much later age, and we know of many instances—we will not be so unkind as to mention names—in which boys with great natural powers have never overcome their fear of the ball, which they had acquired before coming to a public school. For the same reason the growmg custom of small boys playing in men's matches is to be strongly deprecated.
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Boys' matches we strongly approve of, but boys of fourteen and under ought not to play in matches with full-grown men. If a boy with a natural gift for cricket has learnt by the time he enters a public school to stand firmly and play the ball in front of the wicket, he has learnt all that is necessary to turn him out a good batsman later

Drawing away from the wicket.

on; but if fast bowling has taught him to fear the ball, we have but little hope of ever seeing him attain to the first class.

A few years have elapsed, and our young batsman at the age of thirteen or fourteen is passing into the larger sphere of a public school. What ought to be his training there?

It cannot be expected that he will receive the same attention that will be given at a later age, when he is a candidate for his school eleven, nor do we think that he need be subjected to any rigorous system of coaching. On the other hand, he ought to have some one of experience to give him occasional hints and instil into him the true principles of the game. Above everything else, he should have good ground to play upon, so that, if his confidence has not been previously shaken, he will not now learn to shrink from the ball. The question of ground must always be a great difficulty; for, although it may be easy to get an extent sufficient to satisfy the requirements of a large public school, it is no easy matter to keep it in proper order and provide good match and practice wickets throughout the summer for a large number of boys, especially as the ground is generally required for football or other purposes during the winter. However, the better the ground the better the batsmen; and if this be true, a good ground is one of the most important requirements in the training of our cricketers.

As a boy grows in years he will require, and will probably get, more instruction, and if he meets with a coach of good judgment and experience he will soon learn all that can be taught. His success will depend on his own natural powers, his temper, and his perseverance. We do not propose to deal in detail with all the duties of a coach, but perhaps a few hints may not be altogether out of place.

First of all, then, we would say, do not coach a boy too often. Once a week is all that is either necessary or desirable. A boy who is anxious to learn will lay to heart the hints and instructions he has received, and he will find it easier to carry them out when he is practising with his schoolfellows than when he is actually receiving instruction from a coach. A new attitude or a new stroke always presents great difficulty, easy as it may seem in itself; and a boy who is trying something new will not at first play better, and will become nervous and disheartened if he is being too constantly pressed by an ardent teacher.

Do not let a boy practise for more than half an hour at a time, or he will become careless and lose interest During that time he should play to both fast and slow bowling, but never to more than two bowlers; and it would be well if he could play for a quarter of an hour to two slow bowlers, and another quarter to two fast. It is confusing to some boys to receive fast and slow balls alternately, particularly when they are trying to alter or improve some point of style under the direction of a coach.

Do not allow boys to play to fast bowling on bad wickets; slow bowling on a bad wicket is a good lesson occasionally, as it necessitates careful watching of the ball and accurate timing; but fast bowling on bumpy ground can only do harm. Never allow throwing instead of bowling,—it does infinite mischief. A coach will naturally have to give instruction on numerous

points, and try to get his pupil to carry out what he teaches; but there is one warning which must be impressed on the lad more strongly than anything else. It is this: when you go to the wicket in a match don't be thinking of this or that position, or this or that stroke, but fix your eye on the bowler's hand as he comes up to bowl. Think of and watch the ball only; if you learn correct habits in practice, your instinct will throw you into the right position and enable you to make the right stroke, provided that your eye does not fail you with the ball.

We do not purpose to describe how each stroke should be made or to enumerate all the instructions that should be given to the youthful batsman; for such details would be long and wearisome, and entirely unnecessary for the guidance of anyone who understands the true principles of the game; and certainly no one ought to try and teach until he has (at all events theoretically) mastered these, though it is by no means necessary for a good coach to be himself a first-rate exponent of the batsman's art. We would point out, however, that, apart from natural gifts, over which the coach has no control, the most important point to teach the batsman is first to watch the ball; secondly, to throw himself at the right moment into the right position—if he can do this, it is an easy matter to hit or play almost any given ball; thirdly, to meet the ball either in playing back or forward, and not to play in front of the left foot when playing forward or behind the right when playing back.

And now what are we to say of the bowler's art? How are we to teach our boys the most unteachable department of the game? This part of our subject we approach with many misgivings, and though we wish to limit our advice to what is strictly practical, we feel that this very limit will make many think that our hints are but meagre and uninteresting.

We must again 'put back the clock' (oh that some of us decrepit cricketers could do so in reality!) to the age of ten. Again we ask for some natural power of propelling a ball with ease, strength proportioned to age, perseverance, and a real love of the game. Given these materials to work upon, how are we to begin? First of all, let the distance be short, certainly not more than eighteen yards at the age of ten; let the ball be smaller and lighter than the regulation size, and let a boy be taught at first to aim only at one length; as he becomes fairly master of straightness and pitch, let him try to vary the length a little, but not too often, or he may sacrifice regularity and injure his deliver)'. Change of pace can hardly be looked for at this age; but great care should be taken to prevent a boy from bowling fast, and he should not bowl for long together. In practice it is a good plan to take alternate overs with another boy, as it is easier to bowl four or five balls well and then rest than to go on bowling a greater number. A boy should be taught to measure the distance he runs before delivering the ball, and he should learn to bowl on both sides of the wicket. Great care should be taken to prevent a boy from bowling too much; and if his bowling seems to be getting worse rather than better, let him leave off for some days. We offer no advice on the more abstruse arts of bowling, as the subject has been exhaustively treated in a previous chapter.

Supposing that our boy bowler has by the age of fourteen acquired straightness and pitch, with some power of variation, will he have a fair chance of improving his bowling and distinguishing himself when at a public school? We fear that this will be a trying time—indeed must be so, even if he is taken in hand by some one who understands and takes an interest in the game. In the first place, batting is more attractive to most boys; in the second, the young bowler will probably have a very indifferent field, and the missing of catches tempts the youthful player to abandon the slower pace for the faster, with disastrous results to himself. Almost all young boys wish to bowl as fast as they can, and this ends frequently in ruining a good action and a good arm which had at one time threatened the fall of many a good wicket.

At this point, then, in a bowler's career, public schools, we think, have something to answer for; but we do not agree with those who say that subsequently, when a boy is old enough to be a candidate for his school eleven, there is any great lack of system or careful training. Rather, if a short digression may be pardoned, we think that the Universities, or the laziness of University men, may chiefly be blamed for the dearth of gentlemen bowlers. Our argument shortly stated is this. If we compare gentlemen bowlers of the age of nineteen with professionals of the same age, we shall find that the former have nothing to fear from the comparison. But pass on for five or six years, and the gentlemen are seen to be behind in the race for pre-eminence. Can this be the fault of public schools? Is it not rather that after leaving school few, scarcely any, systematically practise bowling, although they are just at the right age to improve, having stronger muscles and more experience, to say nothing of leisure hours and increased opportunities? If University men would practise their bowling both at nets and in matches with the same assiduity that boys do at a public school, we think that it would approach more nearly to the professional standard than it now does.

We do not propose to offer our readers any special advice as to the method of attack, which will naturally vary with different batsmen. Experience and observation will suggest what may be done, if we can only teach our young bowler to bowl straight, to vary his length, and as he gets older his pace, and if nature has given him strength, and a happy genius enables him to make the ball turn more or less at will. Let us leave the bowler himself, and see if we can offer any hints on providing him with a good field.

It is a common fallacy to suppose that anyone can field well if he takes the trouble to do so. With this we cannot agree; but we feel strongly that most cricketers might improve themselves very much in this department if they took the same pains they do to improve their batting. But we must return to our small boys. First of all, let us teach them to catch by throwing the ball from one to another, and let the ball be small, proportioned to the size of their hands. Teach them to take the catch opposite the upper part of the chest, when they can get to it in that position, and to draw their hands back as the ball comes into them. Do not keep them too long at this, or they will find it irksome. Vary with a little ground fielding, but do not let them throw too often or too far, or their arms will soon go, and you will ruin your bowlers and your throwers as welL It is not, however, at this early age that the most special attention ought to be given to fielding. It is rather at our public schools that we here look for improvement; this is the time at which we think most may be done. As a boy gains strength and activity he gains two of the qualities most necessary for a good fieldsman, and if nature has given him a good big pair of hands and the power of throwing, it will be owing to his laziness if he does not become a valuable aid to any bowler. We might dwell on the necessity of keenness, watchfulness in the field, position for starting, and many other essentials, but we have said enough for practical purposes; all else will be easily learnt by a boy who has the energy and determination to train himself into a good field.

It will be noticed that in our suggestions to the batsman we have not advised him to make that use of his legs in defending his wicket which now finds such favour with our leading players. We confess to regarding this as an ignoble art; but we admit that if the l.b.w. rule is to continue as at present, the art, ignoble as it is, must be taught in self-defence, or our pupils will necessarily be handicapped in being expected to stop balls which break and turn with their bat instead of with their legs. Fortunately age will relieve us personally of teaching how this may best be done. It is for the rising generation either to alter the law or to learn the art of getting in front of the wicket when the ball does not pitch straight.

It is in vain to lament over long scores and unfinished matches, over dearth of bowlers and slackness in the field, whilst all the time we are doing everything we can to make matters easier and easier for the batsman, giving him perfect wickets, on which he can score loo runs without getting out of breath, devoting his legs to the new purpose of systematically intercepting the more difficult balls. How different this from having honestly to run out every hit, and from being compelled to play a real 'snorter' before the breath is fairly recovered after the effort of running several fourers in succession!