Cricket: Skill stifled by soulless tamperers: Simon Hughes exposes the damaging obsessions of the county cricket coach

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DENNIS LILLEE made an interesting observation the other day. Writing in a tabloid newspaper he said the standard of coaching in English cricket was appalling. It is no coincidence that two of the leading bowlers in this country - Andy Caddick and Kent's Martin McCague - have been nurtured by him. Stories abound of our own coaches apparently tinkering with young cricketers' techniques; some of these players have since lost form, so perhaps Lillee has a point. Clearly there is something hindering the achievements of our aspiring yougsters (and there are plenty of them) but what is it?

Daryll Foster, the Australian who advises Kent, believes that sporting ability is divided into three categories - technical, physical and mental. Lillee, he says, was nigh on perfect in each. It was obvious that England's under-19 side lacked the maturity last winter to compete with their Indian counterparts - technically and physically they were on a par, mentally they were not.

But how do you coach mental skill? The short answer is you cannot. What it boils down to is the desire and motivation of the individual. But whereas most West Indian or Australian cricketers are driven by pride and ambition, many young English players seem concerned only with appearances. Cricket is a job and while they concentrate hard when the coach is watching, or work diligently in the nets, they slog gaily when his back is turned. This is not only counter-productive, it also forms bad habits. They do it because their boss represents an ogre rather than someone to respect and trust.

And that is the trouble with many county coaches - they are too like schoolteachers. 'Get into line boys and conform,' is their tone as they supervise monotonous fielding practices or chide batsmen for losing practice balls with lofted drives. Miscreants are dropped down the batting order next game - the cricketing equivalent of detention. You feel that because many of the coaches under-achieved in their own careers, they tend to interfere with individuality, undermine precociousness, rather than encourage it.

Confidence is the key to success. This is what Lillee is good at instilling. Instead of picking holes in your technique after a brief net session, he monitors match performances and highlights the assets. Not for him the obsession with foot and body positions, his concern is harnessing natural enthusiasm to the quest for runs and particularly wickets. It sounds simple, but so often coaches get bound up with technical perfection, quashing a player's spontaneity and confidence. Though well-meaning, Geoff Arnold kept emphasising the importance of 'shape' - the trendy term for a delivery which curves towards the slips - to Devon Malcolm. Really all Devon should be concentrating on is bowling as fast as possible (provided it is in roughly the right direction.) He should develop his assets, leave the swing and 'shape' to someone else. I remember once hearing someone telling Gordon Greenidge he hit the ball in the air too much. 'There's more room up there,' he replied.

Recently a young second team left-hander was struggling for runs. He had tried adjusting his stance, grip, foot movement, even make of bat. It made no difference and his self-belief was seriously eroded. The arrival of Dean Jones with the visiting Durham 2nd XI was the turning point. The batsman spent 20 minutes with Jones, who told him simply to fix his eyes on the seam of the ball as the bowler was running in and as it arrived down the wicket, instead of gazing in a general direction as most batsmen do. The player has not failed since.

Nerves have a crucial effect on a professional sportsman's life - everyone feels them. They originate in a fear of failure. Those that can conquer them are deemed to have bottle, those who cannot, do not. You cannot coach bottle either, but you can generate positive thoughts, either by looking at videos of good performances, or by drawing on them in your memory. Graham Gooch had become Malcolm Marshall's rabbit until Gooch got hold of a film of a hundred against him. The Australians are particularly good at this morale boosting, though it often comes over as arrogance. We as a race are naturally more reticent, and can become overawed by brazen ostentation.

What our cricketers must be encouraged to do is believe in themselves more - we had a decent squad of players in India but they were trounced. In the end so much was made of our batsman's technical inadequacies, they must have felt useless. The standard of our county game would be enhanced by players using nets more purposefully. Every Sunday the Lancashire seamers practise bowling yorkers for half an hour, so it is no surprise when they snatch unlikely one-day victories from the jaws of defeat. Above all do not allow natural skill to be tampered with. The great old Northamptonshire coach, Dennis Brooks, had a simple philosophy on developing ability - 'Improve what's there but do not alter.'

(Photograph omitted)