My day of pain (and ridicule) batting in the England nets

The tourists take a pre-Ashes break to put Stephen Brenkley through the rigours – and humiliation – of a Test training session
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The Independent Online

This dispatch could and should have been quicker. Pain and remorse made it impossible. Heaven knows how more rotund reporters cope.

All that can be said in retrospect is that if, over the years, you have ever gained the impression from previous pieces of mine that England's cricketers are a bunch of ne'er-do-wells who practise a bit, then play a bit, fail to move their feet when they jolly well should and do not comprehend the rudiments of swing bowling in unhelpful conditions, then it may have been a case of something being lost in translation.

What should have been made clear, unequivocally and without prejudice, is that England's cricketers are a friendly bunch of hard-working swells whose determination to enhance their skill and understanding of what they do is boundless. Point taken?

This much and more was evident the day that England's travelling press corps to Australia – or that bit of it which is covering the tour as opposed to jetting in to sample the glamour of the Test matches and then heading off again – replicated a team training session. Or, if not exactly replicated, then tried to copy round the edges.

It was hard all right, and it was entirely different from the preparation that has governed a lifetime of playing cricket, to wit netting once before the season begins, arriving five minutes before the match starts, getting changed only if in the field and certainly not touching a cricket ball until it is in proper play. And then going to the pub. On reflection, this may explain a great deal.

Training and rehearsal for international cricketers has been revolutionised. In its way, it has kept pace with the technological advances in society, some of which it uses to help coaches to coach and players to learn. This, so to speak, is the age of the Skyplus, digitalised cricketer.

Denis Compton, of course, famously turned up for matches still wearing his dinner jacket and Andrew Flintoff, infamously, tried to roll back the years by getting as drunk as a lord several times on the last Ashes tour. But the whole ethos of working at being a batsman, a bowler and, crucially, a fielder has changed.

Here is what they did and how they did it the other day in the Tasmanian Cricket Association indoor school. The intention had been to hold this one-off event on the outfield, in common with a normal England session, but the heavy rain meant going inside, also in common with a normal England session.

The day had been set up by Brit Insurance, the enthusiastic new sponsors of the England team. They may not a have a sexy, modern product to market like the last lot, unless reinsurance turns you on, but they have so far shown a passion about their involvement in the game. What the press had done to upset them so much to be put through this hell it is difficult to be sure.

The batting practice was exhausting. Before they would even let the combatants – for that is what we felt like – have a bat they insisted on a drill. This involved the team coach, Andy Flower, and the batting coach, the legendary Graham Gooch. Standing between a set of stumps and set of balls in holders on the ground it was necessary to move sideways one way or the other at their beck and call, touching the stumps or picking up a ball from a designated holder and then putting it back again.

This exercise is aimed at getting the feet and body moving as if batting. It is also completely knackering after 45 seconds, and that does not only apply to fat, red-faced, middle-aged men whose cup may have overflowed on occasion.

After three or four goes at this it was time to have a bat. Flower and Gooch took a net each, using the sidearm, the deceptively simple new coaching device. It has been introduced to the England team in particular and cricket in general by Gooch, who was first shown it last year by Frank Thoroughgood, who designed the prototype.

The sidearm is based on the instrument that dog owners use to throw balls for their charges to chase. It has been modified to hold a cricket ball and can impart swing and seam at pace, without the thrower's arm tiring. It will replace the throwdown in cricket nets. Thoroughgood has won a design award for his innovation and it shows that cricket and life do not always need modern technology to advance.

The net could have gone better. It would be easy to blame the lights but a loose method based on minimal and jerky foot movement and a crooked bat usually aimed at cow corner may have made their contributions. Too many deliveries slapped into the pads (while the bat was possibly still in its backlift phase). "LBW" became a familiar verdict.

It has to be said that the bowling net was much less stressful, partly because coming in off two paces is frankly a doddle, especially if you do not try any of that fancy leaping into the crease nonsense. David Saker, England's Australian bowling coach, is a beaut. He was patient and communicative, explaining about actions and that leap into the delivery stride (Brett Lee leapt around five yards from the crease, he said) and about how they were only interested in three lengths for a fast bowler – the good length, the yorker, and the knock-him-in-the-head.

Jimmy Anderson stepped up and bowled perfect examples of the lot. He does not show his emotions much, the boy from Burnley, not when press men are around, but he was pleased with the bouncer which was fast, swinging evilly and knocked off the batsman's block.

And so to the fielding, marshalled by a friendly sadist called Richard Halsall. Catches simply come too quickly whether at short leg, slip or wicketkeeper and they keep coming. How they keep coming. The players were wonderfully supportive when they were not taking the mickey, which they were perfectly entitled to do, considering the stick they get.

Stuart Broad came across and said: "You must have been a wicketkeeper in your day." Which was flattering except he was assuming the day was no more. And then somebody pointed out that he had seen the batting, the bowling and the fielding and knew my expertise did not could not possibly lie any of those.

Long ago, when Kent were playing Oxford University in a first-class match a summons had come to the press box. Kent were a man short and needed a substitute. An hour later, fielding at mid-off, he dropped a catch off Derek Underwood, who had taken something like 1,900 wickets at the time but was still fuming. The bruised hand lasted for a week, the bruised heart has never healed.

It was not (quite) as embarrassing as that at the TCA. But it was tough. The coaches and players were splendidly engaged. It was a memorable afternoon. Top blokes all – until, of course, they forget to move their feet or stop swinging it in Brisbane next week.

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