The four ways to breed better batters

There is, as usual, some soul searching about the English game and in particular, for once, about the state of English batsmanship. The general feeling is that it is not what it used to be. Well, they say that about nostalgia as well.

There is, as usual, some soul searching about the English game and in particular, for once, about the state of English batsmanship. The general feeling is that it is not what it used to be. Well, they say that about nostalgia as well.

There are talented players about, batsmen who look as though they have what it takes. But there are few who are putting it together consistently, day to day, rather than just having the odd good innings here or there to keep them going. The reasons are many and deep-seated.

If they don't quite start in the cradle it is not long afterwards. When I started playing club cricket as a young lad I was extremely lucky with playing league cricket on Saturdays and friendly cricket on Sundays. Now, the Sunday cricket was perhaps as important as the Saturday.

In the league matches you would have 50 overs or so to bat, but the Sunday cricket was time-based. I was given the chance to bat early by my club and was encouraged to use the time available. That meant I had two-and-three-quarter hours to bat, and that was very important at 13, 14 or 15. That formative cricket provides the base on which you build the rest of your cricketing career.

These days, probably most club games are of limited overs on both days of the weekend. Players are encouraged to open the face of the bat, play across the line and hit over the top. They settle for a good 30 or 40 in these situations. For me, then, it was always important to go on and get a hundred.

It helps in your development, as in my case did playing for Middlesex Schools and England Schools in all-day matches. I was chatting to Middlesex's Australian overseas player, Justin Langer, about what it would take to produce more batsmen of good quality. He was unequivocal: sound basic technique. If you have that you can go on and get the scores.

But it has to be worked on, grooved in the nets. Then Langer said something else. He felt that 80 per cent of net practice in this country is of no use at all. Until we get good net facilities we will not produce a stream of good players.

It is impossible in most nets in this country for fast bowlers to come in off their full run-up because it is too risky. I can remember Mike Gatting breaking his finger in a Lord's net, and Graham Thorpe has broken a thumb in the nets.

We are playing 16 four-day games now compared to 28 three-day games at one time. The idea is to try to give more time for net practice, yet if the net practice is useless in giving confidence it is also pointless. Confidence gained in good nets can be helpful, if not decisive, in dealing with mediocre pitches. But to get better pitches it is time now to have groundsmen employed directly by the England and Wales Cricket Board. The other method simply is not working.

But we are blessed at least with splendid indoor facilities, and it is there work can be done on feet and head positioning. It takes time and effort to get it right, to groove it. I am not sure that too many of our younger players are putting in that work. There is a suspicion that too many of them have been willing to settle for what they have got in terms of a county contract and salary. The lack of competition for places may also lead to a certain apathy.

And then there is the way we look on batting in this country. The first shot most of us are taught is the forward defensive, so we have the defence to which the shots are added later. Yet a West Indian will tell you that the defence should come after the shots, because the natural desire of a kid is to hit the ball. It is the way we look at batting. Take two of the great Caribbean players of recent vintage, Viv Richards and Brian Lara. Richards could hit the ball mercilessly from any angle, Lara has this remarkably high backlift, yet when they defend they get right behind the ball.

The important thoughts for coaches of young batsmen are flair and discipline - and not to coach the first out for the sake of the second. I was again fortunate to have as my coach as a boy the late Middlesex and England opener Jack Robertson. He taught me how to play straighter, but he did not let it become too complicated with talk about where the elbow should be and so on. Too much information can stifle develop-ment.

Nets, pitches (not flat, but good cricket wickets), early development, hard work: all key areas. We need batsmen who are ambitious to play for England.

England resume the Test series against West Indies on Thursday at Lord's. It is still wide open but there are two major parts of the game: seeing off the new ball and making inroads into seven left- handers. Watch this space.

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