Spin doctorates and field studies

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The Independent Online
IT IS likely that no sporting team in Britain will be better prepared for the challenges ahead. Nothing is being left to chance. Technique, fitness and mental approach are all being carefully monitored under a squad of expert specialist coaches.

The players will be nurtured individually and as a team. For 10 highly disciplined weeks starting tomorrow they will focus on their target. By April they will be ready, a tightly knit unit intending to advance to victory over unsuspecting opponents.

If all goes according to a well-developed game plan, then some time in the middle of June the objective will be achieved. The South Bank University cricket team will win the British Universities Shield competition and gain promotion to the premier tournament for the country's top 24 student sides.

Rarely, perhaps never, can such a diligent strategy have been plotted in pursuit of so relatively minor a goal. Indeed, neutral observers may think of sledgehammers and nuts. Test teams have probably been less careful in their build-up. The South Bank show is mightily impressive.

The backroom line-up consists of the England and Essex players Mark Ilott and Peter Such, who will look after seam bowling and spin bowling respectively; the former Somerset all-rounder Gary Palmer who is hugely respected as a batting coach; Julian Fountain, who has revolutionised fielding techniques among first-class cricketers; the fitness expert Steve Hunt who works at the university; the sports psychologist Jon Zneimer; and Bill Lake, chairman of the National Association of Cricket Coaches, who will oversee preparations.

"We've got a good set of players. They're very excited about this and I think it will tilt the balance in our favour when the season starts," said Jimmi Ryder, the South Bank club's chairman. "Actually, I'll stick my neck out and say we'll win the competition."

South Bank's players are a motley bunch. "Tubby slobs, some of 'em," joked Ryder. Their captain is Tilan Wijesinghe, the Sri Lankan A player and the team's leading bowler is the extremely promising Middlesex left- arm spinner, Umar Rashid. But other members of the squad do not aspire to much beyond club cricket.

It was Ryder who decided they could all benefit from the extra attention to detail and approached Lake for help. Lake has coached thousands of young cricketers and was enthused by Ryder's enthusiasm.

"I liked his attitude and thought I would get a coach to help them," said Lake. "But then I realised that all the fellows I had in mind for doing the whole thing were abroad for the winter. So I had the idea of providing coaches for specialist areas of the game and these boys are all extremely astute as well as keen."

Ryder, a sports science student who is himself a second XI club cricketer, went a stage further. Cricket technique, he decided, could also be improved by fitness and psychology. He persuaded Hunt to draw up personal fitness charts and goals for each player. Zneimer's involvement as psychologist has created most excitement.

"It is an admirable way of getting the team ready," said Zneimer, who has 10 years' experience of helping sportsmen, usually of greater accomplishment, to hone their minds. "Over 10 weeks I hope the team will develop an awareness of their strengths and weaknesses. In a squad of 12, for instance, there are 144 different relationships so clearly they are important to the team's ends. With the input of the coaches it should be possible to set goals for each individual." Lake backed up those words: "We can help them to gell. Personal goals will become team goals."

South Bank's initiative is being funded by the university's students' union which has put up pounds 3,000 and issued a statement saying: "Investment is necessary to achieve results. The union is disappointed to see potential elite sportsmen not achieve their potential due to monetary reasons."

That may be somewhat garbled but by the time they play the likes of Brunel and Essex in the early summer, South Bank's finely drilled cricketing students should be ready to graduate to higher things.