True skill can never be taught

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The Independent Online
AT various times over many years I have unsuccessfully attempted to incorporate golfing techniques associated with Ben Hogan, Dai Rees, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Seve Ballesteros.

The result of diligent study and intense application, even before an accident reduced me to playing one-handed, is a handicap that arouses no alarm in the clubhouse and enough instructional aids to stock a professional's shop.

Going back a lot further, I came across a book by Sir Donald Bradman, entitled simply How to Play Cricket. Seizing upon what appeared to be the means of improving a moderate batting average I discovered that the great man's reputation was founded on standard correctness. What he could not implant was the genius of improvisation and timing.

We are what we are, hostage to our genes, and for most of us sport is a fantasy, a never to be realised dream of emulation.

Thus one of the most cunning and absolutely dependable tricks of sports promotion is that improvement can be achieved through assiduous attention to books and videos and the acquisition of expensive equipment. Play with clubs endorsed by Nick Faldo and you'll burn up the course; armed with an Andre Agassi racket you'll be a sensation on court; shod with Alan Shearer boots you'll be deadly in the penalty area.

What I have in mind is the spurious notion that young cricketers can be taught to play like Brian Lara, whose method is available to readers of the Daily Mail. Doubtless a commercially sound initiative, this takes the form of an instructional strip depicting the sensational Trinidadian in various technical poses.

Ironically, just prior to re-writing the record books Lara was shown demonstrating the back defensive shot. In common with Bradman he was a model of correctness.

The rest is something else, beyond imitation. As with Bradman, Gary Sobers, Denis Compton, Viv Richards and others who have colourfully performed epic feats at the crease, you could no more learn cricket from Lara than you could football from Pele or boxing from Muhammad Ali.

In some aspects of style Ali was the ultimate amateur, thrillingly defying tenets that the majority of boxing tutors held sacroscant. 'Bad habits are bad habits only if they don't work,' his famed trainer, Angelo Dundee, said shrewdly.

This brings me irresistibly to the tale of a baseball pitcher who was about to chance his arm against Joe DiMaggio. 'Never throw to Joe on the inside,' he advised a young aspirant in the bull pen. Proceeding to apply what was generally perceived to be sensible procedure, he heard an almighty thwack. The next thing he heard was the sound of the ball hitting a floodlight pylon. All DiMaggio could hear was the roar of the crowd.

Lara, of course, is blessed with qualities that cannot possibly be acquired. Balance, exceptional reflexes, imagination and superior hand-eye co-ordination are gifts from the womb.

It is now established that Lara is probably a genius of the game with a highly developed level of concentration and an insatiable appetite for records.

He is not the product of a cricketing policy, an attitude entirely alien to those who are charged with producing players in this country. Above all, Lara is outrageously gifted.

Something similar was expressed about George Best when he first excited the coaches at Manchester United. 'What do you say to such a talented player?' the club's assistant manager, Jimmy Murphy, was asked. 'You ask if he's got any brothers,' Murphy replied.