CAN TIPS FROM KIPPER STOP US BEING SMOKED DOWN UNDER?
Peter Hayter suggests that the thoughts on batsmanship from Colin Cowdrey are as valid as his Seventies sang froid
Clearing out the nerve centre (garden shed) the other day I chanced upon a yellowing single page from a long-lost publication containing tips from arguably the most technically correct batsman in England Test history which may even hold the key to winning the Ashes Down Under this winter.
Two convincing series victories have given Joe Root the perfect start to his captaincy.Yet he knows his team can only fulfil his prediction of great things against Australia if the top five can first blunt, then score heavily, against their high-class pace attack.
Mark Stoneman seems certain to make the final cut to join Root and Alastair Cook, and his work gives cause for cautious optimism.
But three more specialist batting spots in the squad remain to be filled from the likes of Tom Westley, Dawid Malan, Keaton Jennings, Alex Hales, Gary Ballance and Haseeb Hameed.
And so far, no matter which way up you hold their Test performances, to a greater or lesser degree all have shown basic technical weaknesses that, if left unchecked, would leave England vulnerable to the kind of start from which they recovered this summer but may not against the Aussies.
So, with due respect to highly-rated batting coach Mark Ramprakash, I pass on thoughts and advice from the man generally acknowledged as England’s most proficient at the arts and crafts of batsmanship, the great Colin Cowdrey.
Ashes students will recall that when, on the 1974-75 Ashes tour, England’s batsmen were being terrorised and hospitalised by Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, they sent an SOS to a 41-yearold who had not played Test cricket for four years and, on a chilly December day, persuaded Cowdrey by phone to come out of retirement. “I’d love to,” he told chairman of selectors Alec Bedser.
His composure in the white-heat of battle has passed into Ashes folklore, as has the exchange with Thommo in the middle in the second Test at the WACA, two days and three hours of nets after Cowdrey had landed, recounted by the tearaway bowler himself.
According to Thomson: “‘Good morning, my name’s Cowdrey’, he said.
“As I handed my hat to the umpire, I was revved up and just wanted to kill somebody and Kipper walked all the way up to me and said, ‘Mr Thomson I believe, it’s so good to meet you’. ‘That’s not going to help you, fatso’, I said.”
Forty-three years on, England’s uncertain top order could do with some of Cowdrey’s sang froid. More specifically they could also do worse than reflect on the contents of Some Tips From The
Master, a summary of a talk given by Lord Cowdrey to the Middlesex Association of Cricket Coaches.
For, whatever your views on modern coaching, his words carry as much weight and resonance now as they ever did. To many, the preamble will ring a bell straight away:
“One can be a bore about technique, overdo it; but today’s player is not really giving the attention to detail that will serve him best.” Cowdrey lists ten headings – here are the edited highlights:
1. Keep It Simple
It’s a complex art; and the best players and coaches are those who succeed in reducing its problems to the simplest terms.
2. Stance – The Wrestler
Once I was partnering Brian Huggett (Welsh Ryder Cup hero of the Sixties and Seventies) in a golf foursome and had nervously shaped for a four-yard-chip when he suddenly shouted: “Walk away, walk away!”, then, coming up to me, said: “Now go back and play it quite quickly, and whatever you do, bend your knees!”. Later he explained: “Once you bend your knees, you soften your hands.” He was absolutely right, and it’s true of batting; so much of the art of batting lies in ‘feel’, and in ‘soft hands’. As soon as you tighten your legs and knees everything else gets tight.”
3. Grip – Top hand tight but adjustable; bottom hand – finger touch
I wish I had been told, as a 12-year-old, to relax that bottom hand – only when I got into my early Test matches that I saw the great players and learnt from them.
4. The Cradle – Forearms & Elbows, for ‘feel’
How many left elbows are ‘working’ today? That’s what I look for; I was taught from the age of six or seven to make that left elbow work... make it go through.
5. Head Still – The Key To Mastery
Perhaps the least emphasised ... and so obviously essential! Whether you want to read a paper, or are a look-out for danger, you need to keep your head absolutely still and as erect as possible; so too in batting, or you won’t see the ball or time it properly.
6. Defence – Forward & Back – Along the Pitch
So many players play across themselves; you lose where the stumps are, not quite certain if it’s safe to leave the ball. Contrast Barry Richards who stood still in front of his middle stump, playing straight forward or back. I certainly envied him.
7. Outside half of the ball
When the ball’s leaving you and you’ve got to play it with no time to adjust, play at the outside half of the ball. I learnt it from (Len) Hutton, who learnt it from (Herbert) Strudwick.. and so on.
8. Start Of The Innings
The first two balls are desperate times. Talk to yourself. Freeze out the opposition. DON’T GET INVOLVED! Simply look for the ball and survive! For the first two balls I recommend no back-lift at all.Wally Hammond used to grab his bat and shove his bottom hand right down the handle for the first two or three.
He told me:“Every new background takes about an over to pick up. Give your eyes a chance to focus.” Don’t be tempted/annoyed/excited into playing some ambitious shot. Or you’ll be regretting it for the next two hours in the pavilion.
9. Carve Out The Single
Next, having survived, no need to feel desperate or take risks. Better a series of singles than a flashy drive that gets you out. Remember; the longer you’re there the easier the game will get.
10 Bat in Pairs
The greatest fun I’ve had out of cricket has come from the mutual trust and achievement of batting partnerships.You can and must help each other. One may say: “I don’t fancy this bowler – can you take him for a bit?” and the other may reply: “If you place one a bit wide of midon, I’ll be looking for the single for you – he doesn’t throw too well...” You’re not alone out there.
There will be some who detect a certain Pathe News quaintness in all this, especially when you read elsewhere of Cowdrey’s idea of Aussie sledging: “Up a bit! This fellow can’t play on his leg stump,” somewhat removed from “get ready for a broken f***ing arm”.
Others will consider these technical niceties hopelessly out of date.
But whoever you are and however much you think you know about batting, I would suggest you ignore tips from The Master, and from Hutton, Strudwick, Hammond and even Huggett at your peril.
And that will certainly apply to some members of England’s Ashes top five this winter.
One can be a bore about technique, overdo it, but today’s player is not really giving the attention to detail that will serve him best
Master of art: Colin Cowdrey was regarded by many as England’s most proficient at the arts and crafts of batmanship
Perfect start: Joe Root led England to a series victory over West Indies