Monday, January 17, 2011

The Art of Footwork

by Balanced Sports columnist Ben Roberts

The poor performance of the Australian batsmen during the Ashes series hopefully will be discussed and debated at len
gth by coaches and players. Let me take an opportunity to put forward an opinion on where I believe the primary issue lies, poor footwork. Phillip Hughes and to a lesser extent Steve Smith have borne the brunt of criticism on this topic, but save for Michael Hussey, all of the Australians showed clear weakness in this area. Contrasting this with the English batsmen who dominated the summer should indicate the extent of the concern. Why is it that the English were so more accomplished than the Australians?

Let me begin by looking at the two main reasons for needing footwork while batting. Firstly, it assists the batsman’s balance and places their head into the optimal position to play the ball. To a delivery pitched up, coming forward brings the batsmen’s head into line as best is possible to watch the ball; by being nearer to the pitch of the ball the batsmen is in a better position to cover any movement, swing or seam. To shorter pitched delivery’s, where you cannot get to the pitch, footwork backward again steady’s the head for watching the ball and by moving right back the batsman has given themselves more time to adjust their shot as necessary.

Secondly, footwork carries the batsman’s body and develops power in the shots. Batting is a full body task, not just one for the arms. This is consistent with other sports where an instrument must be swung. Both Golf and Tennis coaching recognises that the power in shots does not come solely from the arms and shoulders, but via the transferral of weight. Transferral of weight requires good footwork for it to be done efficiently.

Armed with this brief knowledge of footwork let me attempt to assess the causes for Australia’s recent poor display of it.

Without wanting to claim anything but fortune in the occurrences, my recent ‘Pitching It Up’ series was timed very well. For the first time in at least 10 years the Australian pitches had character and gave movement off the seam. In addition Australia has also had thus far its most unique summer weather in a long time. This has created humid atmospheric conditions far more conducive to moving the ball through the air than the dry searing heat that modern Australia is more accustomed to.

Australia has a generation of batsmen who have grown up in benign batting conditions. In some respects ground staff have been at the mercy of the weather, but I have no doubt that the desire for matches to last longer has led administrators to request more batsman friendly conditions. Batsmen have developed great faith in the ball not moving and can swing through the line (driving ‘on the up’) with little risk. Back foot play has almost become a forgotten art, as average cricketers at most stay on the crease, if not pull and cut from the front foot. 20 years ago such flamboyant batting was the sole domain of the batsmen who was well established at the crease, and arguably the second greatest ever Viv Richards.

By contrast English conditions are extremely different to Australia. While an English pitch may be prepared flat, there is no ability to control the atmosphere and prevent swing. Therefore the English batsmen had a good grounding in difficult conditions, and were more conservative and respectful in their stroke play. Do note that conservative and respectful clearly doesn’t mean slow, as 3.5 to 4 runs an over attests.

I was fortunate to arrive home from work the other day early enough to watch the final over’s of the England women’s team chasing Australia’s total at Adelaide in a T20 match. Firstly can I applaud the administrators/broadcasters responsible for making this happen as the cricket played was high class and worthy of broadcast, may it be a more regular feature on television. While watching the English bat, I very much enjoyed noting the great techniques, and of course footwork, of the players, (I will happily admit that the enjoyment of footwork makes me an abject cricket nerd!).

The second purpose of footwork that I noted above is the development of power in stroke play. Physiologically, it is not an unreasonable generalisation to say that male cricketers, for the most part, will be stronger than their female counterparts. Given lesser physical strength, footwork for the women is paramount for striking the ball with power. Contrast this with some of the Australian men, who through physical conditioning work have developed upper body strength that means they escape the need for footwork to develop power.

While you cannot complain about players making sacrifices to be in peak physical condition, the need for ultra-strength isn’t there and potentially has harmed some techniques. Bradman, Harvey, Border, and Ponting are listed in the greats of Australian batsman but did not develop power through being larger men, all were below 5’8” and slender in build. Even Greg Chappell, another great, was tall but still a thinner build. Compare this to Shane Watson, Brad Haddin and a number of recent Australian cricketers who have physique’s closer to Rugby players than traditional cricketers.

The answer as to why Australian batsmen have completely lost the art of footwork is probably to be discussed individually with each batsman. My general feeling is that the recent benign conditions have played more of a role than too much focus on physical development, but it has played its part also. Short of locating the local Arthur Murray dance studio for each of the contracted cricketers, footwork must become a priority for Australian first-class cricketers.

An increase in the number of Australian players turning out for seasons in English cricket is needed, and not just for highly remunerated T20 stints. This is even just playing for League sides in the absence of a county contract. Give our batsmen an experience of playing in unfavourable conditions. The coaching and training staff have to also look at the purpose and amount of physical conditioning work, and recognise that cricketing skill is the priority over fitness in training.

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