"A frenzy to the ball"

SPORTING teams are occasionally accompanied by the oddest of entourages.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

With the advent of American baseball coach Mike Young, the Australian cricket team has adopted new fielding drills. — Pic. REUTERS-

SPORTING teams are occasionally accompanied by the oddest of entourages. African soccer squads are known to travel with witch doctors, who undertake bizarre rituals involving bones and black magic before games, which no doubt do no good for the referee's sense of security. The South African cricket team's entourage once included a podiatrist, though some might claim their problems scarcely lie with the feet but at the other end of the body.

English soccer coach Glenn Hoddle had a faith healer Eileen Drury on hand, and considering the state of English soccer this was not altogether an absurd choice. One of Carl Lewis' mentors was Sri Chinmoy, in his words an "Indian spiritual teacher", who gave him the name Sudhahota. Lewis writes in his book that this translated as "unparalleled sacrificer of immortality". Whatever that means.

To that list comes another seemingly bizarre addition. Those following the Australian cricket team at the recent World Cup may have done a double-take at the sound of fielding drills being issued in an American twang. Now then, what's a baseball coach from Chicago, nursed on Babe Ruth and grown up on Joe Di Maggio, talking turkey with Ponting and his boys?

What Mike Young is, of course, doing is bringing a fresh mindset and a unique perspective to fielding and throwing, and giving the Australians, who are already a planet away in skills from the rest of the world, an extra edge.

Having worked with three major league baseball teams in America but also having assisted John Buchanan when he was Queensland coach, Young views fielding with baseball eyes but a cricketing mind. Or let's just say, the old way is not the Young way. For him, fielding is not just fielding as you know it. It's about "dee-fence."

The 30-yard circle and the outfield is unfashionable jargon; for him, cricket's field is best explained as an inner perimeter and an outer perimeter. And defending those perimeters is the name of his game. And when the Australians do it well, he says, "we save 20-25 runs per game." Check the scoreboards to see how many times Australia might have won matches by that margin and you get a sense of its worth.

There is an inherent simplicity to some of Young's ideas; they are not some Einstein-inspired brainwave but the mere application of common sense. Some of it may work better than others, but essentially it suggests a thinking man and a thinking team.

He is unmoved by the idea of a singular fielder responding to a shot, while the rest play statue. "We don't have only one guy go after the ball, we often have two guys (or more). We believe every ball hit, you have to be moving. If there's the slightest chance, for instance, of throwing at the stumps there's no hesitation because there is someone there to back up the play."

That hardly seems stupefyingly imaginative, but it is further explanation of what he calls "a frenzy to the ball" that is interesting. If a batsman hits the ball into a gap, he says, a run is often taken for granted. Often this is because only one fielder tracks it down, whereby the batsman is able to judge more or less whether the fielder will get there in time.

If, however, four fielders swoop down on the ball, then this "frenzy" of activity, he says, can create doubt. The constant movement means the batsman must now be cognisant of more players, and their differing foot speeds, and when you bring the possible hesitation of the non-striker into the equation, it creates more indecision.

Young, who wonders why there are extensive manuals on batting and bowling but almost nothing on fielding, is in a way a walking handbook in progress. He is experimenting, studying, constantly honing one method and possibly discarding another.

His tutoring and drills extend to how much area a fielder should cover, the range he runs, his foot speed, his arm strength and arm accuracy, and an awareness of his limitations. For instance, his idea of support play involves two players chasing a ball that is headed for the boundary: since the fielder who slides to pick it up will delay in finding his feet and arranging his body to throw, he merely flips it to the second fielder who throws it in. But, he explains, the players have to instinctively decide that the faster one will chase, and flip it to the player who has the better throw.

When it comes to throwing technique, Young — who teaches a quick release of the ball, does drills on hand speed and angles and balance — is adamant: change is not the issue, refinement is. Senior players are often more or less finished products, and to alter technique completely is to flirt with injury, something he is wary of. The solution is to take the existing technique and make it as efficient as he can.

As bewildered as Young is that fielders will approach the ball in a half-circle when running to it in a straight line is faster, he is puzzled why fielders will throw the ball back in an arc when a flat throw is more efficient. Quite simply, he says, a flat throw (and he does not necessarily mean a harder throw) is in the air less and so it is quicker to arrive at its destination.

A flat throw also creates a fraction more doubt in the batsman's mind, for when the ball is high in the air he is usually able to more easily gauge if he has enough time. Furthermore, says Young, if the most efficient throwing technique is the arm extended straight in front of the body, then that is not achieved in the high, arcing throw.

Young has a last convincing argument why fielders should throw in flat every time. Say, for instance, that the ball goes 15 times to a fielder at fine leg, who returns the ball every time to the wicketkeeper in a high arcing throw; what happens then on the next occasion when the ball comes to him and he has a chance for a run-out. Will he be able to power in a strong, accurate flat throw when he isn't practising it every time?

Some might think Young is stating the obvious, but a casual look at one-day teams is testimony that fielding is still a nascent art. Just one more small bit of a cricketing jigsaw that needs some refinement.

When we finished our chat on the phone, I had one last question for Young. What was the Australian team's response to his ideas?

"Phenomenal", he said. So they were interested?

"Interested is no big deal. This is about them wanting to be better."

In short, you don't get to be world champions without focussing on the smallest detail.