A game made difficult by coaches

CRICKET (or golf, tennis, baseball, mahjong, snakes & ladders) is a simple game made difficult by coaches.

We've all heard that one often enough and I have even heard coaches arguing which is the most difficult game because that seems to lend it a certain mystique.

I'm also sure some games are more difficult than others and I'm also sure some games are made more difficult than they need be.

However, I cannot honestly say I regard cricket as a simple game to play well. I think that is basically because of the time factor involved.

Cricket shares obvious basics with games like baseball or tennis. But it stands alone in terms of the time a match takes and within that match, the time a player has to dwell on the next move.

The cricketer has time to think - and that does not make the game easier to play. Concentration is not easy to sustain over a six hour day at the crease or in the field.

In fact, it is well-nigh impossible and the ability to distil concentration into the moments it really matters is vital.

That is a skill which can be learned and it is part of a coach's job to look at the mind games as much as the technicalities involved.

The ability to relax between the deliveries, for instance, has always been associated with effective slips fieldsmen, but it applies as much to batsmen and even to bowlers.

There are techniques which help, but they have to be worked on and practised hard if they are to become second nature.

The higher the standard, the more skills are needed and it is one of the ironies of top level sport that people are deceived by how easy they look.

Nobody should assume that cricket is an easy game to play simply because a Test cricketer makes excellence look common place.

That is why I have always had the greatest respect for players who are not blessed with huge talent, but who achieve great standards by their ability to work intelligently hard.

No decent coach wants to undermine the naturalness of players or stifle genuine flair, but neither should he accept the superficial as evidence of talent.

How often do we see players with a pleasing style given preference over players who turn in the performance, but who don't look nearly as polished.

It happens a lot more than it should.

In fact, a flowing style can often disguise a multitude of basic problems which will eventually be exposed.

That's why the game's history is studded with truly elegant players rather than dominated by them.

Such stylists achieve huge public affection, of course, and cricket being a writer's game, becomes lionised in purple prose. However they are the exception rather than the rule.

The modern game has not enjoyed many Greg Chappell's but it has produced effective players - David Boon, Geoff Marsh and Steve Waugh for instance.

You couldn't in all conscience describe them as elegant, even though they have had their moments and played elegant shots.

Other infinitely more elegant batsmen have proved much less productive at the top level. But, boy don't selectors just love to pick them.

Max Walker, Australia's excellent medium pacer of the 70's, was perhaps the most unnaturally gifted bowler of all time.

His run up and delivery had all the appeal of a runway Tarantula.

Max himself once described it as "right arm over left earhole". He bowled chest on, crossed his legs in delivery and bowled off the wrong foot. Just about everything was wrong in text-book terms.

No one could have imagined a bowler of his style - if that is what it was - had any future in the game. But he became a wonderful Test bowler. Basically, I think, this was because he was an intelligent cricketer who looked around him and realised that in what was clearly an era of genuinely fast bowlers, there was an opening for somebody who could swing the ball.

Once he set out his stall to do that and do it well, his extraordinary style worked in favour.

A Test match at the Sydney Cricket Ground in January 1973, will probably be remembered as Max's finest hour.

Pakistan needed only 159 to win, which seemed a formality, so much so that I went into town on business instead of going to the game. Mid afternoon I bumped into Ian Chappell, the Australian captain, who obviously had half a day off. "Got them pretty quickly, did they" I asked. "No" the skipper replied. "We bloody well won. Maxie Walker bowled us to victory".

It was an amazing feat, Max and Dennis Lillee bowled unchanged that day with Max taking a remarkable six for 15, including a spell of five wickets for three runs off 30 deliveries. It was all over in 138 minutes.

Lillee, incidentally, bowled despite a painful back, a typical example of what a fine competitor he was. Max didn't always get a swag of wickets or a lot of publicity. But he was very dangerous once he got a hint.

When the ball was swinging, he could be unplayable; and the lads hated facing him in the nets. Once he had the old inswinger going, they would stand there black and blue, having been hit repeatedly on the thigh, while big Max grinned, nodded and did his best to hit them again.

He was a thinking bowler who made use of every advantage he had. He used his head, planned his strategy and produced a very effective weapon out of one of the clumsiest bowling styles Test cricket has ever seen.

Max Walker was a model in his own way.

Max's equivalent in the Australian team of the 1960s was Neil Hawke, another player who performed miracles with a bowling action which, quite frankly would not have qualified him for first grade club cricket on pure artistic merit.

If anything his style was even less appealing than Max's. He had an ungainly looking approach, a chest on action and his left arm wafted high in the air.

Yet, Neil could swing the ball both ways more consistently than any Test bowler I've seen.

He was the only quick bowler you would consistently back to go around the wicket and get lbw decisions with inswingers to right-handed batsmen.

Neil was a gifted athlete and sportsman, but a very self-made cricketer, his action should not have allowed him to bowl outswingers, yet he did it expertly.

The key, once again was that he thought about his bowling a lot more than a purely natural player might be inclined to do.

Neil was a very intelligent bloke and a great thinker about the game. He was one of the first I am aware of who experimented with different and varied grips to bowl slower balls.

In this modern era where "experts" want to compare cricketers like Walker and Hawke and indeed wrong foot quickie Mike Proctor and the ungainly Merv Hughes, who wouldn't have passed the rigid theories of the biomechanics and attempts would have been made to change their action to conform with modern theories.

What a pity that would have been because their individual styles were a inspiration to all who dared to be different.