Making practice meaningful

We are practising better. We are treating every practice like a match and whether bowling or batting, we are trying to win the contest. — Ricky Ponting

DURING the first day coverage of the third and final Test between Pakistan and England I did a double take on the bowling actions of Shoaib Akhtar and Shoaib Malik. The next day I noticed in the papers that Shabbir Ahmed and Shoaib Malik had been reported for suspected illegal actions in the first Test.

From what I saw in Lahore, Shoaib Malik's and Shoaib Akhtar's actions looked as though their bowling arm was bent more than the legal limit of 15 degrees. The decision to allow a 15-degree bend has only complicated the problem of chucking in cricket. If nothing is done to amend the 15-degree bend law, we could expect to see a proliferation of bent arm bowlers in the future. It is a simple conclusion, for an arm that bends and then straightens at the point of delivery gives the bowler a huge advantage over a straight-arm legal bowler, whether he is a spinner or a fast bowler.

In the case of a spinner, the bent arm allows the bowler to impart more spin on the ball and thus get more turn, drop and bounce than a bowler with legal action. In the case of a fast bowler, the bent arm allows him to gain much more pace with less energy. In addition, he can disguise his pace better, whether it is a slower delivery or a yard quicker than normal, simply by changing the pace of the straightening of his elbow. As there is so little change in the action it is difficult to pick the variation in pace.

England's epidemic of batsmen getting out trying to sweep was a disaster waiting to happen. Four of the first eight batsmen were out on the first day in Lahore playing the sweep shot. I am forever amazed just how gullible coaches can be when they latch on to in-fashion methods, which may not be the best way to go. Fashion, fad and theories seem to be in vogue today and sweeping against spin bowlers is the height of fashion in the eyes of some coaches.

Bob Woolmer was obsessed with the sweep shot when coaching South Africa and thought it was the only way to go, particularly against the leg spinners. It was sweep, sweep, sweep against Shane Warne and it appeared this was the only attacking shot the South Africa batsmen thought fit to play. Warne revelled against them. He ranks South Africa his favourite team to bowl against and why shouldn't he, for his record is outstanding against them.

There is definitely a place for the sweep shot against spinners, but only when the ball is pitched outside the leg stump. In addition, the batsmen should also ensure that if he misses, his pads come in as the second line of defence. To try and sweep balls outside the off stump is courting disaster, particularly if it is spinning away from the batsman.

England's coach, Zimbabwean Duncan Fletcher is also enamoured with the sweep shot. And interestingly, England and Zimbabwe are just about the worst players against leg spinners in the world. I wonder what is the record for the greatest number of batsmen out sweeping. England, then, must be in contention for this record.

I wonder whether someone will whisper in Duncan Fletcher's ears before England come here next year that the Australian wickets, which offer high bounce, make sweeping a precise art. If they keep playing the sweep shot indiscriminately, Warne will have a bonanza.

The Australian captain Ricky Ponting made an interesting comment before the last Test against the West Indies. When asked why Australia was playing better this season than against England, he declared: "We are practising better." He went on: "We are treating every practice like a match and whether bowling or batting, we are trying to win the contest."

My whole philosophy when coaching Australia (many of the players I coached are still around) was: the bowlers should concentrate on trying to get the batsmen out and the batsmen should focus on not losing their wickets in practice sessions. In other words, practise getting runs and taking wickets.

We always tried to simulate match conditions and have tough practice sessions to utilise the available time in a meaningful way. The bowlers were expected to test the batsmen at all times and they bowled long spells. Not many practice bowlers were used unless they were of the highest quality capable of testing the batsmen. These days, however, the bowlers seem to bowl at the nets for a shorter time. Besides, most of the bowling at the nets is done by lower grade cricketers who would be easy fodder for the Test batsmen. While it might be gratifying to bludgeon these youngsters, it is not a stern enough test that would prepare the batsmen to take on the best bowlers in the world.

This laidback attitude to practice, I am sure, accounted for Australia's poor performance in the Ashes. When coach John Buchanan was asked nearly a year ago when Australia were in New Zealand for a series as to why his players weren't practising fielding a lot, he replied, "We have so many important things to do, we haven't had the time."

There is always time for fielding and with this kind of attitude it is little wonder that the Aussies struggled a lot in England.

When you look back at situations like these, you look for two things: the age of the team and who is in charge. Unfortunately, it seems the natural thing for teams to cut a few corners and perhaps take it a little easy as they grow older. When you are winning as easily as the Australians did, near enough seems good enough.

Unfortunately, not working hard enough at practice can be very insidious and laziness means errors. I have little doubt that these factors were behind Australia's lack of form in England. It doesn't happen overnight and I was aware for some years that the intensity had dropped as the players got older and victories came easily. Who is to blame?

These days captains have more say in the running of the team so they must accept some of the blame. John Buchanan, who should be in charge of how and when the team should practise, must also look carefully at his role.

Australia have come back well after the disaster in England, but their real test will come in the series against South Africa, both at home and away. Those six Tests rather than the hollow victory against the West Indies will point to the direction Australia are headed for.