Stress on fitness: at what cost?

WHENEVER I see a new coach take over a state or international team with a large ensemble of staff I start to worry.

I became even more concerned when, as the West Indians arrived in Australia, all the talk and hype coming out of their camp was how fit they were and how this extra fitness had made the pace bowlers faster, stronger and more aggressive.

I became near paranoid when I saw, during the first lunch break of the first Test, the physical trainer take the non-playing members out onto the oval in front of a large crowd and put them through a very testing fitness routine.

Why my concern? I have seen this all too often when coaches think that all they have to do is make their charges fitter to achieve better results.

Fitness is certainly a component in preparing a team, but on its own it will not ensure success if the skills and the mental preparation is also not attended to.

The first time I really saw this new wave of fitness fanatics was towards the end of the 1960s and early seventies. Prior to that cricketers underwent a pre-season physical conditioning programme for fitness and then built up their strength and skills with cricket related training.

We had the odd physical fitness fanatic in the early sixties, such as Frank Mission. He was the first cricketer I ever saw to run laps around the oval at the end of a hot day. I suppose they would describe this today as warming down when the fielding team stays on the field to complete a reasonably long period of stretching exercises.

By the late sixties and early seventies, just about every state team in Australia had a physical education teacher as coach. That was the time when the last of the great Benaud period had just about gone and Australia were struggling to keep up with the stronger nations.

Extra fitness seemed to be the answer of the officials who controlled cricket in those days and calisthenics seemed to take up more time at training than the good old nets.

I thought Norman O'Neill, the great Australian batsman of the sixties, summed it up best when watching practice one afternoon. Seeing the state team players piggybacking team-mates up the steep hill behind the nets on the Sydney Cricket Ground No. 2, he sighed: "I wonder whether that is helping their cover drive."

A point well taken and one Bennett King, the coach of the West Indies team, could well note.

The sadness of all the pre-publicity and hype before the first Test was exposed early when cracks appeared midway through the first day. By the second day, the West Indies' hopes were shattered.

On a helpful early morning first day pitch, the new, much vaunted West Indian pace attack had a great chance of seizing the initiative. The bowlers, however, lacked pace, aggression and skills and it wasn't until medium pacer Collymore was introduced that the uncertainty in the Australian team, which England exposed and exploited brilliantly, became evident again.

Unfortunately, apart from Collymore the West Indies attack didn't have the patience, accuracy or skills to take advantage of the opportunity.

It was pretty much the same with the West Indies batting. While the team's line-up is studded with some naturally gifted stroke-makers, few of them in the two innings showed the temperament to put their heads down and fight the good fight for their team.

Fitness in this sport, which is very demanding physically and mentally, is obviously a priority, but it is of little use if the batsman does not have the technique or patience to play a long innings and the bowler lacks the accuracy and skill to put the ball in the right spot for however long the innings lasts.

Rebuilding a team is a long, frustrating and difficult task. And when the players come from such diverse backgrounds and countries as in the West Indies, it is even more arduous.

The key element is to forget the hype and be realistic about the players and try to mould them into a solid team. The coaches must be the voice of reality. They should at all times offer encouragement, but ensure that the player knows exactly where he stands and what they are both working for.

After their great success the West Indies public and the youngsters thought that their natural gifts and being born a man of the Caribbean was enough to guarantee success. As Michael Holding has suggested on many occasions, they have an attitude problem. I concur with him as I experienced this as a consultant to the Jamaican Cricket Association for a few years. Many of the younger players were so full of themselves that they thought they only had to turn up to be champions.

They were poor workers in the nets and I seldom saw a batsman not get out twice or thrice in his allotted 15 or 20 minutes. They weren't interested in grafting an innings or playing defensively and were forever looking for the big shots in the air.

They certainly followed the adage that there is more space in the air and didn't even understand, or want to understand that they ran a great risk of getting out this way. Picking up the singles or running between wickets was something they did only when the ball didn't go for four, or even better, six.

The bowlers followed a similar line. All the new ball bowlers said "pace like fire", without appreciating that you also had to work hard to obtain the necessary accuracy and skills to take advantage of your God given gift to bowl quick.

Line, length and swing was only something the old timers displayed and didn't seem to have much credence with the Jamaican youngsters I saw in my first three years in Kingston. A great pity this, for some of them had great natural gifts. A few of them, who are in Australia at present, could have been so much better if they had the aptitude to work hard and learn.

So concerned was I and many of the past Jamaican players and current officials that on may last visit there, we decided to focus on the under-15 and -17 youngsters.

What a revelation this was and particularly in the country areas. The skills, attitude and desire to learn were outstanding. We took the best of them to a ten-day camp in Kingston and their keenness, temperament and desire to get better was a refreshing change from my early visits.

There is no doubt that there are still a lot of naturally gifted players in the Caribbean. Most of them, however, haven't appreciated that the great West Indians of the past didn't just expect success to come easily to them, but left the Caribbean and honed their skills in county cricket. They were welcomed in this scheme with open arms for they wanted to learn, work hard and perform great service to their country.

Unfortunately, due to the poor attitude of too many young West Indian players who view English cricket as a gravy train, they are not as welcome as they once were.