Preseason is progressing well at West. The three times a week sessions have proven popular and the senior squad numbers 20, averaging over 1000 balls each since February nets began.
I've been proud of the commitment the guys have shown because it's hard for club players to find the time to practice. I feel my role has been to put on as many sessions as possible, follow up with everyone and making sure they get good, focused practice when they get along. So I have got creative.
I learned last year that some old habits are harder to break than others, so I have taken a softer approach this time, looking to gradually learn how each player responds to my nudging towards self-reliance.
We have been restricted to our indoor school because of light and weather. With two small lanes, nets are the only option. While this means we can run multiple group and one to one sessions every week, it also provides a constraint. So, rather than do "PONP" (Plain Old Net Practice) I have tried to spice up sessions in a number of ways. Here's what I have done.
Adding focus and pressure to nets
It's easy to turn up, have your go in nets and go home, having not improved. I wanted to make sure people had a better focus and felt like they were actually competing.
Last year I did this by asking players what they wanted to work on. This lead to mixed results so this year I generalised it with what we call "the runs game".
In this game we have a normal net with several bowlers and a batsman. The runs part is that batsman "keep score" by saying how many runs they think they got each ball. Clearly this is impossible, but you do get a rough idea based on the field set, the match scenario and how well you struck the ball.
These runs, along with any wickets - including self-confessed catches in the outfield - are recorded on PitchVision. We then keep a running set of "net averages" recording balls faced, runs scored, average, strike rate and scoring ball percentage.
The benefits of this simple tweak are huge: balls matter more to the batsman, they try and play as they would in a game instead of playing "smash everything" net cricket, there is a competitive element of having a league table and I get data on players strong and weak areas.
Its also great to see the bowlers celebrating wickets like it really matters! Often the energy in the sessions is super high and intense because the competitive juices are flowing.
We simplified the system to stop too much discussion over runs by making the batsman decide everything with no comeback from the bowler. The batsman also could only score a single or four. This stopped worry about whether it was a two or a three or if that hit over the top was a four or six. My theory is the extra ones and fours batsmen natural assume they get make up for the lack of these runs.
As the runs game is decided by the batsmen - and frankly some are easier on themselves than others - it wouldn't be fair to keep bowling averages too. So instead I monitor pace and accuracy of the bowlers with PitchVision. There is also a case of keeping track of wickets but I have not done it so far (although it's trivial with the PV data analysis we have). Again, bowlers look to compete with each other over who is most accurate and fastest. Again, I get to analyse the data for strengths and weaknesses.
But the real strength of the runs game is everyone plays it all the time. Often, accidentally playing it when they are not in the PitchVision net! That's so much better than last season's bad habit of letting games drift into having a hit. Not bad for a silly, imperfect game huh?
Creative ways as to make indoor nets feel outdoors
With a good focus on building tactical skills under pressure, my next challenge was to make the sessions feel more like outdoors. With a concrete surface, very cold weather, artificial lights and short run ups for bowlers, this is a big challenge!
That said, I also challenged our assumptions about the way the conditions are different. We all assume that there is much more bounce inside, especially compared to early season wickets. However, when I compared the data from PitchVision, I saw only a 10cm difference in bounce! Admittedly the ball "skids" more than it "stops" indoors, and the light and temperatures are different, but it's not as crazy as we all assume.
Nevertheless, the closer the better. Here's what we tried:
- Always bowling and batting to a given scenario, rather than working on technical elements and getting nowhere.
- Adding a "game in a game" by playing the runs game while also giving batsmen 10 points that they can lose with certain mistakes such as play and miss or hit on the pads. It racks up the pressure as your score drops because when you are at zero, you are out.
- Bowling with the Sidearm to recreate the same pace as outdoors, while also allowing the batsman to see the ball being bowled (something you can't do with the bowling machine). I can bowl up to 80mph with it (although the average is 64mph, still decent 1st XI seamer pace).
- Using the bowling machine at higher speed to overload players reactions. Some of the better batsmen were facing 85mph for some drills. Against the machine, this feels much faster.
- Piling the mats on top of each other to deaden the bounce. This worked brilliantly and made the skiddy bounce become "tennis ball" bounce, just like outside.
This last hack worked so well, I am itching to intergrate the idea further with more mats permenantly piled up in both nets.
Despite all this, there is still nothing like getting outdoors. Even if it's just to bowl and field until we can get a practice wicket ready. So, I have been pushing the excellent groundsman to get something as soon as he can. I think he was a little surprised I'm asking for a wicket in March, but if weather allows what is stopping us? It's all about being creative and challenging dogma and getting the heck on with it!