“What’s going on?” I asked the receptionist at the entrance to Malvern College’s splendidly equipped Sports Complex, “The car park’s full and there aren’t any spaces.” I could not believe that so many inhabitants of Malvern – an elderly population, it has to be said (it must be the water) – would be hard at their exercise regime this early in the morning. It was nine o’clock.
“The cricketers are in,” she replied.
Ah yes, the cricketers. The Worcestershire county cricketers they would be. During the winter months, they train and practise in the large hall and often I stop to watch them hard at work, delaying my daily fraternisation with the exercise suite for a few more blessed minutes.
My interest goes beyond a simple curiosity at observing two dozen or so fit young men disporting themselves in a variety of physical activities. Once upon a time I was one of them – I played professional cricket for Hampshire in the 1970s – but at no stage could I recognise anything remotely resembling what we used to do pre-season. There was no sports hall in Northlands Road in Southampton where Hampshire used to play. There was not even anything that resembled a gymnasium. There was the indoor school but whenever my fellow former players get together at reunions and the ‘indoor school’ is mentioned, you can bet your bottom dollar it will be accompanied by howls of cynical laughter. All right, it was indoors but that was about all that could be said for it. A long shed would be a more accurate description, a bit like a train shed. The changing facilities were basic, the lighting gloomy, the ceiling oppressively low and the acoustics ear shattering. Run-ups were restricted to 7 yards. One joker marked out his run, which took him out of the door and into the car park and came thundering back in, scattering bystanders aside, to deliver a ball, catching the unwary batsman totally by surprise. The mat stretched only halfway up the pitch, with the uncomfortable possibility that a short ball would catch the edge and rear up at your head (no helmets in those day, don’t forget). That’s if you could see it. In the Stygian gloom, there was no certainty you would. When the weather was inclement and the nets unfit for practice and our coach would announce, “Right, chaps, it’s the indoor school today,” we would groan. A trip to Hades held more allure.
I wonder if those guys down there realise how lucky they are, I thought to myself as yet another energetic drill swung into action. Not only because they are in the full flush of youth and have their careers, and their lives, in front of them, unlike this nostalgic 70 year old, observing from above. But also because they have all that coaching, all that technology, all that sport science, all those state of the art facilities at their disposal. They weren’t practising in a train shed.
A trap which former players frequently fall into is doggedly believing that ‘fings ain’t wot they used to be’, that it was a better game ‘in our day’. Very much in a counterbalancing spirit of open-mindedness, I resolved to discover how different – not necessarily better or worse – pre-season training is today from earlier eras, in my case the 1970s. Who better to ask than one of the current players? Joe Leach, the Worcestershire captain, was kind enough to sit down with me and talk openly and freely about his club’s training regime. He reminded me very much of Mike Taylor, my former team-mate and landlord. He had the same strong, stocky physique, with not much hair atop, though the close-cropped style was a much better look than the Bobby Charlton comb-over. He has a bustling action, bowling his seamers at a lively pace and scores more than useful runs in the middle order, as did Mike, though I suspect Joe is a more agile fielder.
“We are all under contract to our clubs 12 months of the year,” was his opening delivery. Now, that is a difference. We were contracted solely for the 6 months of the cricket season; on September 30th, our responsibilities ceased and we all had to shift for ourselves. Many went abroad on coaching and playing assignments; the rest found part-time employment where they could. I was lucky. I had a degree in English and I was always going to teach once my cricket career had finished. So when a coaching job in South Africa fell through after a couple of years, I secured a teaching post for two terms out of three. I believed I was well off! “Therefore the club has complete control over our professional lives,” Joe continued, answering my unasked question. “Fewer of us go abroad as did in your day – there aren’t the openings available as in the past – but whatever we do is always at the bidding of the coaches.” How many coaches were there, I wanted to know. He gave that a little thought. “Four full time, with contact from, say, two or three others on an ad hoc basis.” Phew! That took me aback. We had one, and he wasn’t really a coach at all, not in the modern sense. The captain took total charge of the first eleven and a retired senior pro – it was no more than a sinecure really – took charge of the second team. There was little or no coaching done per se; we had to work it out for ourselves.
When did pre-season training actually start was my next question. “We’re given a month or so off after the end of the season,” Joe replied, “and we start back somewhere around 5th November.” I laughed. “April 1st was our starting gun – April Fool’s Day, an irony that passed none of us by.” I wondered what balance was struck between physical fitness and cricket skills – how much time was spent in the gym and how much with ball in hand. “I’d say it is about 50/50 these days. Before, we would spend more time on our fitness before Christmas and more time practising with a ball after Christmas but it is more evenly balanced now, to stop us getting stale.” Staleness? Did they ever get bored? I mean, turning up for indoor nets at 9.00am on a bleak midwinter’s morning would not have been my idea of fun. Joe shook his head. “Not at all. The coaches control everything and devise strategies and drills to make it all fun as well as useful.” He then pondered out loud the different approaches to practice down the eras. “Of course there were excellent players with great skills in years gone by, just as there are now. The difference, I believe, is that greater fitness allows us to perform those skills for longer.” Greater stamina, in other words. 20 overs in the day at full pelt, spread perhaps over three spells. “Just as effective at the end of the day, just as aggressive and lively as you were in those opening overs.” Not true of Vernon Philander, I thought, who notoriously blew harder in his second and third spells than his first, but I took the point. “The bar is continually been raised,” he went on, “We are challenged every day to be better players.”
“When do you leave the protection of a roof overhead and venture outdoors?” His reply made me smile; I had forgotten all about modern day preparation. “Towards the end of March, we go to Abu Dhabi.” “What for – team bonding on the beach and in the hotel pool?” A frivolous observation: he was more keen to extol the visit for what it is, outdoor practice in balmy weather with excellent facilities. “Fantastic!” he enthused, “Not unlike English conditions early on and then when the sun gets higher, it becomes more like midsummer. By that time anyway, we’re all champing at the bit to get outside.” Not on a typical early April day in England, I assured him. The overseas players had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, out of the warm fug of the dressing room into the bitter chill of a Spring that had barely sprung.
And that was it. With a cheery farewell and a promise to give my nephew, Tim, a bouncer when Worcestershire play Middlesex early next season, Joe was gone, having left me with a distinct impression that his club’s fortunes are in excellent hands. The general bonhomie and level-headedness of your average Joe, sorry, Joe, I meant your average county player do not significantly change down the years. His words had set me thinking. Another conversation along the same lines drifted into my mind.
Mike Hill was an exact contemporary of mine at Hampshire, reserve wicket-keeper, irrepressible enthusiast, advanced driver on the heavy roller, jack-of-all-trades, cheerful foot soldier, general factotum, team humorist and kind-hearted, all-round, good bloke. We were swapping memories of our Hampshire days. “Murt, we had nothing,” he averred with rare passion, “No coaching, no guidance, no advice, no help, no direction, no discipline….nothing. We were left pretty well to our own devices. Sink or swim. Some rose to the challenge and made a success of their careers and others fell by the wayside. The question is, would we have been better players had we the opportunities to extract that 5% extra from our abilities?”
Good question. One I might take up with Joe Leach, perhaps over a pint, oops, I mean an isotonic drink, next time.