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National Cricket Performance Centre

Crispin Andrews visits the National Cricket Performance Centre at Loughborough University and finds out how coaches are developing England’s world-class stars of the future

by Crispin Andrews | Published in Sports Management 2012 issue 2
Read on turning pages | Download PDF of this issue

No sooner had the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) developed a crop of fast bowlers who were able to play international cricket without getting injured, the team presented the national governing body (NGB) with another problem to solve: How to bat in test matches on the subcontinent. But while England captain Andrew Strauss and company turn to ‘reactive’ camps in India and ‘naughty boy’ nets in Sri Lanka, the ECB are currently taking a more progressive stance in developing England’s up-and-coming players of the future.

Today, the ECB’s England Development Programme (EDP) is focused on ensuring the national team’s future success and, at the National Cricket Performance Centre at Loughborough University, some of the country’s top coaches and support staff are using state-of-the-art facilities and technology to make sure that this happens.

“We want to give every potential world-class cricketer every opportunity to develop the skills to perform at the highest level possible,” says ECB science and medicine manager Dr Simon Timson.

Individual attention
The best of these players, when ready, move into the EDP, represent England Lions and, if they make the grade, eventually move into the full test, one day or Twenty/20 side.

Since 2003, when the centre opened, Matt Prior, Stuart Broad, Ravi Bopara and Alastair Cook have progressed through the whole pathway. But since 2010, when the ECB revamped the programme, the EDP is now solely about individual long-term player development: Results and teams no longer take priority.

Timson says that the side took only one full-time spinner on January’s Under-19 tour to Bangladesh on turning wickets. “The tour is part of a plan, we picked the best 15 cricketers we thought could help England win in six years time, not a team to win a test series in Bangladesh.”

International practice
Today, the music of U2 and Queen is blaring out from speakers in the practice area, but the ECB hasn’t hired out its performance centre for an 80s disco. The players on the EDP are preparing for their tour of Australia and coaches play music to distract them – therefore aiding their concentration.

This practice area is huge. Six bays of nets, each with a 70m bowler’s run up, and a preparation area at the back. Each practice surface is supplied by synthetic grass manufacturer Supergrass. The grass pile in each bay is produced differently to offer fast, turning and seaming surfaces – replicating surfaces that England cricketers will face around the world. There’s additional cushioning on the bowler’s approach to the wicket and follow through areas, but wear and tear is part of the job.

Dr Nick Pierce and his team of medical advisers offer rehab assistance to players, using the on-site fitness suite and the players are offered a hydro-bath with cold and hot settings in their changing room to aid post-activity recovery if needed.

On-site training
Kent County Cricket Club’s (KCCC) Adam Ball is one of a group of players who are about to start an eight-minute run, before going into bat. During their indoor net, EDP head coach Tim Boon makes Ball and the other batters perform two or three bursts of star jumps. “No one enjoys this sort of work, but we see how it will benefit us in the long run,” Ball says.

Boon isn’t looking to prepare the Kent all-rounder to hold up an end for KCCC’s Geraint Jones or Darren Stevens in a county championship game, nor does he believe that putting his captain under pressure physically will help Ball smash a quick 50 runs in the Under-19 World Cup this August. Instead, Boon is looking forward to a time when Ball, batting seven for England, is 90 not out in the midday heat at Melbourne, Australia or Colombo, Sri Lanka. Should he make 150, England’s chances of winning a game obviously increase.

“England’s head coach, Andy Flower, and his team tell us what they want from a player and we work with the best 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds over a four to six-year period to help them achieve their objective,” says Dr Guy Jackson, operations manager at the performance centre.

On top of expert coaching from the likes of Boon and elite player development manager John Abrahams, as well as Kevin Shine and Graham Thorpe, the ECB’s lead bowling and batting coaches, the players use the same state-of-the-art technology as that used by the first team, to improve their game.

Coaching technology
Pro-Batter is a programmable bowling machine, developed for baseball, which can mimic the style of any bowler. A 3D screen, attached to the machine, might show video footage of South Africa’s fast bowler, Dayle Steyn, charging in. When Steyn delivers the ball on the screen, the bowling machine spits out an 88mph away swinger.

As England prepare for summer matches against South Africa and the West Indies, it will no doubt also imitate Morne Morkel’s steepling bounce, Vernon Philander’s unrelenting accuracy and Fidel Edwards’ erratic thunderbolts.

The ECB also offer the Merlyn by BOLA spin-bowling machine at Loughborough, which delivers programmable, spinning balls of every variety – replicating the deliveries of the leading spinners. Merlyn can even vary the pace from one ball to the next.

Commenting on the Merlyn, Nottinghamshire’s England Lions batsman, James Taylor, says: “You’d love to have ‘him’ in your team because ‘he’ turns it miles, never bowls a bad ball and keeps going all day without a break.”

A further system TrackMan uses Hawkeye-style missile tracking technology to measure how many revolutions each spinner puts on the ball. It’s a small laser camera mounted on a tripod behind the bowler that detects the ball rotating in flight and sends the results to a laptop.

Apparently, England and Northamptonshire slow bowler Graeme Swann manages around 2,000 revolutions per minute – more than 30 per second – and leg-spinner, Adil Rashid, nearer 2,500. “We want to benchmark English spin bowlers,” said David Parsons, the ECB performance director and former spin bowling coach. “We can then see who spins the ball the most and how much a bowler spins it from one year to the next.”

You only need to look at the physical difference between Swann and his off-spinning predecessors John Emburey, Ray Illingworth and Fred Titmus to see that today’s cricket demands more than just skill. Monty Panesar is athletic these days, and even Samit Patel puts in the hard yards.

ECB Loughborough staff start their players’ fitness early. Before cars, TV, computers and the internet, cricketers had an outdoor childhood to build robust bodies that could withstand the rigours of their sport. Unlike Trueman, Close, Botham and the rest, today’s youngsters have to get fit in the gym. Each player has a specific fitness programme. But with injuries always a worry, players need monitoring.

Fitness monitoring
According to Timson, every player from the development programme to the England team gets a yearly profile. This includes a full physio to check movement range and muscle capacity, a fitness test that measures body composition, speed, flexibility, power, strength and endurance. What happened to Fabrice Muamba though, [The Bolton Wanders footballer who suffered a heart attack in March this year] shows that there’s more to a sports star’s health than match fitness.

Young England cricketers also get cardiac screening once a year and an eyesight and visual acuity screen. The senior side, out in the sun for long periods, get dermatology testing to offset the risk of skin cancer, a full health screening with a doctor, blood testing and a whole body MRI scan to check for signs of injury.

EDP players also get a yearly psychological screen. “We look after players’ personal welfare and help them cope with the pressure of playing cricket at top level,” Timson says.

Expert support
England players only have one set of coaches to answer to and one team to worry about. Developing players, whatever level they’re at, will most likely have several influences on their development and pulls on their time.

County coaches and support staff are invited to get involved with performance centre programmes from time to time.

To make sure youngsters get consistent messages and the right support, Timson has a yearly meeting with each development programme player, their county coach, school head of year and the player’s parents. “Clear communication is important to make sure the player gets what they need from everyone,” he says.

At Loughborough University, specialist facilities and expertise are at hand. ECB staff collaborate with top groundsmen, sports scientists, nutritionists, physiotherapists and fitness coaches to give every England player the best possible support. The centre’s lead physiotherapist, Mark Young, is currently working with equipment manufacturers to develop the perfect helmet. ECB coach, Ray Baker, who played for Surrey in the 70s, leads a football-style scouting team that works with Loughborough and Bangor University researchers to uncover attributes that turn a talented youngster into a world- class performer.

There are three other NGBs on site, all with specialist facilities. Particularly useful for cricketers is UK athletics’ specialist running track, with in-built sensors to measure acceleration. “We even taught England and Northampton cricketer Monty Panesar how to run in straight lines!” Jackson says.

Crispin Andrews is a freelance journalist

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