'Biomechanics takes the guesswork out of coaching'

Former fast bowling legend and coach extraordinaire, Frank Tyson has been patrolling the frontiers where sport meets science for decades now. He spoke about studying techniques, why Indian batsmen are bad on bouncy wickets, and chucking

Interview by Dileep Premachandran  |  

"You don't change people for the sake of it, or for biomechanical reasons. You change or fine-tune techniques to get the maximum benefit for the people who employ them" Satish Subramani / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

It was in 1973-74 that Frank Tyson, then in charge of cricket coaching at Victoria, became aware of biomechanical principles and their use in the game. That was when the national coaching accreditation scheme began in Australia and the coaches were made aware of these techniques at level two and level three. Tyson attended lectures by the likes of Ken Davis, and though he insists he is no expert at biomechanics, he has used the techniques extensively as part of his coaching ever since. As he says, these methods - the actual science - have always been there; "it's just that we never used them".

How would you explain the concept of biomechanics to someone who knows nothing about it?
Biomechanics is the science of measuring or assessing the forces exerted on the human body and the effects that these forces produce. It's the only effective way - only logical way - of assessing sporting technique. It takes the guesswork out of coaching. It enables us to look at the techniques employed by sportsmen and to then put them in context of the laws of physics, and assess whether that's the most effective or efficient way to perform that skill. Nowadays, we can not only assess, we can measure and record, computerise and analyse. It sounds rather bloodless and unartistic, but it's an efficient way of measuring how much a person digresses from the ideal performance.

And how is it applied to cricket?
It involves studying the performances of batsmen and bowlers, recording them in terms of computerised videotape analysis, placing them side by side with the performance ideal, discerning the digressions and then correcting the flaws in the technique. It's far more scientific now because measurements are so much more exact.

"Freddie Trueman, when told by a coach that cricket was a side-on game, put on the wicketkeeper's pads, took the gloves out and stood sideways behind the wickets "

Take the follow-through of the bat as an example. It contributes nothing in terms of the result because it takes place after the shot has been completed. But if a batsman's follow-through is going towards midwicket, it can tell you that at the point of contact, the swing of the bat is diametrically across the line of the ball. That in turn will tell you that the backlift of the bat would probably have been towards second or third slip and might have been governed by an over-strong bottom hand.

In case of the front-foot drive, if the follow-through is short and almost non-existent, that will tell you that at the point of contact, the bat was actually slowing up, and no real force was put into the shot. To cure that, the swing of the bat should be fuller and freer.

Take the front knee in case of bowling: if it bends too much and the distance between the foot and the delivery hand is decreased, you lose height and the arm swings through a much shorter circle. The longer the arc of the arm in bowling, the faster the arc. Batting is no different. If you hold the end of the bat handle, rather than the bottom of the bat handle, then the arc through which the bat swings will be longer, and hence faster. If it's faster, the ball is hit harder.

So, in principle, a tall bowler should be able to bowl much faster.
Theoretically, Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose should have been able to bowl at fantastic speeds because at the top of the arc, their arms must have been ten feet high. If they'd bowled then with the same sort of ferocity as a Jeff Thomson, they'd have been unplayable - so fast that the batsmen could barely sight the ball.

"Someone like Gilchrist who grips the bat near the top can certainly impart more power to his strokes" © Getty Images

How would you dissect fast bowling in terms of biomechanics?
When you want to bowl fast, the body should go through what's called the summation of force. Each part of the body has something to contribute to the speed at which you deliver the ball. The run-up, measured in the case of Dennis Lillee, contributed about 16 to 17 per cent of the pace. Also measured at the University of Western Australia was the influence of the legs, the trunk, the shoulders and the arms. Forty per cent of the force imparted to the ball came from the shoulders and arms. Thirty per cent came from the legs and the lower body, and the smaller fractions from here and there, like the wrist.

When you summate your force, you first of all run towards the batsman. Then you slow or stop, and the force is passed on to your legs. They contribute their part, stop, and then force is passed on to the trunk. The trunk does its bit and passes the force on to the shoulders and arms. Each of these parts of the body contributes in succession to the force at which the ball is delivered. By the time the ball is released - hopefully at a great speed - from the ends of the fingers, all the forces have been added up. The secret to bowling really fast is to make sure that the summation of force takes place in a unique lineal direction.

Any deviation detracts from the pace. If I don't run straight in to bowl, if instead I take the scenic route, that will detract from the 16 or 17 per cent that the run-up can contribute. If when I'm bowling, my front leg splays out to the side, towards slip instead of pointing at the target, that will reduce pace. Same if my arms fall to the side.

"If you hold the end of the bat handle, rather than the bottom of the bat handle, then the arc through which the bat swings will be longer, and hence faster. If it's faster, the ball is hit harder"

Could it also lead to injuries?
Lack of technique can lead to serious injuries. If you have the top half of the body going one way, and the bottom portion the other - your legs towards fine leg and your arms towards slip for example - then your front foot's coming down with four times your body weight going through it and the spine is being twisted. Coaches these days have been able to ascertain what's called the mixed action - open at the hips and closed at the shoulders - and correct it.

< b>Surely, the risk of injury is negligible for batsmen?
Batting puts very little strain on the body. Most ballistic sports where you hit the ball, you have to move forwards. Cricket's the only sport where you also have to move back. But in general, all a batsman has to do is transfer his weight forward or back, use his wrists, arms and shoulders to hit the ball and run between the wickets, none of which is especially strenuous. But a faulty technique can get you out.

Can you give a biomechanical explanation for this?
Take a look at Indian batsmen. Their technique is based on an initial forward movement, because they play their cricket on slow pitches that lack bounce. When they play on bouncy wickets, this places them at a grave disadvantage because they're moving forward into a ball that's rising as it comes towards them, making it more difficult to keep it down. If the initial movement had been back, they would be far better equipped to keep the rising ball down.

According to Tyson, unlike most Indian batsmen, Rahul Dravid had the initial backwards movement that helped him on bouncy pitches

According to Tyson, unlike most Indian batsmen, Rahul Dravid had the initial backwards movement that helped him on bouncy pitches © Associated Press

Moving forward is far more important than the movement back, in a sense. It is difficult to go back if your weight is moving forward towards an object. If a man falls overboard from a ship moving forward at 20 knots, the ship can't just slam the gears into reverse and go and pick him up. It takes 15 miles to slow and lose its forward impetus. Playing forward isn't quite as bad as that, but the point is that you have to lose the forward impetus before you can move back. If a batsman moves back initially, his weight is on the back foot and he can still move his front foot because it's unweighted. If the ball's well up to him, he can go forward and play it. But since his weight is not falling forward, he can also go further back and play the back foot shot. Batsmen who play forward all the time in India find it very difficult when they get overseas. But if you watch Rahul Dravid, you'll find that the initial movement is back.

Are many international cricketers aware of biomechanical techniques? Do you know anybody who has benefited from them?
These techniques have been widely adopted in Australia and South Africa. As far as individual players go, all the boys who trained under the Mafatlal scheme in Mumbai have gained from it - Paras Mhambrey, Nilesh Kulkarni and Hrishikesh Kanitkar are some of the names I can think of. But as far as the Australians are concerned, it has been an integral part of their coaching system for a while now.

The MCC coaching manual was always seen as a sort of Bible for coaches and players. How far is it in sync with biomechanics? Are there any conflicts?
I can say that about 75 per cent of it conforms to biomechanics. These techniques have mostly provided a rationale for the coaching that has gone on previously, except in a few instances. For example, we have always been told to play with the spin. But there's nothing in science that says that should be the case. Really, you should hit an object at the centre of gravity as hard as possible with the percussion point of the instrument you're hitting with. That seems to indicate that if the ball is coming in from the off, you should hit it diametrically back to the off. If you play with the spin, you only succeed in being able to place it better, you can't hit harder. There have also been investigations into the grip, with regard to whether it imparts the maximum impact to the ball. Men like Ken Davis have done research on aspects like the most effective stance (how it changes with height), the commonly held belief that a topspinner bounces more and the length of the delivery stride. As more research is done in the area, more conventionally accepted methods will come under scrutiny. 

"Cricket isn't just about technique, it's also an expression of character. You've got to blend the biomechanical science with the character that lies within the kid to get the best sort of result"

Suppose you have someone who employs terribly unorthodox methods. For example, someone who bowled like Paul Adams, but was picking up wickets like Muttiah Muralitharan. Would you advise someone like that to change his action?
You don't change people for the sake of it, or for biomechanical reasons. You change or fine-tune techniques to get the maximum benefit for the people who employ them. If it ain't broke, don't mend it. But how did these people evolve such a peculiar style in the first instance? Because they lacked guidance when they were younger. Whatever you say about Paul Adams or Max Walker [who bowled off the wrong foot], however well they've bowled, they're still doing it the hardest way. Would have been far easier to do it the most effective way. Anyway, I doubt if you could change it. The unlearning process is more difficult than the learning process because all the nerve paths and reflex paths have been established.

Coming back to batsmen, how much would a faulty grip or an unbalanced stance affect performance?
It depends. Asif Iqbal gripped one hand at the top of the handle and the other at the bottom. It affected the way he played but obviously worked for him. Peter Willey faced the bowlers chest-on and then moved into a sideways position before he played the shot. A faulty grip could cause problems with the execution of certain strokes. But if a batsman is happy with it and comfortable, there's no reason to change it. This is the bad name that coaching has got. People seem to think that it's a case of taking a youngster and stamping him. Make him play the way that Trevor Bailey played all the time… it doesn't work that way. Kids are subjected to environmental influences and they will play on any patch of ground, develop their own shots. Cricket isn't just about technique, it's also an expression of character. You've got to blend the biomechanical science with the character that lies within the kid to get the best sort of result.

Batsmen like Adam Gilchrist and Sanath Jayasuriya use angled bats and hit on the up to devastating effect. Are they backed by biomechanical principles?
They may well be, but coaching is not concerned with getting everybody to play according to the manual. Someone like Gilchrist who grips the bat near the top can certainly impart more power to his strokes. And yes, he has some innovative strokes. But innovation is nothing new in cricket. In the 19th century, they had the draw, where they played the ball between their legs. Jack Iverson invented spinning the ball off the bent second finger. No coaching manual could teach you that. Bosanquet invented the wrong'un, bowling on a billiards table at Oxford University. Fred Spofforth invented his half-ball, a much slower delivery that he bowled holding half the ball in half his hand. We have Ian Harvey these days who bowls his slower ball over the top. These are not in the manual, but they enrich cricket. Biomechanics and manuals should not be used as excuses to stifle creativity because that's the very essence of any sport.

"Jeff Thomson was so side-on that his back heel used to point down the wicket. Would he have avoided injury with a more orthodox action? Who can say?" Adrian Murrell / © Getty Images

For bowlers, there are two distinctive styles - those who bowl side-on and those who have an open-chested action. Could you say that one action is more effective than the other?
Not really. Let's take the unorthodox one first, the chest-on bowling action. Mike Procter bowled absolutely chest-on, and generated quite a lot of pace. In biomechanical terms, he was observing the first criterion - the summation of force. He ran in a direct line to the point on the crease where he delivered, and maintained his full momentum towards the target. His front leg was going towards first slip, but there was no sideways twist putting undue strain on his body. But whereas the side-on bowler got less than 20 per cent of his pace from his run-up, Procter probably got 30. Then again, where the side-on bowler got 40 per cent from his shoulders and his arms, Procter probably only got 30. The benefits for a chest-on bowler would be far more inward movement, no strain on his lower back - since there's no twist - and a better leg-cutter. On the other hand, the side-on bowler is able to use his upper body more effectively. He's able to move the ball out, he's able to exert some drag on the ball but he won't be able to move the ball in like the chest-on bowler. The danger occurs when the two actions mix - when a person tries to be side-on in the upper body and is open at the hips. Both methods, by themselves, have their own advantages.

What about someone like Jeff Thomson who was so side-on it was almost impossible to imitate him?
Let's get one thing straight, Jeff Thomson was a freak. He was so side-on that his back heel used to point down the wicket. He was a real slinger and his action was all about shoulder. His run-up barely contributed anything to his pace because he just used to shuffle to the wicket. He got far more out of his body than any chest-on bowler. Would he have avoided injury with a more orthodox action? Who can say? You have to understand that bowling in cricket is the most unnatural physical action you'll ever see in your life. In what other sport do you see a person trying to project something with his body moving sideways? Javelin-throwing perhaps? It's unnatural when you're doing an astride jump at right angles to the actual direction you want to bowl. Injuries are bound to occur in that sort of situation. Chest-on or side-on, fast bowling is not a natural activity. I'm always reminded of Freddie Trueman who, when told by a coach that cricket was a side-on game, put on the wicketkeeper's pads, took the gloves out and stood sideways behind the wickets [laughs]. 

"The secret to bowling really fast is to make sure that the summation of force takes place in a unique lineal direction. Any deviation detracts from the pace"

Slow-motion replays, freeze frames… how much do these techniques help to iron out the kinks in someone's technique?
Immensely. First of all, the theory, "I play, therefore I can coach" is wrong. Bob Kippath, who was the USA's Olympic swimming coach, would have drowned if he'd been thrown in a pool. But he knew all about swimming, the physical demands and the technique. More often that not, if you go to an elite player and ask, "What's wrong with my style?" he'd be unable to tell you. The trouble with experts is that they presume everyone else is an expert. When Rodin was asked how to sculpt an elephant, he said, "First of all, you chip away everything that isn't an elephant."

A good coach uses video to provide the feedback the player needs. I coached a fellow called Gary Troup who played for New Zealand, left-arm fast bowler. He mystified me for a long time because he couldn't bowl the left-armer's inswinger to right-handed batsmen. Yet, when I looked at his run-up, it was fine. He ran in straight, bowled from close to the stumps, bowled across his front leg, grip was right, release was right… it wasn't until I looked at the tape that I found that his front elbow didn't stabilise. What that meant was that when he got into a position, his front elbow went through and he ended up bowling open-chested. I couldn't have picked that out eyeballing him, not at full speed. You can pick out the gross faults with the naked eye, but the finer points are impossible without visual aids.

The chucking controversy. When we have all these techniques and methods, why is it so difficult to settle the issue once and for all?
It isn't. I think the law's wrong for a start. At the same time, you have the evidence there in front of you, courtesy the University of Western Australia. That's in black and white. Darryl Foster, Bruce Elliott, all those people working in the biomechanical labs have analysed Shoaib Akhtar and Muttiah Muralitharan and determined that neither throws, not in the true sense of the word - the straightening of the arm immediately prior to delivery. The trouble is that there are many interested parties who will take them to task and say, "He throws". Such purely subjective judgements shouldn't be allowed to stand once the scientific assessment has been produced.

"The law is an ass, because it states that what constitutes a throw is the straightening of the arm just prior to delivery. If that's the case, you're going to find that 90 per cent of bowlers throw" © AFP

How is the law wrong?
The law is an ass, because it states that what constitutes a throw is the straightening of the arm just prior to delivery. If that's the case, you're going to find that 90 per cent of bowlers throw. Somewhere in their action, there is a straightening of the elbow or the arm. A legspinner or an offspinner couldn't bowl if they couldn't bend their arm. I've seen photographs of Harold Larwood with his arm hyper-extended. Hyper-extended or not, straightening the arm is straightening the arm. Brian Statham used to straighten his arm because it was hyper-extended. The law doesn't differentiate between people who straighten the arm as part of a natural reflex action, which the body must observe to absorb the force, and people who deliberately straighten it. There should be some revision that only punishes straightening of the arm which is visibly obvious or over and above a certain number of degrees. A purely subjective assessment of how much a bowler bends his arm isn't right.

How important do you think visualisation techniques are while working with players?
Physical attributes don't make a cricketer. You have to have the powers of visualisation, concentration, relaxation and focus. Richard Hadlee was the perfect example of someone who perfected mental techniques to improve his game. He used to turn around and just say "Paddles", used the word as a trigger and off he went. He recalled all his concentration with that one word. Have you read CLR James? There's a statement of his that says you can have two players both endowed with the same physical attributes and the same degree of skill, yet one has that special quality that thrusts him to greatness while the other remains a club player all his life. The greatness of the cricketer lies in his head, he said. There's no arguing with that.

This interview first appeared in the June 2002 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket

 

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