Leave it to the pros

Posted in England in Australia 2010-11

I was bowled first ball by Graeme Swann this week and almost took a Ben Hilfenhaus bouncer in the face.

I also pulled a muscle that same afternoon, so suffice to say it didn’t rank among the finest days of my cricket career - and trust me when I say there aren’t many to choose from.

Actually, I fib a little. The Swann and Hilfenhaus I faced were not real, but video footage on the ECB’s new ProBatter machine at the National Cricket Performance Centre in Loughborough.

A sophisticated bowling machine capable of mimicking all international bowlers and the deliveries they bowl, it certainly is a clever contraption, and the coaches who have helped develop it speak in such glowing terms that you half suspect it to be joining them at their Christmas party.

Indeed, should England win the Ashes over the winter, the players may look back on their time practising on ProBatter this week as crucial preparation for facing the likes of Hilfenhaus, Johnson, Bollinger, Siddle and Hauritz in the flesh.

My memories, however, are rather less fond - and not only because I was nearly knocked out by a ball that whizzed within millimetres of my nose.

I was among a handful of fortunate journalists invited to the ECB’s coaching headquarters to try out the latest additions to the coaching equipment cupboard: ProBatter, Merlyn and Trackman.

More on the others later, but first ProBatter. Having dug my kit out of the loft only that morning, I strapped on my pads for the first time in six weeks.

Ben Hilfenhaus & Graeme Swann

Graeme Swann does a considerably better job of evading Ben Hilfenhaus' bouncer than I managed this week

They say you’re only as good as your last innings. Unfortunately for me, that was the scratchiest seven you are likely to see for Cheadle Hulme 2nd XI - so bad, in fact, that I was still getting sledged by the umpire when we fielded.

I made a nervous start against Swann - bowled twice in the first three balls (looseners are anathema to ProBatter) - but at least managed to squirt a couple of balls in the vague direction of extra-cover.

Persuaded against facing Mitchell Johnson, Australia’s quickest bowler, by ECB batting coach Dene Hills (had he seen something in me the others hadn’t?), I opted for the more pedestrian Hilfenhaus.

“We’ll slow it right down,” David Parsons, the ECB’s performance director and the man at the controls of ProBatter, assured me.

I settled into my stance (one of the best aspects of my game, if I do say so myself), eyes trained on Hilfenhaus as he ambled to the crease, a gentle half-volley outside off stump in the offing.

I was still wondering whether to unfurl the checked drive or the full Goulding follow-through when I felt a whiff of air on my face and made out a faint red blur in front of my eyes. I hadn’t even completed my backlift.

A glance round at the small crowd of watching coaches and journalists - and the accompanying look of shock on their faces - told me all I needed to know about how close I had come to taking a 76mph bumper straight on the nose.

Convinced by Parsons that he had finally got the hang of operating the machine, and with Geoffrey Boycott’s coaching video mantra ringing in my ears - “an inch away is a mile away” - I went on to face two overs of Hilfenhaus. I missed every single ball. Embarrassing is not the word.

I attempted to salvage some pride - and battered confidence - against Merlyn, a bowling machine capable of imparting a huge amount of spin on the ball.

Quite why I thought I would fare any better against a device used by the England batsmen to help them prepare for Shane Warne is anyone’s guess.

Kevin Pietersen

Kevin Pietersen finds alternative uses for Merlyn. Having struggled to lay bat on ball, maybe I should have done the same

Once again, my team-mates will only be too happy to confirm my shortcomings against spin, and it will come as no surprise to those that have seen me floundering against the most mediocre of club twirlers that my pads, gloves and - if I was lucky - inside edge got significantly more use than the middle of my bat.

So, on to TrackMan, a gadget built using radar to measure how much spin a bowler puts on the ball. What could possibly go wrong?

My body, for starters. In surpassing Michael Yardy (1,500 revolutions per minute) and then Monty Panesar (1,850), I chose to gloss over the fact that as a leg-spinner I was expected to turn the ball more than finger spinners.

Any chance of beating Swann’s mark of 2,000 came to an abrupt end when, twisting my body as I went in search of a big-turning leg-break, I felt a sharp pain to the left of my ribs (it was later diagnosed by my dad - he is not a doctor, but his initials are DR - as a torn muscle in my side).

Bowling stint over and dignity long since lost, I shuffled back to my car and spent the next two hours cursing even the slightest kink in the road. Three days later, it still hurts when I sneeze.

I realised at a tender age that my dreams of becoming a cricketer were just that (I suppose the Marines are out of the question too after this blog).

But watching Steven Davies make Johnson look like a county trundler on ProBatter, James Taylor rocking back to punch a Merlyn doosra through point, and even two teenage spinners demonstrating remarkable control of line, length and spin on TrackMan, served two purposes.

It provided a telling reminder of how good these players actually are (worth remembering the next time you shout at the TV when an England player edges a 95mph delivery behind), and underlined the lesson I took from the day: leave it to the professionals.

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