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Not quite ready, set, go!

Illustration: Jim PavlidisDan Vettori, coach of the Brisbane Heat, Middlesex and the Royal Bangalore Challengers, is considered one of the bright young forces in the bright young game. One of his philosophies is that cricketers are more likely to play the Twenty20 game well when they feel slightly under-prepared. T20 is such a game of the moment that a man or woman is best left to follow the instinct that made them an elite player in the first instance, rather than adhere to a program. They are best left to live on the edge.

This snippet comes from an article written for the New Statesman by former England cricketer, author, broadcaster and sports historian Ed Smith. “It’s a risk, and a fine balance,” Smith writes of the Vettori school, “but worth it.”

Everyone lauds spontaneity as a theory, says Smith, but too many stifle it in practice. “It’s with the ‘how’ that the problems start,” he says, “with extra meetings and meddling, over-analysis and prescriptiveness, whiteboards and flow charts. Professional systems rarely support the creativity that they allegedly seek.”

Justin Langer is coach of the Perth Scorchers, the most successful team in the short history of the Big Bash League, and this week is locum coach of ‘s T20 team. “I couldn’t agree more,” he says. The Scorchers don’t have team meetings any more. “I have a captain’s meeting, with Adam Voges and Michael Klinger and maybe one other senior player, because they’re the ones you give information to,” Langer said. “The rest, you just gotta let ’em go. Let ’em go, mate.”

Warming to the theme, Langer refers to Kelly Slater, the champion surfer. “He says: ‘When I surf, if I don’t care whether I win or lose, I usually win’,” says Langer. “I think that’s the philosophy to take into T20 cricket. If you start worrying about your wicket, or your next ball, you’re dead. The more you just let it go, the better. Less is better, I agree.”

But less does not mean nothing, calculatedly under-prepared does not mean culpably unprepared. One or two mental cues should be enough, says Langer. The Heat’s Chris Lynn is the best player in the BBL. Watching him, you strongly get the impression of an uncluttered mind. Full balls go this way, short ones that way, both go a long way.

In an era of coaching overload, this minimalism is heresy, surely? Langer has only to look around him this weekend. Supporting and augmenting him in what will be a maximum of 120 overs of cricket, there are Ricky Ponting and Jason Gillespie. “You’ve got to have the courage to ask, am I just doing this because I’m a coach,” says Langer, “or is there a point?” Smith has an answer. “What can coaches do to help?” he asks. “They can get out of the way. That’s a good start.”

Gillespie assents. He made his coaching name at Yorkshire, who he guided to two long-awaited county championships, before returning to to coach the Adelaide Strikers. He is strong on the idea that a coach is there to serve, not to be served. “I say to the players: ‘We’re called support staff because we’re here to support you, not the other way around’,” he says.

For different players, this will mean different needs. For a recently dropped player, it might be a beer or a curry. For Joe Root, a protege of Gillespie at Yorkshire and the new England captain, it is honesty. “Tell me what I need to know,” he would say to Gillespie in the nets, “not what I’d like to hear.”

Undoubtedly, T20 is reshaping the mindsets of cricketers and coaches. One example floated past our desk this week. Typically, at the end of a limited-overs innings, a bowler will aim at what exhaustive analysis tells him and his coaches is the batsman’s weakness. Sometimes, this means he tries to bowl the weakest ball in his own repertoire – a leg-stump yorker, for instance – instead of the strongest, and so risks becoming self-defeating. He would be better off bowling his best ball. In the post-millennial generation, it’s all about me, you see.

But it’s even more fundamental. A former Test bowler whose path we crossed this week says he disliked T20 until the first time he played it, in a semi-social game. What he loved was that he found himself trying to take a wicket every ball, a primal, almost childish delight. This was not a recently retired tearaway, but Jim Higgs, who is 66 and a leg-spinner. T20 proved to be a liberating experience.

Smith says English sport suffers from “excessive managerialism”. “Here is sport’s problem with creativity: professional systems crave control, but creativity relies on escaping control,” he writes. “If an attacking player doesn’t know what he is going to do next, what chance does the defender have?”

Ad libbing is sport’s core joy. It reveals hidden gems. Rarely has there been a more driven, earnest, intense, outwardly dour cricketer than Langer. To better his cricket, he meditated daily, did martial arts, and wrote books about it. He would never have been described as under-prepared.

But in the second half of his career, he did learn to play on the edge, with such pleasing results that a Melbourne band wrote a song called Wrong About Justin Langer. Since, he has turned the story of his career into a ripping yarn that had them rolling in the aisles at a Melbourne University Cricket Club breakfast on Friday.

In cricket, as in life, when you let go, sometimes it is surprising what comes out.

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