Harnessing talent amid a batting revolution
In his role as a coach of the National Performance Squad, Chris Rogers sees issues and upside among the country's best young players
Chris Rogers is studying Virat Kohli, totally immersed in the action unfolding. As the Indian genius is put through one of the most vigorous fast-bowling challenges of his career, Rogers sits in front of a television on the other side of the world, closely observing Kohli's patterns of movement.
It is the first Test between England and India at Edgbaston, and the visitors are 3-85. Kohli has not long come to the middle, looking a man focused on removing the blip on his record that suggests he struggles to play high-quality pace-bowling in conditions suited to precisely that.
For a period of 40 deliveries, he defends as if his very life depends on it.
James Anderson and Stuart Broad, the two most prolific pacemen currently playing Test cricket, and Ben Stokes – on his day, one of the most dangerous – are utilising the conditions expertly, their swing and seam allying with consistent lines and lengths to cause the batsmen no end of problems.
Kohli edges an Anderson outswinger, which falls short of the slips and trickles away for four runs. He edges again, the batsmen's refusal to thrust his bat ahead of his front pad saving him as the ball finds the turf short of the waiting cordon of catchers.
Stokes removes Ajinkya Rahane and Dinesh Karthik in quick succession, the batsmen's techniques failing them in the face of a devastating spell of swing bowling.
Kohli leaves Anderson for three balls. When he is tempted with the final delivery of the over, he is the beneficiary of one of life's great intangibles – luck. The nick flies to Dawid Malan at second slip, who spills the chance.
The next over, Kohli scampers a single off Stokes – his first runs that haven't come from an edge in 34 deliveries – and the pressure is released just a little. He scores a single in each of the next two overs, before drinks offer a timely respite.
In the hours after the interval, Kohli scores 125 more runs from 155 deliveries, rattling along at a strike-rate of 80.
The case of Kohli
As Kohli was undergoing his trial by swing, Rogers picked up his phone. He sent a text to the young batsmen he coaches in the National Performance Squad (NPS), which read: What would you do when the ball is doing so much that you literally can't score?
Rogers, a veteran of 25 Tests and a Cricket Australia high-performance coach since March, is encouraging the NPS players to think critically about practical cricket examples; to open their minds to the different ways and methods for success in the sport.
He had been in such situations. He had stood at the other end and watched the normally free-flowing David Warner unable to put bat on ball. He knew the answer to his query came back to one word: defence.
"Watching Kohli in that first Test, he was almost rendered shot-less, because the ball was doing so much," he explains to cricket.com.au. "It wasn't that he wasn't trying to score – and this is arguably the best player in the world – it was that it was almost impossible to score, because the ball was doing too much.
"It's in those times that relying on your defence is quite possibly your best option.
"There will often be times in a Test match when that happens, and if you don't have a defence it's really difficult to get through, because you can't just hit your way out of every situation.
"And if you're a T20 player, I'd argue that defence is not a skill you're focusing on too much."
The modern batsmen's dilemma
A generation ago, Australia had the luxury of batting depth. Between 1999-2000 and 2008-09, five players plundered more than 5,000 Sheffield Shield runs at averages between 48 and 61. Between them they played 119 Tests, though only Simon Katich (56 Tests) and later, Rogers himself, were true regulars in Baggy Green for any sustained period as Steve and Mark Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Damien Martyn, Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer and Michael Clarke demanded selection at different stages across the period.
Today, only two players – Steve Smith, 51.79, and Usman Khawaja, 50.60 – average in excess of 45 in the Shield. It is a worrying statistic as Australia looks to plug holes left by Smith, David Warner and to a lesser extent, Cameron Bancroft (Shield average: 38.83) for a two-Test series against Pakistan in the UAE in October, and this summer's Test series against India and Sri Lanka.
Highest Sheffield Shield batting averages 1999-2000 – 2008-09 (min 2000 runs)
Michael Bevan (NSW/Tas) 4,914 runs @ 64.66 Simon Katich (WA/NSW) 6,405 @ 61.00 Darren Lehmann (SA) 5,111 @ 57.43 Chris Rogers (WA/Vic) 6,636 @53.09 Brad Hodge (Vic) 7,395 @ 50.65
Highest Sheffield Shield batting averages 2009-10 – 2017-18 (min 2000 runs)
Steve Smith (NSW) 3,024 runs @ 56.00 Usman Khawaja (NSW/Qld) 3,426 @ 51.91 Adam Voges (WA) 4,928 @ 51.87 Phillip Hughes (NSW/SA) 3,278 @ 48.21 David Hussey (Vic) 3,270 @ 47.39
Rogers is well aware he is working in a vastly different cricket climate to that of yesteryear, with Twenty20 having changed the game dramatically in a short space of time.
"When the focus was more around longer-form cricket, there was a genuine desire to spend a lot of time improving that," he says. "Whereas now, the guys are growing up in the T20 landscape and it's a fundamentally different technique.
"The experiences of playing county cricket certainly taught me a lot, because you're playing in different conditions – slower pitches that swing and seam – and you're presented with different challenges.
"It makes you think more about what your body's doing and what positions you're getting into.
Highest Sheffield Shield batting averages since Sept 2015 (min 1000 runs, current players only)
Kurtis Patterson (NSW) 2,077 runs @ 49.45 Shaun Marsh (WA) 1,003 @ 47.76 Peter Handscomb (Vic) 1,465 @ 47.26 Hilton Cartwright (WA) 1,887 @ 46.02 George Bailey (Tas) 2,202 @ 45.86 Matthew Renshaw (Qld) 1,740 @ 44.62 Cameron Bancroft (WA) 1,761 @ 42.95 Glenn Maxwell (Vic) 1,228 @ 42.34 Cameron White (Vic) 1,432 @ 42.12 Ashton Turner (WA) 1,620 @ 41.54
"Today, players' experiences are different. They spend so much more time trying to clear the rope, (which requires) a different body shape.
"A lot of them are playing IPL, BBL, and spending significant amounts of time in T20 competitions.
"So it's really hard to expect them to have the same skills and awareness of their own methods as previous generations.
"There are some certain basics I believe in across both techniques (for long and shorter formats), but there are some fundamental differences as well.
"To expect guys to completely understand both techniques is asking a lot – you're almost asking them to do twice as much as the previous generation."
Get it? Got it. Good.
Having been mentored by and taken lessons from a number of different coaching figures throughout his time as a player, Rogers is acutely aware there is no one 'correct way' to instruct young batsmen. His methods are a combination of what worked for him as a player, as well as what he sees working for today's elite batsmen. But he is conscious they won't work for everyone; as such, his modus operandi is to present ideas for a player to ruminate on, and see where those ideas take him. Ultimately, he insists, it is the player who determines which coaching philosophies are best for their game.
Key for young batsmen, Rogers believes, is making them aware of their techniques. He has seen experienced and rookie batsmen around the country with little understanding of their games; how their heads, shoulders, hands, feet and bat are moving, and how all that affects the shot they play.
"When you talk technique, a lot of people get concerned you're overloading the players with information," he says. "But I'd argue that our understanding of technique is not as it has been for the last 40 years, so I believe it could be addressed."
Through the Brisbane winter at the National Cricket Centre, Rogers has been providing the NPS players with suggestions around technique, and then affording them time to arrive at their own solutions; what works and what doesn't, and what feels right for them.
"It's tinkering; it's letting them have their own style, but trying to give them a few basics, and an awareness of what those basics are," he says.
"It's certainly not 'my way or the highway'. I'm just looking at giving them the tools to survive as they go further up, and some education around what they are doing, so they can know how to adjust themselves – and why – if a particular situation calls for it.
"The really interesting point I'm getting from the players is, at this age (18, 19) they're really focused on just becoming the best batsmen they can be.
"So their desire to actually understand technique, and their movement patterns and their shape, and how they hit the ball, is excellent – once they're made aware of it."
Rogers says the batsmen he works with are already well-equipped with attacking shots; they may have had a lot of success on flat pitches and against balls that don't move in the air or off the pitch, but the Kohli case study still applies.
"If you listen to the best players, there are still some underlying themes (for success across the three formats)," he says. "It's not 'one size fits all', but I do believe there are commonalities between the best players.
"That's what I try to show my guys … if we can give them those basics – especially around defence – which lend themselves to success in the longer form of the game, and then upskill them further in the hitting department, I believe that's a pretty sound method to go by."
'The Wall' is building India's next great batsmen
At the Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand in February, Rogers was struck by the quality of the batsmen from India, who won the tournament in a canter.
He learned they had been working for the previous two years under the tutelage of Test legend Rahul Dravid, whose famously tight technique and world-class defence Rogers admired in his playing days.
Watching the young Indians, Rogers says, "opened my eyes massively" as he considered his own group in comparison.
"For me there's some basic, generic technical issues that run throughout our younger players," he says. "I completely understand that every player is different but I do see certain traits throughout our young players.
"It was only having to compare our Under-19 World Cup batsmen to India's Under-19 World Cup batsmen … and the complete disparity between the two. And our players would be the first ones to admit that the Indian players were exceptional, and technically superior."
Rogers subscribed to Dravid's methods as a batsman, and noted a key difference between his style and the techniques taught to Australia's best up-and-comers.
"Dravid scored one of the best hundreds that I ever saw, against England at Lord's (in 2011), where he was playing so side on, and so late, that the ball would come right into his area, hit the bat and roll towards gully," he explains. "Which is not how we would teach players; we teach players to try and defend straight back at the bowler, but that could mean pushing out in front of yourself.
"Little things like that, I believe, are worth thinking about. Kane Williamson is similar. Kumar Sangakkara was the other one who I saw make an unbelievable hundred against England, where he scored almost exclusively square of the wicket.
"But they're just my beliefs."
A couple of Dravid's star pupils are already moving through the ranks; Prithvi Shaw was recently called up to the India squad for the Test series against England, while Shubman Gill is in the India A squad currently playing Australia A as part of a quadrangular one-day series, and is also set to play in the two four-day fixtures next month.
The "generic technical issues" Rogers identified in his young batting group relate to 'alignment' – a key part of the 40-year-old's batting philosophy, which he describes more broadly as having four over-arching elements: technical, physical, emotional and tactical. Alignment relates to the angle of the head and shoulders at the bowler's point of release. A good technique, Rogers believes, is when those parts of the body are facing back down the pitch; he feels the key to playing swing bowling, and even spin bowling, is ensuring the bat is coming down dead straight, as opposed to cutting across the ball, which commonly happens when one's shoulders are aligned to midwicket.
"Every young player I've seen come into this environment – and I mean every young player – has had their shoulders aligned to midwicket," he says, attributing the trend to heavy bats, and players looking to hit the ball too hard.
"I could only think of how that would go against a swinging ball. If you were dropped into a Test match against Anderson and Broad, with your shoulders aligned to midwicket, I think you'd be in a world of trouble."
Rogers points to Smith as a classic example of adjusting an unorthodox style to overcome a particular challenge – in this case, swing.
"Smith starts 'open' like that (shoulders aligned to midwicket), but he actually turns into the ball (to align himself straight at point of delivery)," he explains.
"All the young players, they actually turn the other way – they start facing in, then turn out.
"And that is a classic movement, but I think all the best players cope with swinging balls by turning their front shoulder into the ball."
What success looks like
The proliferation of T20 cricket has not only changed batsmen's techniques – it has altered many mindsets as well. A host of West Indian players largely turned their backs on Test cricket and pioneered the gun-for-hire approach to T20 domestic cricket tournaments the world over, making lucrative livings in the process. For many players, the goalposts have shifted, and the lure of six-figure contracts in Twenty20 are too much to resist. As a result, success as a cricketer can be measured in different ways.
"It used to be that if you wanted to make money, it was by playing Test cricket," Rogers says. "Whereas now there is that driver in T20 cricket."
That success is also being achieved in new ways, as Rogers points out via Chris Lynn, who has used connections in baseball to aid his development as a big hitter in the shortest format.
"The baseball swing is completely different – horizontal rather than vertical – so it's not what you would probably teach someone to play in Test cricket," he says.
"So it's a great example, and good luck to him – he's having great success and fantastic experiences."
Cause for optimism
Rogers is still in the infancy of making his mark on the NPS players, while he has also spent pockets of time working with Peter Handscomb, Travis Head, Kurtis Patterson and Mitch Marsh on their techniques.
But it's with the NPS that his focus is presently centred.
"I'm excited by what I see, because the one thing I think we do have is exceptional talent – it's whether it's being harnessed well enough," he says.
"Around 18, 19 can be a great time to coach them, because they have their coordination, they're strong enough, and they're still pretty open-minded.
"It's not just about doing technical work – it's sitting down and understanding the concept of always wanting to get better. It's looking at what the best players do, and the mindsets they have, and trying to emulate a lot of that."
And Rogers points out improvements are not just required by batsmen; the onus, he believes, is also on the coaches, who he feels struggled along with the players to keep pace in the formative years of the T20 revolution.
"We're not necessarily going to turn them into world-beaters next week, but you can put them on the right path for the journey they're going on," he says. "We've got the resources to still be one of the best batting nations if we can get it together.
"It's been a little bit difficult to understand this evolution that's happened over the last 5-10 years, and perhaps just an expectation that players were going to continue to work on all their skills, while maybe not quite understanding just how many skills they have to work on now.
"I think there's more awareness now within the coaching ranks, that it's time to get more involved and try and upskill them, whereas we perhaps thought that was automatically happening.
"I see now as the time to get back in there (as coaches), get our hands dirty and actually give them the tools they need if they're going to play the longer version, certainly, but all three formats."