Bowling machines an ‘excellent tool’ but lead to bad habits if used incorrectly, says Rob Key

Following England’s capitulation against Australia and the subsequent defeat to Bangladesh at the Under-19 World Cup, Sky Sports’ David Lloyd voiced his concerns over what he saw as ‘manufactured, mechanical’ batsmen in the England side.

Bumble posed the question as to whether an excessive use of bowling machines could have played its part in causing the problem.

Rob Key was in New Zealand for the tournament and here he explains why he believes the machines are ‘an excellent tool for coaching’ – provided they are used in the right way…

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The overuse of bowling machines is definitely a factor in English cricket and it is a product of having such a cold winter. Pretty much every county has an indoor school where the surfaces are pretty true and skiddy. At academies, so much work is done – six months of the year – indoors and you have to be very careful that you don’t just develop a technique for that environment.

If you spend a whole winter hitting drives on an indoor school surface, you can throw your hands through the ball, you don’t get in good positions, you can get very rigid and you can hit with your head up and through the line.

That is fine at an indoor school in December but if you spend six months grooving that, it’s not going to be good for when you move outside.

Batting, and cricket in general, is about making the right decisions time and time again and if you do 90 per cent of your winter practice without facing bowlers – because bowlers don’t like bowling indoors due to the risk of getting injured – you’re stopping yourself from being able to learn the decision-making process that batting is.

When I was younger there were less bowling machines, that didn’t mean we were better players by any stretch, but you ended up netting a little bit more. There is so much structure in English cricket now but with young kids you don’t want to get away from simple batting and bowling and competing against your mates.

While you have to be very careful with how you use a bowling machine, I do think they’re a brilliant tool. The Merlyn and things like that, they’re an excellent tool for coaching and for batting – you just don’t want to groove the same thing over and over again.

Most people will go on a bowling machine, put it at 70mph and just hit off drives and on drives. There is so much more you can do!

I think at times where people should be doing 50 per cent bowling machine, 50 per cent against bowlers, it is probably more 80-20. They are an excellent tool but coaches just have to be careful about how they use them.

The issue is that the effective way to hit a ball against a bowling machine is to stand as upright as you can, play with high hands and just swing through the line of the ball; you don’t get your head to the ball as much, you don’t get your foot to the ball.

You can get away with planting your front foot on middle stump and wherever the ball is outside off stump, you can hit through the line – you don’t bend your knee into the ball, you don’t get into a good position with your head of your front leg.

So you groove that and you groove that and it is a bad habit to have for English cricket.

What I would say is that I thought a couple of the English lads like Will Jacks, Harry Brook and Tom Banton didn’t play like that, they looked like they had a bit of flair about them in that regard, but you’ve got to be so careful nowadays using bowling machines.

Of course, these are still young players and from about Under-19 level you normally see a leap in development.

What happens is you’re involved in the England set-up until you’re 19 and around the county set-up, then about 90 per cent of cricketers go overseas to play a year of club cricket in Australia – that is where you see the real development in players.

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There wouldn’t be many players who haven’t gone through that process but that happens at around 20 or 21 after you finish with the Under-19. It is not generally feasible for a lad to go out at 17 or 18 and play a year’s club cricket in Australia.

I think it is important that kids get an education as much as they possibly can so I’m not sure you could do it before players get to U19 level. That will all happen in good time and often it is after that that you see the biggest difference.

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