Build a Bowler: Looking Into How Fast Bowlers Are Coached

From Mark Wood and Mitchell Starc in The Ashes to Jasprit Bumrah and Shaheen Afridi in the Asia Cup, 2023 has been a year where fast bowling has once again dominated games. As a spectator, a magic spell of pace can be as captivating as any sight.

At the pinnacle of cricket, a team heavily relies on its fast bowlers. The question to ask is how players get to this stage. Fast bowling is as much a science as it is an art, so I sat down with Catherine Dalton of the National Fast Bowling Academy to try and better understand what goes into producing quality fast bowlers.

In terms of authority, Catherine has a strong playing and coaching history to draw from. Having played for England A in South Africa before making the switch over to Ireland for the 2016 T20 World Cup, Dalton is now a coach at the National Fast Bowling Academy.

The goal is clear. Give current players a better technical understanding of what fast bowling is demanding of them, namely a focus on biomechanics, and help players that might have slipped through the traditional county system. Going into their sixth winter, the Academy is already finding success. Two male players have gone pro as has one female. This is on top of several players getting into County Second XIs and age group teams.

With that in mind, there was plenty to ask about. The first bowling topic came after hearing about Catherine’s own experience being coached by Ian Pont and was that of bowling actions.

On a basic level, this is one of the first ways we get to try and size up a bowler. We look at how they run in, how they load up, all the while trying to guess if the secret ingredient is somewhere amongst it all.

The question I had was to what extent coaches look to push players towards certain movements, or whether they let players retain their natural movements. The answer I received was that the focus has to be on ‘improvement’ rather than ‘change’.

‘Change’ as a word can spook a player, and the reality is that fast bowling is built on structure beneath the style we see. In essence, coaches are particularly focused with certain biomechanical happenings. As long as a player is hitting these safely and comfortably their unique style will be preserved.

This was further explained to me through a comparison of three players capable of cranking out high pace. Visually there are plenty of differences across the bowling actions of Brett Lee, Mark Wood, and Jofra Archer. But underneath those different styles you have fundamental structures that are common in top level players.

Asking what specific things top bowlers tend to do, I got a feel for just how many things need to be done to bowl quickly and bowl safely. To name a few you have the braced front leg, creating hip-shoulder separation, dragging your back foot, completing your action fully, generating a catapult effect with your bowling arm. The list could go on and on but serves to show just how important a task it is to coach fast bowlers.

Most of these are not things you think about in the moment you are bowling, but if you tweak your action to implement you will likely find some increase in pace.

Speaking of increase in pace, conversation turned to the women’s game and the rate at which bowlers are getting quicker. This year alone we saw Lauren Filer’s pace help her break into the England setup, as well as Shabnim Ismail breaking the 80mph barrier in the World Cup.

I wanted to hear about what might be causing these increases year upon year, and if it is something we can expect to continue for some time. The answer was two-fold, looking at coaching and mindset.

In terms of coaching, we must take into account that women’s cricket is developing in terms of resources and professionalisation. With players being exposed to more cricket as well as a wider pool of resources, they are reaping the benefits when it comes to making technical and physical improvements.

On top of this, you have the change in mindset that fast bowling has experienced. Dalton told me that when she was first being coached there was a focus on slowing down and finding accuracy, now there is more willingness to encourage kids to bowl as fast as they can and tidy up from there. What this means for the future is the bowling in the women’s game should only get quicker. Players have the means and encouragement to push the limits.

Focusing more on how coaching works, the answer that came up time and time again was the importance of striking a balance. This can be in respect to time spent with players in classrooms compared to nets, or it could be in terms of bowling volume to recovery.

What stood out to me was the fact that fast bowling is highly unique in terms of the way that different players need very different things. One might want to dig deep into data as a means of knowing just what they’re doing, whilst another will just want to get out there and bowl.

Dalton explained to me that a big part of effective coaching is recognising what a player is best suited to, whilst also making sure that they do not totally overlook the other side of the approach.

What this creates is an environment where players can comfortably push themselves to learn. This became apparent when I asked about how variations are taught, at what age players start considering cutters and slower balls.

The answer is as early as they can. It is much better for someone to get to grips with experimentation at a young age, than it is to try and tack it on much later. Modern cricket, white ball especially, demands the ability to mix up deliveries. The idea is not that a 12-year-old is suddenly able to bowl the perfect back of the hand delivery every weekend, but that any fear around trying it is eased.

The mental side of bowling is just as important as the physical, Dalton spoke of how managing this comes down to creating a strong relationship of trust between player and coach.

If a bowler is worried about something, they need to feel safe telling their coach about it. The reality of bowling at any level is mistakes get made and bad spells get bowled. Take the upcoming World Cup for example, the reality is that plenty of games will feature bowlers having a day where nothing goes their way.

What matters is the ability to bounce back and embrace this failure. Catherine spoke of how this was something she found got better the more she played a certain level of cricket. After a certain amount of time she could wake up to play South Africa in Dublin feeling totally normal about playing international cricket.

As the interview wound down I was left with just one question, who does a fast bowling coach enjoy watching bowl the most?

The answer? It can only be Mark Wood.

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