If you are a Surrey fan or an ardent follower of the NatWest T20 Blast, odds are that you would remember a sensational last-ball six from Azhar Mahmood to win a nail-biting encounter against Gloucestershire at the Kia Oval in 2015.
Needing six to win off the final ball, Mahmood swivelled and gave an almighty smack to a short delivery from 20-year-old Craig Miles to send the ball powering over the fence for a last-gasp win.
“When you absolutely need a six to win a match, the first instinct is to go for a power hit, rather than, say a well-timed inside out drive,” says Julian Wood, the power hitting coach who is revamping T20s coaching manuals.
Through carefully constructed training routines and equipment, Wood has created his own coaching format which has helped several international players perfect their technique as effective power hitters.
Wood's journey to becoming a freelance power hitting coach is an interesting one. It started when he met baseball coach Scott Coolbaugh while on a family vacation in the USA. Coolbaugh is the hitting coach for the baseball team Texas Rangers.
A conversation with Coolbaugh sowed the first seeds of curiosity in Wood’s mind. He realised that so much of batting in cricket is similar to baseball, with the major difference in mindset being that baseball batters attempt to hit a home run off every single pitch. In contrast, cricket is more strategic, and sixes aren’t attempted with every single ball.
But with T20s becoming the norm, six-hitting has become more than just a restriction during powerplay or death overs. International batters are encouraged to attempt sloggers with every opportunity so they can collect maximum runs.
The body and power hitting
Wood began exploring the mechanics behind power hitting and how a batsman's potential to hit big can be maximised. He learned from several videos that body power is often neglected in cricket. Hand speed remained the focus for most coaches in hitting maximums, but having analysed tons of batsmen and videos, Wood realised that if batsmen could use the hip more and get into better positions, hand speed could be improved.
“The power can come from the torso and hip. In cricket, it is very hand-dominant, and this needs to change. Coaches and batsmen are often confused about the position the body needs to get into for six-hitting. My methods focus on transferring power from the hip to the hand,” Wood says.
According to Wood, if batters can maximise their hitting power by using both body and hands – a technique he says is underutilised – scoring maximums may not be that difficult. Wood says that most T20 grounds require batters to hit the ball such that it leaves the bat at about 85mph. He has been training his pupils to smack the ball at 100mph.
“It is fun for them. If you hit at 85mph, it is a six on most T20 grounds in the world. Go beyond 90, and it is a six on any ground. I encourage them to go for a 100mph."
“Sam Billings – whose hand speed is the fastest I have seen – does it exceptionally well. I have worked with Joe Root, and he is still attempting to reach those levels,” Wood says with pride when recounting the players he has trained.
Joe Root's case is interesting. He is one of the most established all format cricket players in the world. But Wood says the England skipper is yet to achieve T20 'nirvana’ which involves three kinds of batting – the touch game, the skill game and the power game. “Root has two of the three. Our focus is to help him get all three,” Wood says about helping Root with his power hitting.
How Wood developed his coaching methods
Wood's techniques involve using hurling sticks, and bungee pulls. These help the batter prepare for any game situation or bowler.
When using a hurling stick, he imparts more speed to the ball; this trains the batter to react quicker while using their body to hit a six. His training does not use wickets because it is irrelevant when learning to hit sixes.
Nothing about Wood's coaching routine is heard of elsewhere. The moment he realised that batters use less of their body while hitting maximums, he went about identifying ways to transfer power to the hand from the torso. All the techniques he employs in his training routines look to maximize this potential.
Wood has worked with several international teams, teaching his new techniques to many world-class batters. He has worked with the England Lions, England team, Pakistan, Australia, Afghanistan and South Africa.
He oversaw players like Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Sam Billings, Jos Buttler and Hazratullah Zazai; the Afghanistan batsmen who smoked six maximums in an over in the Afghanistan Premier League in October 2018. Wood has even been a part of the rise of Indian youngster, Prithvi Shaw, who trained under him at the age of thirteen.
Working with international batters, Wood also insisted on the importance of mindset in six-hitting. He differentiates between a T20 batting mindset and a longer format one by citing the example of West Indian T20 hero Carlos Brathwaite, with whom he had extended sessions.
“If you play all formats, you ideally need more than one technique. Someone who plays just T20s can get into better positions to hit sixes. Carlos Brathwaite, for instance, sets himself up for 24 balls in a T20 inning. He would probably get 3-4 really good balls or might miss a couple here or there. This leaves him with 12 to 15 balls to create an impact, which is actually sufficient when you have power,” Wood explains.
An exhaustive package, Wood's coaching technique is taking T20 cricket by storm. International players come seeking him now and with the ODI World Cup in England this year, techniques learned from his training methods will be on display through the power hitting of his pupils.