Wood-stock hits: Meeting the man who taught the art of power-hitting to T20 World Cup stars
CHENNAI: One of the most seminal moments in modern T20I history came on a balmy April evening at Eden Gardens in Kolkata. That was in 2016. Requiring 19 to win the 2016 World Cup, Carlos ‘remember the name’ Brathwaite hit 6, 6, 6, 6 off Ben Stokes to win the event for the West Indies. Both Stokes and Brathwaite, though, went back a long way but not in the way one would expect. They were both coached for a period of time by Julian Wood, a ‘power-hitting coach’. Wood, who used to play for Hampshire before retiring, is one of the most well-known coaches in the industry (he almost had an IPL gig last year). Coaches like Wood are constantly in demand these days because they do what they advertise: teach players the art of boundary-hitting.
This art is like bitcoin in the T20 format because teams who hit the most boundaries win more games. This is backed by data: 80% of all T20 matches are won by teams who hit more boundaries. When did Wood, a 52-year-old who runs an academy in England, decide to take it as a full-time profession? “Around 12 years ago, I was in America,” he tells The New Indian Express. “Purely by accident, I bumped into a guy who introduced me to the hitting coach of the Texas Rangers (a Major League Baseball side). These guys know nothing about cricket but they do know about hitting a ball. I spent a lot of time with him. He invited me to spend some time at the Rangers.
“At the same time, T20 was evolving and players were after more power. They were asking this question: ‘how to generate more power?’. With T20 players wanting more access to the boundaries, I started putting stuff together and I could see where the game was going. The language was changing.” The language, he says, has completely changed in the last decade. “The phrase ‘power-hitter’. You know... ball exit speed, launch angle, bat speed, generating power through the hips,” he explains
That, more than anything else, has changed the way people strike a big ball. Sure, the sport has always had what can be termed as ‘power hitters’. But they are now encouraged to generate parts of the body, including the hips. The one modern player who is truly elite at it is Liam Livingstone, another of Wood’s products. Wood gives a demonstration as to the work he did with the England batter. “I use weighted balls, weighted bats... what I do with those guys is... I connect their hips... I have bungee (rope) on their hips. Then I will start with weighted balls and weighted bats, Then change that with light balls and light bats. So you have got power which is the heavy staff and speed which is your light base. He talks about his hip a lot so we make his hips very powerful.”
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Wood’s various drills on YouTube where he takes batters through a step-by-step guide is a must-watch because of the way he breaks it down. Bungees and weighted balls aren’t the only tools he uses to try and chisel a batter into the best boundary hitter they can be. He uses a radar to measure stuff like ‘ball exit speed, hand speed’. “I measure ball exit speed of a T... when the ball is bowled, the ball has energy because it is moving. When you hit the ball of a T, then you have to supply all the power, all the energy. The first thing I do with a player is I measure their ball exit speed of a T. We go from there. When I coach players, they will swing 20% of the balls they hit, I want them to swing as hard as they can. I don’t care where the ball goes, from there I can drag it back. I think players train and play in this 50-65% comfort zone a lot of the time because it’s comfortable. What I do is I try to create a new comfort zone. Once you do that, their ceiling goes up. Then you just need the consistency.”
Interestingly, he got this coaching methodology after watching golfer Bryson DeChambeau, who won last year’s US Open. “He was swinging that club as hard as he can,” Wood says. “He just hits the ball into the net, he isn’t fussed where that ball goes. He just wants the ball to leave the club at 150 miles per hour. I looked at that, I have used it and the results are phenomenal by training like that and the players feel that and that’s the key thing. What you are doing is that you are creating new levels they didn’t know they could go to.”
From an Indian perspective, he has worked extensively with Prithvi Shaw. And that’s the other thing about power hitting, it can be mastered even by players who aren’t what you would call ‘big players’. “You get some players, the big guys, like your Brathwaites and (Kieron) Pollards... they just stand there and smash it. They are big, strong guys. Players look to develop power from different areas.”