Burns Eye View

How Healthy Is English Cricket Right Now?

If the barometer of a sport’s success is the performance of the national team, then success in the ICC Champions Trophy following England’s ODI Series win v South Africa would suggest all is well with the game in UK.

However, under the surface, I see the cracks in our cricket system that may be further exposed if leading administrators do not take action to prevent them becoming chasms over time.

ODI Cricket:

Andrew Strauss’s prioritization of ‘white-ball cricket’ since becoming MD of England Cricket has brought rich rewards following the disastrous World Cup in Australia 2015. The end of Jonathan Trott’s and Kevin Pietersen’s England careers has created difficulty for England, but Strauss is clearly a man with a plan.

Central contracts for one day players, a captain dedicated to transforming the mindset and performance, and a coach selected on his track-record in short format cricket around the world, has brought impressive results.

A globalist perspective has enabled England to lose their long-held conservative tag which meant one day cricket was seen as a poor relation in comparison to test and first-class cricket. A victory in the ICC Champions Trophy would be just reward for the shift in thinking and improvement in performance.

A queue of players are knocking on the door for recognition – always a healthy sign in a professional sporting system. Jonny Bairstow, Sam Billings, and Liam Livingstone could all (arguably) perform as well if not better than those currently in the starting XI.

County Cricket Has Players of International Standard:

Keaton Jennings looks the best young player in the English game. His test debut was a great success and it may not be long before he gains recognition in ODI and t20 cricket such has been his rapid development with Durham in recent times.

And, Dawid Malan continues to dominate England Lions matches, despite being unable to inspire Middlesex to achieve a respectable level of collective performance in white-ball cricket. Surrey has a strong one day team gaining good experience in finals days plus the Curran brothers seem likely to push for international selection in the coming years. Sussex’s Chris Jordan may come again as an international after his IPL experience, while his teammate Jofra Archer looks a very good all-round prospect too. Nottinghamshire’s Rikki Wessels has the stroke-making ability to change a game and can keep wicket too, while Glamorgan’s Colin Ingram looks a quality one day player, and their opening bowlers Michael Hogan and Timm van der Gugten backed up by Marchant de Lange and Craig Meschede, look as penetrative as most teams in the 2nd Division apart from Sussex. who have Steve Magoffin, Vernon Philandfer, Jofra Archer, Chris Jordan, David Wiesse, Stiaan van Zyl.

I saw Somerset’s Roelof van der Merwe play arguably the one day innings of the season v Surrey at Taunton. He is a highly-effective slow left arm bowler too and may follow in the footsteps of Alphonso Thomas and Charl Willoughby plus Andy Caddick in becoming a fans favorite at Taunton.

Hampshire’s Rilee Roussow and Kyle Abbot look quality players while Lancashire’s Dane Vilas looks a good performer in the white-ball game. Leicestershire’s Mark Cosgrove can win a match on his own, and Middlesex’s James Franklin performed well in the 50 over competition with bat and ball. Essex’s spin twins Boom-Boom Zaidi and Simon Harmer made a big impact in their early season one day success and Matt Quinn looks a good prospect with the ball.

Warwickshire have endured a miserable start to the season, but in Sam Hain, they have one of the most promising batsmen in county cricket who can enjoy the mentoring of Jonathan Trott now the former England number 3 has settled for a life in county cricket.

So, all is well then? Yes, but for the eagle-eyed amongst you, the above list of ‘high-performers’ have a common thread running through their cricketing pedigree. All have been recruited as ‘English’ to ‘do a job’ for county clubs that their administrators believe could not be done by players emerging from their county age group/player pathway programmes.

Test Cricket:

With 6 defeats from the last 8 test matches, England have work to do in the longer format this summer if they are to travel to Australia this winter with confidence. Ongoing uncertainty over the identity of an opener to replace Andrew Strauss and partner Alastair Cook at the top of the order, let alone finding a full-time replacement for Jonathan Trott, means that England will remain as vulnerable against quality quick bowling as they are against intelligent purveyors of spin until new players find their feet at test level.

Key Roles:

Every successful cricket team that enjoys sustained success is built around a strong spine: two good opening batsman and a quality number 3. Two top quality opening bowlers supported by a very good spin bowler, and high-level wicket-keeping skills to complement the bowlers. And, all the skills and personalities integrated successfully in a team superbly led by a wise captain.

Is England producing enough players of the required standard to make the spine of the team stronger over time?

Is County Cricket a Healthy Breeding Ground?

I believe that every successful cricketing nation is underpinned by a healthy school/club system which feeds its’ first-class domestic structure with a pipeline of ambitious talented young players. The domestic game is best enhanced by the integration of diverse skills and alternative thinking and culture to broaden the learning and playing experience of its’ participants. However, the key is to ‘grow your own’ and not be dependent on imports to serve the country’s cricketing needs at the highest level. Ultimately, the money comes from having a successful national team.

Will county cricket produce enough front-line bowlers of the highest quality in the coming years to replace the outstanding James Anderson and Stuart Broad? I hope so.. Can we find batsmen to excel at 1,2, and 3 in the order? Compton, Carberry, Robson, Lyth, Ali, Hales, Hameed and Jennings have been tried with varying success while Vince and Ballance were unconvincing in the middle order last year. ,But the quality of bowling in comparison to yesteryear (when many of the world’s best were playing key roles in county bowling attacks, and the England players played county cricket regularly) makes it harder to judge the value of the runs scored in relation to the standards required for batsmen to excel in test cricket.

When Alastair Cook eventually calls it a day, will Hasseb Hameed be able to fill his shoes? Can England develop a quality spin bowler to replace Graeme Swann? Will the standard of wicket-keeping ever return to the levels reached by Alan Knott, Bob Taylor and Jack Russell? Will the captain of England ever be anyone other than a novice in the role due to elite players not gaining captaincy experience in county cricket?

I may be old-fashioned in this regard, but I believe in creating greater opportunities for late-developers and offering genuine hope for every professional cricketer to believe they can make the national team if they develop the skills, confidence and track-record over time. If county cricket becomes just a talent identification programme for England Lions selection, then I fear for its relevance.

English cricket is well-regarded around the world. Our tradition, our grounds, the professional structure and financial rewards are envied by many test-playing nations. However, we must be careful we do not follow the FA Premier League and become a magnet for foreign cricketers who come and go. The challenge is to create a stronger infra-structure to ensure local English cricketers emerge as international class cricketers.

I am not a 'little Englander' but am campaigning to create greater self-awareness on the part of our administrators to spend their ECB millions wisely. I am all for initiatives to get young people into the game but sustained involvement must be the aim. All Stars Cricket is a good initiative for 5-8 year olds but the successful transition into age group cricket, and then into adult cricket, should be the true definition of its success, not how many people buy a pack for £40 from ECB.

Fundamentally, a healthy school/university/club system which retains players in its fold and also nurtures cricketers for the professional game is what I believe the ECB must focus on if English Cricket is to enjoy sustained all-round success.

There are many good aspects of English cricket right now - but, if the next generation isn¹t nurtured properly and if university and club cricket isn't strong, then the game will find it hard to sustain itself. The sport is about more than the national team.

Neil Buns


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