How do we build upon Ashes success?
Ashes winners. How nice does that sound?! I think I'll say it again Ashes winners...
Be honest now how many of you expected to say that after our defeat to Bangladesh in the World Cup? But it tastes sweet doesn't it? For any of you who like me, saw any of the Tests on either of the infamous 5-0 tours it tastes even sweeter. Whenever we've won the Ashes in recent years I think back to a, lets call him, 'mature' gentleman (old) who got off of a bus in Adelaide back in 2006 and gave it to me with both barrels "hey pommie what's the f£cking score?". Yes, we'd just thrown a Test away from an impossible position, but my friend I hope life is still treating you well. I also think of poor Steve Smith "I can't wait to get to England, they won't even come close to us" or words to that affect. I guess he was right, it wasn't close, but congratulations to Cricket Australia for replacing Michael Clarke with someone who can so confidently predict the future, albeit without much success.
And the 'future' is the topic of this month's blog. How do England build upon this success and more importantly, sustain it in future years? In 2005, we followed up that historic win with defeat in Pakistan and a year or so later an Ashes whitewash. In 2009, we had a goal to become the number one Test team in the world and for the next two or three years we played outstanding cricket to reach the summit, but once we lifted that mace after a 4-0 home whitewash of India we couldn't sustain it and lost away in Pakistan. In 2013, well, we know what happened there.
So how can we build upon and sustain this unexpected Ashes success? It's obvious we need a goal, so we are driving towards a collective target and for us now, I assume, it is to become, once again, the world's number one Test nation; but if we were to reach this goal how can we sustain it and attempt to become an Australia of the 1990s and 2000s or the West Indies of the 1980s because this seems to be the hurdle we've yet to crack.
Here's my thoughts...
Identify Alastair Cook's successor - tick. One of the excellent early decisions by Andrew Strauss was to name Joe Root as vice captain in place of Ian Bell. Whenever Cook decides to call it time, there has to be an absolute smooth transition, not a rebuilding exercise. Root will of course be his own man, but if he has a significant input now and Cook and Root work together, any eventual transition will be smooth and similarly when Root is captain any new vice captain has to build into the same ethos. The vice captain's position should be as important as the captain and not just a glorified yes man or someone who is appointed because it's the captain's friend. Have them share media duties and get used to the difficult parts of the role. Succession planning should always be paramount.
Create an environment that isn't a closed shop to those on the outside - England should never return to the old days when players score a duck and are instantly replaced for the next Test, but at the same time players on the outside need to feel that if they are scoring hundred after hundred in county cricket they have a chance of selection. One of the biggest issues of achieving sustained success is missing a generation of cricketers. Australia and the West Indies were pretty much closed shops throughout their periods of dominance so when players retired en-mass, they had missed the next generations. England need to find a way to introduce players at the right times even when winning. Rest players, rotate players there are ways. And even if they can't break into the side, have the next cabs off the rank invited to international nets, make them feel involved and part of the environment, give them something to continually strive for.
Have no room for sentiment - if England are to become number one Test side in the world there can be no room for sentiment - they have to become ruthless. If Ian Bell is struggling over a few series, just because he has won five Ashes series or played over 100 Tests there can be no room for sentiment. As much as I despise Manchester United, it was one of the hallmarks of Sir Alex Ferguson's success to know when to move a player on. Would Ian Bell have played this long at international level if he was a footballer under Sir Alex Ferguson? I'm not sure. England have to do what the great Manchester United sides did and move players on at the right time, even if some of the players still feel they have more to offer. Young players will adapt quicker if introduced into successful team environments.
England Lions - England Lions cannot be like the England Under 21s at football, they have to be treated as important as the first eleven. Our second best X1 must be the England Lions X1. For any home Test series, the England Lions should play a first class game against the touring side, prior to the first Test. Give players exposure against touring teams and allow them the opportunity to put themselves further in the shop window. Also, in the winter months don't have the England Lions tour in the same country as the first X1. Of course there are advantages to this, but in my mind they should be touring in the country of the following years opponents and giving players exposure to their conditions, ahead of a tour twelve months later. Allow them to adjust and learn ahead of the following years series, should any of them be selected. Think ahead and plan. That way conditions won't be alien to any new players.
Learn from ex-players - tick. England have done a good job in recent months of inviting ex-players into the dressing room for players to talk to. Ian Botham, Bob Willis, Michael Atherton, Alec Stewart and Freddie Flintoff are just a few. While I suspect KP won't be invited in anytime soon, players from the 2005, 2009 and 2013 teams should be invited, not necessarily to share the good times, but so players can learn from their 'mistakes' and learnings. Looking back what would they have done differently to sustain being number one. Tapping into the minds of former players is invaluable. Maybe even invite players from those successful West Indies sides. I'm not sure the Australians would accept such an invitation...
Allow players to play IPL/Big Bash - there could be a whole different blog on this, but in short, we must encourage our players, when schedules allow, to play in these competitions. It will improve skills, it will give players the chance to tap into the minds of the world's best players from other countries and also take away fear factors. Would it be 'easier', I of course say that loosely, to face Mitchell Johnson if you were team mates with him for six weeks of the year? Or put it another way would he scowl as much or try and intimidate as much if the players were team mates elsewhere?
Offer central contracts to promising young players - we offer full contracts to our 1st X1 players, why not offer five contracts to an identified group of the five best youngsters in the country? Again it helps overcome a closed shop environment and gives them exposure to international cricket. It also gives the ECB control over their coaching and development. While they'd still play for their counties the ECB can send them to play in the Sheffield Shield etc. I know there are incremental contracts in place but this would put them under the full control of the ECB.
Finally, maintain a two division county championship but increase the promotion and relegation to three teams, every game will become ultra competitive.
There you go just a few thoughts, but ultimately it comes down to performances and attitude on the pitch. Andrew Strauss will have learnt a lot from his playing career and he'll be thinking back to what he would have differently after that Indian whitewash series. Right now, none of his decisions can be faulted. I'm confident he, alongside, Trevor Bayliss and Alastair Cook will make the right decisions and put the right structures, processes and succession plans in place to put us on a road to sustained success. But of course the true measurement will be once you've read Midnight's winter tour diaries. His verdict is far more of a KPI than Bob Willis!
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