Burns Eye View

Is A Root and Branch Review Needed?

Pakistan Defeat Should Be The Crisis To Generate Necessary Structural Change:


In advance of last winter's Ashes series, I thought a 5-0 defeat versus Australia was a possibility. Their bowling versus our batting looked an uneven contest. And when I considered the batting quality of Steve Smith and David Warner against our bowling quality, I couldn't find much hope unless our two best, but ageing performers, Anderson and Broad could find their best cricket during the Ashes down under. It proved to be way beyond Broad, and others, but Anderson on his own could not prevent a disastrous 4-0 defeat from happening. And, what was worse from my perspective, was 'ultra-positive' captain Joe Root trying to tell the world that it was a closer series than it looked. Sorry Joe, your team lacked quality, it performed poorly, and you got beaten heavily. Denial will not help a team emerge as a wiser and stronger group over time if it refuses to acknowledge the reality of the day.


Then, being bowled out for 58 in Auckland in the new year was arguably the lowest point for English cricket in modern times. Joe, and his "positive brand of cricket" in word promised us so much - and they were woeful in deed. Sadly, it reminded supporters of 'the dark days' under Mike Atherton when the Ashes were unlikely to ever return to England, and the West Indies pacemen would 'blow away' all but the most skilful and courageous batsmen. Remember 46 all out in Trinidad? And let's not even think about the about regular losses on tours to India and Pakistan!


Despite the low of 58 all out in Auckland, I was encouraged to be optimistic at the start of the season. Surely Joe Root was 'rested' and was ready to unveil his "positive brand of cricket" to his loyal public and remind us all how good the England team is in its' own conditions. Until I was reminded that England isn't invincible at home. Only last summer Joe Root offered us another candidate for the award of 'the biggest low' in recent times when he declared at Headingley to 'be positive' against arguably the worst Windies team to tour England. They managed to knock off 322, and win their first top-level overseas Test since 2000 (apart from wins v Zimbabwe and an emerging Bangladesh team) only one week after England totally destroyed the same opposition at Edgbaston last summer?


But, somehow, England's Test cricket fell to a new low this May Bank Holiday weekend. To perform so woefully at the Home of Cricket, against a young and inexperienced opposition made a mockery of all 'the big talk' from England in advance of the early summer series against Pakistan. A heavy defeat against a Pakistan team shorn of the retired Younis Khan and Misbah Ul-Haq should result in a serious internal inquiry into the preparation, selection and performance of the England team.


The England batting performance was shocking - twice. There was only one session that England came out on top in the whole game. And the Pakistan bowling attack, despite bowling with skill and intelligence, it must be said that it was hardly representative of past teams with bowlers of the calibre of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younus, Saqlain Mushtaq, and Abdul Qadir.


England's Major Problem:


Fundamentally, we can't find a good English coach, a good England captain, a reliable pair of opening batsmen, a top quality number 3 (we can't seem to find a decent one!) a quality spin bowler (let alone two of them to bowl in tandem) and a pool of quick bowlers to select from, including one of left-arm variety.


Resources:


Despite the many tens of millions spent on the England team, and its 'feeder systems', plus the £36 million given as an annual handout to 18 county cricket club (which effectively helps to 'prop them up' each year) the return on investment is pitiful.


Integrating Individual Players Successfully to Create Collective Excellence:


England possess some top-class Cricketers and some highly-promising ones. But, collectively, the team fails to perform. The only area of consistency - has come from consistently losing overseas series. But despite this, the public keeps being told that "all is well, we have some great characters in our dressing room, and some really talented cricketers who are all working really hard". So, what's wrong then? Why can't they perform well as a team? The reality is they perform very badly too often.


Trevor Bayliss Is Working His Notice:


If Trevor Bayliss is leaving the role of England Head Coach after the 2019 World Cup, then I suggest the next Ashes series is at serious risk unless a new Test match coach is appointed soon. Bayliss has proved he is incapable of developing a successful England Test team, and the individual players under his coaching appear to regress from both a confidence and a technical perspective. Newcomers have been introduced and have disappeared without trace too often. Maybe his 'hands-off' approach to coaching is part of the problem? Or maybe there is not enough players of sufficient mental fortitude or capacity to 'learn on the job' to ensure we have a squad of quality Test match players as opposed to the 5 or 6 top players we possess. The reality is that the better players were Peter Moores' players, not Trevor Bayliss's players.


The Big Issues:


To move forward, and enjoy sustainable success, the England team needs A SUPPLY OF TOP QUALITY ENGLISH players. So, what can the ECB do about sporting this critical objective? Or are they indeed a major part of the problem itself?


The ECB has seemingly become obsessed with increasing levels of participation in the UK, and are using the 2019 World Cup as the vehicle to inspire a new generation of cricketers and fans. Part of this strategy is to create a winning England team for the World Cup. it makes good sense - but not at the expense of dis-regarding the Test team, and the domestic format which is effectively 'the education system' that will nurture future TALENT and provide a barometer of both form and quality of player for selectors choosing the present England team.


The longer format is still very important, and traditional fans really care about the County Championship and Test cricket. The Ashes remains the defining series in the health of English Cricket. There is a growing perception that the ECB have become 'a money-making machine' as opposed to the body of people responsible for nurturing the future as well as honouring the past. Their governance cannot be solely about maximising revenue streams. I see their challenge is broader than increasing income - it is about ensuring the game is in good 'all-round' health. This means financially, and in performance terms at the highest level, and the domestic playing standard is the best in world cricket - and is populated by 'local' players not 'imports'. They must also be about inspiring people who do not aspire to play the sport to a very high standard even if they do not wish to pursue a career at professional level - Minor counties, Universities, Club Cricket, School Cricket. It all needs to be well-funded and properly supported so that the whole system becomes healthy.


Selection:

Ed Smith is the new National Selector, but however good he may be in the role, he can only select the players available. He isn't responsible for developing their talent.


The Lord's Test may be seen as a feather in his cap for talent identification. Buttler and Bess - good news for West Country cricket and good news for Ed smith. But let's not get carried away. Dom Bess has taken one wicket this season before this Test and Jos missed out in the first innings when England needed to set the game up.


Batting Standards:


The big issue remains the top order batting. Modern players seem to lack the technique and the temperament to defend the ball for any length of time. It is as if the modern player lacks confidence in their defence so they use attack as the best form of defence.


Since Andrew Strauss's retirement in September 2012, too many incumbents at the top of the order have not been technically good enough to start well on a consistent basis. They are at risk too often because of technique.


The job of the top 3 is to be solid which is why I feel Alastair Cook should move to number 3 and Joe Root should return to number 4. This is a viewpoint I share with both Mike Selvey and Nick Compton – two men whose cricket brains I have come to admire. Maybe it is time to find a new opening pair with Cook coming in behind them. Blunt the ball before the likes of Bairstow and Stokes come to the crease - much like Nick Compton did in Cape Town before Bairstow and Stokes 'cut loose' and made a record partnership, and their career best highest individual scores.


So how does England go about developing a new generation of top batsmen and bowlers who can take wickets against good batsmen in batsman-friendly conditions.


For Batsmen - you need patience and concentration to succeed consistently in Test match cricket. County Championship cricket played in April and May on seaming pitches where the match lasts 2 days won't help achieve this. You need good hard pitches to make bowlers work hard for wickets with pace or spin or relentless accuracy and you need batsmen who value their Wicket dearly. It's old fashioned - but it is really needed!!!


The Headingley Test:


The selection for the next Test and for the forthcoming series versus India is problematical for Ed Smith and his trusted advisors. Mark Stoneman seems to be in a horrendous place - I feel for him. It must be horrible to be under the microscope when you are clearly out of form. Is he a good enough player to become a top Test match opener? I don't think so - unless he becomes more solid in defence. But, if the Selectors think he is good enough, then they should ignore the media 'noise', and make a decision to back him properly for the whole summer and support him as he moves through his learning and development at the top level.


Or do England's selectors go for another debutant in Nick Gubbins of Radley College and Middlesex to follow in Andrew Strauss's footsteps. Or, should they revert back to Keaton Jennings?


Gubbins is highly promising and he may do well, but he may be better off getting another strong season behind him to deepen his confidence before the call to play Test cricket comes. But, if he gets picked for the series against India, he may benefit from batting in warmer weather and the drier pitches in August.


Is A Batsman at 7 A Luxury?:


Jos Buttler is a uniquely gifted cricketer, but can a Test team justify picking a batsman at number 7? He offers the counter-attacking option and is highly-capable of transferring pressure on to bowlers as well as most of the world's best players.


Dom Bess:


Fundamentally, Bess needs to play as the sole spinner. His performance at Lord's suggests he is some way short of this requirement. But, he looks a bright, optimistic young man with some genuine confidence on and off the field of play. However, despite his plucky half-century on Day 3 at Lord's, he must be judged on his bowling for that is his primary role in the team. His future looks bright - Bess got 100 for MCC v Essex so he can bat. But, maybe he is a pick for the future? Could he become a genuine all-rounder? He has to be able to bowl better than Moeen Ali, not just score runs at number 8. England needs wickets from its frontline bowlers.


Buttler and Bess were small crumbs of comfort at Lord's. The real problem is the lack of performance from the top 6. England can't be 110 for 6 every innings.


The powers-that-be need to identify what's wrong.


Maybe the lack of accountability is the real problem?


And, determining who really is in charge is the issue which needs to be resolved first of all if England is to make genuine progress over time? Strauss? Flower? Smith? Bayliss? Root?


Solving The Batting Problem in English Cricket:


I think the problem with the batting is linked to a lack of patience and concentration. And, the failure of players and coaches to install quality basics in the players' formative years.


Quality of Pitches in Early Season:


I think tough pitches early season is a great challenge for batsmen to develop the patience and concentration needed to excel in top-class cricket. But too few batsmen seem able to embrace the challenge.


Perhaps, deep-down, they know their skill level is deficient? If so, panic can set in. Mastery of self, and mastery of technical skill for Test cricket is both a timeless approach and a mindset that so few modern batsmen have – maybe the white-ball format has taken hold of people’s attitudes to their professional development in a way which is nearly impossible to arrest? But ‘mastery of the basics’ hasn’t prevented Virat Kohli or Kane Williamson from excelling across all formats.


Developing High-Level Technical Skill Must Be A Priority:


The skill level in terms of defensive technique, and commitment to ‘mastery of the basics’ would appear to be sub-standard in too many modern-day players. Maybe too many players think their name might be on a particular upcoming delivery so they play 'positively' and try and get a few before that delivery comes? Such thinking is fundamentally flawed if you want to become a top player. The challenge is to be able to respond effectively to whatever delivery you receive as a batsman – and practising against all possible deliveries so as a batsman one is in pursuit of mastery of the ball is the journey that ambitious players should take.


I think the following issues need to be addressed immediately:


1. Players, not coaches should be responsible for their performance.


A successful cricket team need strong men to perform their roles. So, clear out all the hangers-on from the team space, especially once the match starts.


2. Selectors can only select the best available players.


Mark Stoneman is struggling - but is Keaton Jennings or Nick Gubbins any better? Quite possibly. I think Jennings has a wonderful attitude to professional excellence and will have benefitted from his struggles last time around by returning to the team with his eyes wide open and with his game in good order off the back of good form for his new county Lancashire. But, it is unlikely that county players will take Test cricket by storm when they have yet to dominate domestic cricket season upon season, in the manner someone like Matt Hayden did previously in Australia before he eventually did the same in Test cricket. I know there are examples of Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan being ‘plucked’ from county cricket by Duncan Fletcher. And both excelled for England despite modest returns for their counties initially. But, both these players didn’t appear from nowhere - they had dominated every level of cricket up to county cricket, including England Under 19’s. They had pedigree right from their early schoolboy days, and could hardly be described as ‘remarkable discoveries’.


3. County cricket standard needs to improve.


But, it won't happen overnight. What’s more, it probably won’t happen at all because there are too many vested interests protecting the status quo. I think it is time for a revolution.


Currently, too many contracted players have little, or no chance of being selected to play for England. My vision for domestic cricket: Play less, at a higher intensity, fewer contracts on offer at county level to raise the standard and reduce the number of professional players. Then, spend the money saved on the feeder system by supporting a semi-pro system in club/league cricket and Minor County game.


Maybe an 8-team County Championship played over 5 weeks of 4-day cricket in a tournament played throughout June (pre T20) and then a final in Sept could work better?


4. Transform the Quality of Experience in Player Pathway Coaching.


Are the best young players being treated to a sufficiently 'hard school' environment? I don't think so, based on what I hear and see. For example at Middlesex, most of their 1st XI players come from outside the county, and even the country. And the population in north London and Home Counties - this is not a great advert for their emerging player programme, despite the fact that several of England's under 19's are from Middlesex last winter. But one could argue the case for “what does that prove?” - when England consistently get beaten by less well-resourced countries at under 19 level. What does it really mean if you are considered among the best of a bad bunch in a particular age-band?


5. Make People Fully Accountable For Performance.


Pay accordingly - performance related pay. And this includes coaches!


Who really has their head on the block?


Is it the Captain or is it the Head Coach and his team of many assistants?


Or is it Ed Smith? Or is it Andrew Strauss? Or is it Andy Flower? Or is Flower just an interim appointment who is solely responsible for ‘holding the fort’ while Strauss tends to the important needs of his sick wife?


No one knows who really has their ‘head on the block’ in English cricket and the way it is set up, means it is too easy for people in senior management roles to deflect the brickbats towards others, even though publicly they take ‘collective responsibility’. It seems as if everyone off the field blames those on the field and vice versa. each other or 'sticks together' and blames the players.


Other Issues:


Before we even consider getting on to the topic of 'The Hundred' - there is a bigger issue for world cricket to deal with. Spot-fixing, match-fixing, and illegally betting on matches is a major problem for cricket. Is there an issue in England? I don't think so - but maybe I am a little naive here? However, if we 'school' players well both as quality cricketers and as top quality human beings, the issue will not be a problem.


Corrupt people will not seduce quality individuals who place their personal integrity at the core of their decision-making.


Corruption is sport's most worrying and aggressive opponent. But, the key thing is for each player/person involved in the sport, to be values-based and exercise good judgment if and when 'corrupt offers' emerge.


Time For Bayliss To Go As England Head coach of Test Cricket:


The lack of accountability is the main problem all round.


Trevor Bayliss doesn't seem to have got a grip on the role of being England’s Head Coach in Test cricket. It goes beyond organising the team at practice, or on match days. I don’t believe he should have been allowed to continue to live in Sydney and say that “I don’t watch county cricket, and I don’t know the players – that’s down to the Selectors.” I found those statements in recent years hard to accept from the Head Coach of our National Team. And when he left a tour a day early to have a minor operation in Sydney, I found it bizarre. The next day his team collapsed and got hammered which precipitated the departure of Alastair Cook form the captaincy while Bayliss was on the other side of the world to fit in with the diary of a medical practitioner in Sydney! Now, I may be doing him a dis-service, and the operation may have been more serious than was portrayed in the media, but the principle of a having an England coach who returns to Sydney after every tour is plain wrong. He is not a consultant – he is an employee.


Who really is accountable?


Is it Strauss? Flower? Smith? Baylis? Root? For me, there are too many involved with 'a piece' of the action and when this happens it is all too easy for each of them to say "not my fault, guvnor' to the CEO and Chairman. And when too many get involved and they are all culpable then they say nice things about each other and link arms to see off the detractors until the next crisis.


A Possible Solution:

Personally, I would put Andy Flower in charge and make him accountable like Gareth Southgate is. Selection and performance are his domain / get it wrong and the country bays for your blood! Get it right, and you justify your huge salary and the plaudits you subsequently receive for 'getting it right'.


A Postcript:


Can ECB (please!) GET RID OF THOSE RIDICULOUS WHITE SWEATERS, and instead restore the England team to traditional ones without individual numbers on them. After all, it is a game for the team, to represent their public, not a stage for individuals to build their own brand.


Neil Burns


www.londoncounty.co.uk





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