Burns Eye View

Ed Smith Loves All Round Development

England Cricket’s National Selector Ed Smith is an intelligent, sophisticated, urbane individual. He is passionate about excellence, and is a positive advocate for ‘all-round’ development.

With a family background in education, it is no surprise that the former Middlesex captain and England batsman with a double first in History from Cambridge University is opening up many conversations amongst the cricketing cognoscenti about the notion of good selection.

Fundamentally, good selection is about exercising good judgment. But first, one has to know where to look when assessing character and an individual’s playing potential. The previous selectorial regime gave England debuts to a host of players who failed to sustain the necessary level of performance for international cricket and a familiar pattern emerged whereby a player played for a whole Test series - the mantra of “rather one Test too many, than one too few” was regularly espoused. But Ed Smith is a man who likes to back his judgment and has also shown his more ruthless side by discarding some players such as Mark Stoneman (a selection from the James Whitaker/Mick Newell/Angus Fraser era) and latterly Dawid Malan, because I imagine he clearly did not believe they were either:

a) a good enough to excel in top-level cricket now and over time,
b) possessing character traits warranting investment of opportunity.

Opportunity cost must always be assessed when selecting teams. By selecting a mid-career player in poor form, might the decision ‘block’ a young player with high-potential from gaining invaluable experience early in their career? Even if the young player doesn’t excel immediately, the insights gained from exposure to top-level sport can feed their learning process in a healthy way over time.

Malan clearly felt aggrieved by his rejection from ‘Team England’. He had played some good innings in matches lost against West indies at Headingley and against Australia Down Under last winter. But...

As a rule, teams don’t carry passengers easily – and this summer Dawid Malan’s batting and catching failed him when he (and his international career) needed them most.

Malan, I imagine, will feel a mix of frustration, disappointment, and possibly moments of anger too at his rejection. But, ultimately, when he looks himself in the mirror, he will know he was fortunate to be afforded the opportunity in the first instance, and that since being excluded, he has continued to ‘under-perform’ (relative to his potential) even at county Championship Division 2 standard. Captaining Middlesex could have offered him a welcome distraction from his own travails with England, but clearly the summer of 2018 will not be one that Malan looks back on with fondness. Maybe he can come again? A clear mind after a winter away from the game may be the tonic he needs.

But, what of Smith’s summer of all-round excellence? The selection of many all-rounders including three wicket-keepers was the essence of Smith’s strategy. He may say “I just pick the best players, and the Captain decides what order they will go out to bat” – but there is more to selection than this.

Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow and Ollie Pope all bat well, and each of these could be selected to keep wicket. Bairstow has been outstanding for the last two years and deserves to maintain his place in his desired role – but the ‘all-round’ options with the gloves are remarkable.

And, Surrey’s Ben Foakes is arguably the best ‘keeper – plus he is a fine batsman in his own right too. But Foakes remains on the outside at present. Moeen Ali is the main spinner again, and batted at 3. Meanwhile, despite having several first-class hundreds to his name, Adil Rashid seems marooned down at number 9 in the batting order!

Joe Root is England’s best batsman – and he now seems to be bowling more too under Smith’s leadership. Ben Stokes is a world-class all-rounder and Sam Curran may become one of the finest in the sport too. He has revealed himself as a top-class ‘beginner’. His temperament and sense of occasion have been remarkable this summer. And Chris Woakes was awesome at Lord’s. What riches!

Stuart Broad’s excellence with the ball has been impressive since he first entered the national team, but as a youngster, he opened the batting for Oakham School and for Leicestershire’s age-group teams. But, the lack of opportunity to develop as a middle-order batsman in first-class cricket (due to Broad’s early elevation to the England team) has prevented him from developing the mentality as well as the strokes to be a consistent contributor against various types of bowling. But, we are talking about a man who scored 169 v Pakistan in a Test match at Lord’s being England’s number 10 batsman! And James Anderson showed his batting capability when he nearly scored three figures himself at Trent Bridge versus Australia in the Ashes not so long ago.

But, herein lies the problem.

It’s all well and good having depth in the batting, and having multi-dimensional cricketers, but if each individual’s primary skill is not developed to such an extent that they are potent in desired conditions, and remain highly-competitive in other conditions, the team will be vulnerable against quality opposition.

England must develop a top order with batsmen capable of making more than two centuries in a series if it is to win consistently. Right now, Alastair Cook’s shoes look too big to fill. Joe Root cannot score most of the runs all of the time. Maybe Surrey’s county Championship-winning captain Rory Burns can be that player, or maybe Keaton Jennings can emerge stronger for his tough initiation to Test cricket.

Or, maybe, just maybe, Sam Curran is ‘the diamond’ England need. Could he be the next Jacques Kallis? His temperament and his ‘touch’ at the crease are two aspects to his game I have come to admire greatly this summer. Having seen him bat as a schoolboy and developed the opinion that he is a batsman who bowls, I would not be surprised to see Sam grow into the number 3 position, if given the chance to cement his role in the team this next 12 months.

For now, Ed Smith’s passion for all-rounders in his team is working. A 4-1 home series victory over the world’s number one ranked team is an impressive beginning. But, the true test comes when the team returns to India, or plays in the next Ashes series Down Under – these are the series which define the best players from the rest. Maybe, Smith knows England’s playing resources lack depth, and that is why he is investing in youth and trying to build the performance around a dedicated commitment to enhancing the team ethic. He is a smart guy, and Jos Buttler’s selection has shown he is not frightened to back his own judgment.

Whether Ed Smith has enough other players of the right quality to fill the other spots in the team once Broad and Anderson retire will be the challenge he must overcome in due course if he is to become celebrated as ‘the insightful one’.

I hope Ed can come to be regarded in a similarly complimentary way to the legendary Australian cricketer, state captain and recently retired National Selector for Cricket Australia, John Inverarity, aka ‘the sagacious one’.

Over time, if he does, England’s cricket team will be in rude health.

Neil Burns


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