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The Art & Science of Selection

by Neil Burns

The England & Wales Cricket Board announced on April that Ed Smith, the England Team National Selector, was being relieved of his duties and the role made redundant.

From, May 2021 onwards, England Team Head Coach Chris Silverwood, will have greater power with the responsibility for both team and squad selection. This authority effectively makes Silverwood as powerful in his sport as his counterparts in Football and Rugby.

Both Gareth Southgate (England Football) and Eddie Jones (England Rugby) know what it feels like to be accountable for the selection and performance of their respective teams. There is no hiding place when things go wrong – the media and public know who to train their sights on when they go looking for a target! When ‘the blame game’ starts as a consequence of the national team failing to meet expectations, it will be Chris Silverwood who will have to face the music from now on.  

Cricket has effectively caught up with the two other major team sports and made the Head Coach responsible for the key decisions pertaining to the leadership of elite level performance. For a long time, there was a selection process headed by an amateur Chairman of Selectors, with Surrey & England legend Sir Alec Bedser performing the role for many years in the 70’s and 80’s. This was in the days before broadcasting money bankrolled the sport and there was a need for ‘expenses-paid’ volunteers to serve the national team’s need for a detached person to be responsible for selection.

Down the years, the style of the Chairman of Selectors would vary – for example the late Tony Greig once told me that he experienced Alec Bedser and Charlie Elliot as ‘friendly sounding boards’ when he was England captain. He said that he saw selection meetings as a forum for him to explain to them who he wanted in his England team and why he wanted them.

As professionalism increased through the 90’s and a full-time England Manager Coach had been in place since Mickey Stewart led England to success in Australia in 1986/7, the need for amateur ‘expenses only’ selectors became a distraction for the man appointed as England Manager/Coach.

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The wise and richly experienced Stewart worked closely with England captain Graham Gooch and helped lead England to the World Cup final in 1992 where they lost to Pakistan. Stewart was a pioneer, and along with the England captain Gooch helped professionalise the national team’s approach to preparation and performance. However, the suits at Lord’s still wanted to have ‘one of their own’ as some sort of overlord.

Ossie Wheatley, AC Smith and Raman Subba Row, all ex-Oxbridge University cricketers, decided to appoint Lord Ted Dexter as the first paid Chairman of selectors which, in my opinion, changed the dynamic and probably undermined Stewart’s authority to some extent. And so began the era of paid selectors and a higher profile for the Chairman of Selectors. In time, the role was to change its name to National Selector following various reviews into the National Team’s (under) performance in Australia and at World Cups.  

The reality is, that selection of the squad and selection of England’s Touring Parties, is a seriously important job. Anybody can select the best performing individuals in county cricket, but identifying an individual’s likely suitability to step up to international cricket requires a more trained eye, than just following the cricket and selecting people on achieving high numbers of wickets taken or runs scored.

Technique, big match temperament and personality (in the dressing room and in response to media scrutiny), all play their part in assisting a player’s ability to enjoy success on the international stage. Having ‘savvy’ people who can spot the flaws in individuals as well as identify their strengths is key to ensuring the right people get selected for the best opportunities. Without such discernment, too many people gain selection and fail, this creating ‘opportunity cost’ for a player with a high potential from being backed in the national team from a young age.

Australia seemed to select test teams and touring parties wisely under the West Australian Lawrie Sawle in the 80’s and 90’s. Players such as Steve Waugh, Ian Healy, Mark Taylor, and Shane Warne were given international debuts at a young age without much State cricket experience, and then backed despite not producing ‘the goods’ initially. A similar investment was made in Ricky Ponting too.

Cricket Australia was fortunate to have Sawle and another famous West Australian in John Inverarity to head its selection panel. Having a wise cricket person who is astute at managing people and happy to maintain a low profile in supporting the captain and coach is vital. Geoff Miller performed a similarly impressive role for Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower when England experienced a period of dominance in world cricket during the late 2000’s and early 2010’s.

When a Selector enjoys a high profile it can prove an unwelcome distraction for the team leadership. The media love a headline and if the Selectors can be caught off guard and provide the tabloid media with the line they need to sensationalise a situation then the team can be undermined in a flash.

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In the mid 90’s Keith Fletcher took on the role of England Head Coach and was ‘supported’ by former Yorkshire & England captain Raymond Illingworth as Chairman of Selectors. The media had a field day as the Yorkshireman was keen to be heard and in no time at all there was a wedge between coach Fletcher, captain Atherton and Chairman of selectors Illingworth, largely created by Illingworth’s desire to be seen to be in charge. Fletcher’s mistrust of the media and basic shyness plus his desire to focus on the team’s tactics to support Atherton meant that Illingworth became the man the media went to for regular quotes about the performance of the national team. It was a mess. It cost England dearly – they lost the influence of a wise cricket person in Fletcher, and Atherton got worn down by his lack of joined up thinking in relationship to Illingworth.

Things got worse when Illingworth took it upon himself to sack Fletcher and appoint himself as ‘El Supremo’ – Chairman of Selecotrs and Team Coach. Atherton and the England team seemed to dislike the whole set up and whether it was the personality clashes which caused the rifts, or whether Illingworth was past his best as a cricket thinker operating in the modern game, it is hard to conclude. But one thing was clear for me – Illingworth had it right. One man needs to be in charge.

Without clear direction from the top of a team or an Organisation, messages became muddled and obfuscation can take place around major decisions.     

Every time there is a new person in charge, there can be a desire on the part of that person to put their own stamp on things.

Perhaps Ashley Giles is doing this now with Ed Smith’s removal? After all, Smith was an Andrew Strauss pick. Maybe the former left arm spinner turned Cricket director Giles has used his well-developed political skills to wait until the right moment to move Strauss’s men out and his own men in?

Let’s see if Warwickshire’s Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott and others follow Giles’s close allys in previous England teams (Marcus Trescothick, Paul Collingwood) along with trusted Warwickshire overseas player Jeetan Patel into the England coaching set up.  

England has had a tendency to be conservative down the years and not introduced young players to strong teams – but choosing to do so as part of a revolution following heavy defeat(s). Young players can be scarred for life if their start in international cricket is a brutal experience.  Too many gifted young player (such as Mark Lathwell, Chris Read and Ben Hollioake) ‘got burned’ by premature test selection in teams that were struggling and when the media had trained their sights on being critical of the national team.

In recent years, the profile of the National Selector was raised again by Andrew Strauss’s left field appointment of Ed Smith, a writer and broadcaster who played a handful of tests for England and a man who experienced mixed fortunes as a county captain at Middlesex. Smith is a man of strongly-held opinions and is a well-read, highly intelligent man. He has a strong desire to be successful, sometimes driven by a stubborn streak supporting his (perceived to be) left-field ideas.

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Ed Smith is a man I like. He is good company over dinner and in my opinion, is one of life’s thought-leaders. Having come to know his delightful parents a few years ago through a mutual friend in John Inverarity, and having read three of his father Jonathan Smith’s excellent books  (‘The Learning Game’, ‘The Following Game’ and The Churchill Secret KBO), I can see how Ed developed as an independent-thinking person with a penchant for espousing strong views in an articulate way. However, such individuals can struggle in work spaces which don’t welcome ‘egg-heads’ who don’t fit in with the underlying culture.   

In my experience, the cricket world – and probably the wider sporting world too – tends to mistrust highly intelligent individuals and holds a view that super bright people (such as Ed Smith) are too focused on trying to prove how clever they are. The ‘old school’ professional has mistrusted Oxbridge amateur cricketers, and in general, anyone who speaks with a posh accent! It’s as if the hard-nosed pro tends to think that anybody who isn’t displaying the same behaviour as themselves is not part of their ‘tribe’ and can’t be trusted.

My sense is that Ed Smith was relieved of his duties by Ashley Giles because of personality as much as performance in the job. Was Smith trying to be ‘too clever by half’ with some of his selections?

Did Ed Smith’s total backing of Jos Buttler undermine Jonny Bairstow as a test cricketer? Quite possibly. Did Smith’s resistance towards Moeen Ali’s all round qualities contribute to the unwise desire to promote the potential of Dom Bess? In doing so, has Smith contributed towards destroying two fine cricketers’ enjoyment of the game at a critical juncture in their respective careers? And, why was Ben Foakes so often ignored other than to retain the services of Jos Buttler as the wicket-keeping all-rounder?

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Did Chris Silverwood and Joe Root agree with some of Ed Smith’s picks? If they didn’t, then one has to admire their professionalism in maintaining their public silence and taking the supportive corporate line when interviewed for the media.

However, from now on, Ashley Giles has wielded the axe, and created more clarity around the lines of accountability. Silverwood is now in charge of selection.

Let’s hope he selects wisely and his observers and ‘helpers’ around the country serve him well. The stats gurus may pour over the numbers, but there is more to selection than ‘number-crunching’. The art of selection is to understand the nuances beyond the numbers, and identify human characteristics which enable the player to respond well to a variety of contexts, match situations and personal challenges.

Meanwhile, it’s only fair and right to acknowledge that while Ed Smith wasn’t everyone’s ‘cup of tea’, he did many good things during his time as National Selector. For a start, England are winning test series, young players have been given opportunities and England won the ICC Cricket World Cup.  

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