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Where Does England Cricket Go Now?

by Neil Burns

With 3 series defeats, across all 3 formats (test, ODI, T20) in India this winter, England’s cricketers have a busy schedule at home this summer before they embark on a demanding winter with a T20 World Cup in India, and an Ashes Series in Australia.

For the sport’s administrators, 2021 represents a big year too – the holes in the game’s finances are big as a consequence of the global pandemic. The launch of ‘The Hundred’ is a costly business too. Can it work? Will it work? And, what will be the possible ‘messy unintended consequences’ of the new tournament’s rise to prominence in the cricket season’s calendar? Will the T20 Blast be diminished? If so, a good product will be de-valued irrevocably.

If The Hundred is a great success, the naysayers will be asked to eat humble pie. If it fails, then ECB’s CEO Tom Harrison and outgoing Chairman Colin Graves will be held responsible. They have pushed the new format through the various committees and Board meetings with the belief that its’ financial success will ‘future-proof’ the sport’s finances in this country.

There is no doubt that the paying public are increasingly time-poor and could (arguably) be poorer financially post-COVID. This will create a challenging landscape to attract a new audience to the sport. I hope it can work and that Tom Harrison’s determination in wanting to see it through becomes an appreciation of his leadership skills as opposed to him being blamed by some for ‘betting the house’ if it all goes wrong for the ECB.

From an international cricket perspective, it appears to me that the England team leadership group is ‘betting the house’ on winning the ICC World T20 AND regaining the Ashes when England travel Down Under next winter. One of these achievements would be an excellent result – two would represent a world-class execution of a clever plan.

Looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the England teams for both formats, it is hard to doubt their confidence in their own capability as a team with the firepower they have available with the ball. If fit and in good form, Jofra Archer, James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Mark Wood, Chris Woakes and Ben Stokes plus Olly Stone and Sam Curran as back up represents a potent attack. My sense is that Wood and Archer will need to convince the selectors of their robustness to complete a test series in England before anyone in the England team leadership group becomes over-excited at the prospect of giving the Australians ‘the hurry-up’ across all 5 tests this winter.

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James Anderson and Stuart Broad remain two of the best exponents of new-ball bowling in world cricket. Their partnership for England has been phenomenal since ex-England coach Peter Moores backed them as his ‘main men’ following on from the brutal dropping of Ashes heroes Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison in New Zealand during March, 2008. As captain, Michael Vaughan traded 460 test match wickets to give the new pairing their opportunity to establish themselves at test match level. Between Vaughan and Moores, they made a wise call.

Moores is a visionary coach, whose two tenures with England failed to bring him the credit he deserves. He identified players who could make a big impact for England and was courageous enough to give them their opportunity on the biggest stage when others may have waited for longer, until greater maturity had revealed itself in performances for a player’s respective county team.  

As a simple metric for assessing elite performers in sport, I have always adhered to a 3 point assessment tool to determine the value of a player: Does the player have –

  1. high level of skill(s)
  2. good health and fitness
  3. good concentration.

Fast Bowling:

When it comes to England’s pace bowling attack – the answer to question 1 is a strong YES. The key is ensuring there is a strong YES to question 2, hence the leadership’s heavily criticised decision to rest and rotate players to ensure the teams England put out next winter across all formats are filled with our best players – hopefully playing their best cricket.

Batting:

The England top order batting is an entirely different matter – the report card for the fast bowling makes for comfortable reading, but the front-line batting remains a worry. Without consistently good starts to an innings, it is difficult to obtain a strong foothold in the match or series.

This summer, 3 of Zak Crawley, Dom Sibley, Rory Burns, James Vince, Billy Godleman, Jonny Bairstow, Jason Roy, Gary Ballance, Ollie Pope, Dan Lawrence, Daniel Bell-Drummond, Joe Denly, Nick Gubbins, Ben Duckett, Joe Clarke, James Bracey, Sam Northeast, Haseeb Hameed, Tom Abell, etc have an opportunity to make a strong case for selection to tour Australia. Too many of these names have flirted with selection based on promising innings or a very good season, or in the case of Gary Ballance – an excellent start to his test career before falling away badly. The cupboard is not stocked with good technicians, with a strong reputation for playing quick bowling well. Maybe Joe Denly is the best option for Australia presently, despite being seemingly a long way away from the current test team. 

The playing of spin was of a shocking standard this past winter in India. ‘MUST do better next time’ is the report card.

And, the bowling of spin remains a concern for England. Jack Leach emerged this winter with some credit for his bowling performances, but he was out-bowled by his Indian counterparts despite the inexperience of Axar. His report card will say ‘satisfactory’ when compared with the standard needed for the job he is required to do on the sub-continent. Dom Bess looks like a promising young cricketer with a good attitude but is clearly some way off the required standard to be relied upon in test cricket as the sole spinner in a team.

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All of this is likely to mean a probable return to Moeen Ali. But, what has happened to Mo? Is he off-form, lacking desire to play test cricket, unwell, or just not rated by the current selectors? It is hard to tell exactly what is behind his exclusion from the list of ECB centrally contracted since Ed Smith assumed the role of National Selector. 

The Key Person:

Joe Root must be in prime form in Australia if England is to win back the Ashes. Can he do this and captain the team? Can Ben Stokes return to being a world-class all-rounder under Root’s captaincy and not be indulged as a batsman who bowls? Does Root have it in him to select Ben Foakes, England’s best wicketkeeper over Jos Buttler in the test team?

A Big Summer: Every season begins with every cricketer believing that this new season will be their year. Let’s hope it is England’s year! 

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