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Will County Cricket Provide The Players to Win in Australia and India?

by Neil Burns

A new season begins – hope, optimism, and ambition springs eternal at some county clubs, while at some, delusion maintains a firm grip on their organisational thinking. With England being humiliated in India in the final two test matches of their recent 5 test tour, solutions to their long-term problem of being able to be competitive away from home in Australia and in India remain.

Rob Key, England Men’s Cricket MD, has ‘taken the hit’ for a disastrous ICC Cricket World Cup defence this winter and has said that following on from the heavy test series defeat in India, that county cricket performances need to be more than just wickets and runs. 

Key, and his management team of captain, coach and selectors, want to see bowlers who bowl with high pace if they are to be considered to play for their country. And, the mantra for batsmen from coach Brendan McCullum seems to be ‘go harder’ if your approach to scoring runs as a top order batsman of ‘go hard’ is failing. With this in mind, it seems to me to be a narrow approach to talent identification. Surely, the responsibility and role of each player in the game is to find their best way of getting the most out of their talent so they become high-performers on a consistent basis?

With England not due to play a test match until July, at Lord’s v West Indies, the start of the 2024 season offers every cricketer a good opportunity to play County Championship cricket. 

Can Ben Duckett score runs for Nottinghamshire v Essex’s Sam Cook and Jamie Porter?   Can Zak Crawley score runs v Jamie Overton and Gus Atkinson when Kent play Surrey? Will James Anderson prove that he remains the best swing/seam bowler in county cricket and earn test selection through sheer weight of performance for Lancashire? Or, will his stellar reputation be enough? Is Josh Tongue fit? Can he take regular ‘bags’ of 5 wickets in an innings in first-class cricket? Can Shoaib Bashir and Tom Hartley back up their promising performances in India with wickets for Somerset and Lancashire respectively? As importantly, will either of them gain selection for their county team?! Can Harry Brook return to the county game and maintain his rapid progress in 2023? England clearly want him to be in their test team if he is fit and in form.

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Brook’s probable return to England colours could have several implications. Will it mean Jonny Bairstow is asked to don the wicket-keeping gloves again? Or, can Ben Foakes bat higher up the order for Surrey and make a case for him batting higher up the order for England? If he does, will it mean the phasing out of Bairstow at test level? I hope not – because Bairstow is one of our best cricketers in my opinion. I think his experience, competitiveness, and skill, will be needed in Australia in 18 months time. Perhaps his career-threatening injury has taken more out of his game than people thought possible – but as he returns to action in the next summer of cricket after the IPL, I hope we will still see the Yorkshireman puffing his chest out and making dominant contributions for county and country for a good while yet.

What will happen to Ollie Pope? Clearly he is a favoured player in terms of the ECB management and at Surrey where he enjoys a remarkable career batting record at their home ground The Oval. But, can he mature and perform against the best opposition at test level, especially overseas? His poor tour of Australia previously remains a career blemish and his disintegration in India after a brilliant 2nd innings knock in the 1st test at Hyderabad this past winter makes his selection at number 3 this summer questionable. India’s best bowlers got on top of him as the series unfolded, and perhaps he is better suited to being a number 4/5 batsman than a number 3 for England? If so, he won’t get selected if Root is fit and if Brook is in form. Despite being England’s test match vice-captain, Pope still has much to do if he is going to become a respected test match batsman… Talent isn’t the problem for him – the consistent application of his talent is the problem he needs to solve.

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And, what of the bowlers? Jofra Archer seems a permanent ‘non-starter’. Maybe, just maybe, he will be fit to tour Australia in 18 months time? Ollie Robinson remains enigmatic. I think he is an excellent bowler and despite making some ill-judged public comments at times, I like his ‘edge’ and his desire to ‘get into’ his opponents. He has the skill to back up his occasional obnoxiousness, but needs to reproduce his best bowling more often. Is the problem a lack of physical fitness/hardness in his body? Or, is the problem attitudinal? Whatever it is, I hope he can find his best form playing for Sussex as I believe England needs him in Australia to help spearhead the attack on what I imagine will be good pitches in a 5 match test series in Australia. Robinson’s wicket-taking threat allied to his excellent control means his team are ‘in the game’ when he bowls. He needs to be effective over 3 spells in a day, not one or two. And, he will need some highly-effective bowling partners to support his excellence too. Can Mark Wood be one of them? 

Injury has been a constant companion for the admirable Durham paceman. His raw pace and refreshing personality have been of great benefit to England as a fringe player while Broad and Anderson were in their pomp. But, now, England needs Mark Wood to be a high performer on a regular basis. At 34, time is running out for him, and the Ashes Tour in 18 months time could prove to be either a high point in his career or a bridge too far if he can’t get himself fit on a consistent basis to bowl successfully by earning selection regularly in a 5 match series.

Who else is there? Spinners? 

John Emburey and Phil Edmonds were key components of England’s successful Ashes Tour under Mickey Stewart and Mike Gatting’s leadership in 1986/7. Good spinners can offer their captain ‘a holding job’ as well as being a wicket-taking option in Australia – but they need to be very good bowlers to do so.  

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The spinners cupboard remains bare in county cricket save for Jack Leach and Liam Dawson among the more experienced practitioners. Hopefully Bashir and Hartley will improve and become quality county bowlers like Edmonds and Emburey were in the 80’s/90’s. Excelling for England (on a consistent basis) can’t happen overnight. The preparation for excellence in test cricket needs to come from being a dominant performer in county cricket. Will they get the opportunity? Somehow, I doubt it. I hope I’m wrong.

So, with 18 months to go, can County Championship cricket prove a fruitful ‘training ground’ to develop an Ashes-winning squad? I remain doubtful that it can. The standard is too low – the two-divisional championship and financial worries has meant that too many county clubs have prioritised white-ball cricket for survival. In my opinion, county cricket has become too short-term minded for it’s own good and for its’ core purpose of providing a return on investment by producing a pipeline of top talent to serve the success of the current and future England teams.

Maybe, just maybe, a crop of top young talents will emerge? And, maybe, England will go to Australia to try to repeat the feats of Hutton, Illingworth, Brearley, Gatting, and Strauss’s teams and win Down Under?  

Or will Australia humiliate English cricket again and set in chain yet another ‘Root & Branch Review of English Cricket? 

Now is the time for Rob Key and co to be bold. Let’s see this summer as an opportunity to blood some emerging talent and give them test match experience in advance of The Ashes. Successful Talent Identification is needed, and investing in the right people is the challenge for Key and his ‘picks’ of coach/captain/selector/scouts.  

Can Key and England continue to be brave and bold? Or, is the talent not available to them? 

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