Cook the captain has arrived at last

Tags

, , ,

The Cook revolution has been a quiet one. It has sneaked up on us. After a drubbing in the last Ashes in Australia, Cook looked finished – certainly as a captain and maybe even as a player. But he stayed on. After a long and fruitless run in the ODI side, he was finally jettisoned but it was too late, leaving the team with no chance and Cook furious and hurt at his treatment. The way he was cut from the ODI side and captaincy (right decision, wrong timing) was enough to make anyone feel angry and humiliated. In these circumstances, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that a player might just say ‘Sod you’, walk away and write a salty autobiography. But not Cook, who seethed quietly then harnessed his anger and transformed it into determination to prove himself as Test skipper and opening bat.

With this Ashes series win, Cook has finally overcome his captaincy blindspot and finally looks comfortable in his own captaincy skin. He must be lauded for his resilience, and the England hierarchy equally congratulated for their patience (go on, give them a pat on the back – it’s the only one they’ve had for a couple of years).

There was a decision in the Trent Bridge test that signalled to me that Cook is now the England captain he always wanted to be. On the final morning with just three wickets to take, he bowled Stokes and Wood instead of Broad. Why was this decision, which would have no impact on whether England won or not, so important?

  1. The way they’d bowled, these two lads were just as likely to take the wickets as anyone but the conventional and populist thing to do would have been to bowl Broad. Eight in the first innings, one more to take for a rare 10 in a match, home crowd favourite… But no, Cook took a bigger decision. He didn’t follow expectations but equally it wasn’t funky. It was a sound tactical, slightly intuitive, decision where he backed his own decision-making processes.
  2. It was a big statement to those two young players and to the whole team. ‘Yes,’ he was saying, ‘I’ve got Jimmy and Broady with 700+ wickets between them but actually these two young lads are going to finish the job.’ This said to his own team that he believed each and every one of them could win matches for England – indeed he expected them to, and they should expect to do so too. This was a confidence-inspiring move for a side gelling together nicely.
  3. It also said to the Aussies, ‘actually we’ve got four quicks who can get you out not just two. I trust them to do it.’ And they did it. I wouldn’t say it’s quite Roberts, Holding, Garner, Marshall but it is a quartet of fast men who can all destroy a side on their day. Future oppositions will have noticed.

So why has it taken so long for Cook to slip comfortably into the captain’s role? Well, he didn’t captain much before he got the England job and not everyone drops into the captaincy role easily. It clearly didn’t come naturally. Then he went two years without a Test century, barely justified his place in the team, got thrashed in the Ashes, dropped from the ODI side and drew with a ‘mediocre’ West Indies side.

The uncertainty led to what appeared to be captaincy by committee where he had plans when he walked out on to the field that he stuck to rigidly. He was slow to react and tactically limited. He became defensive both on the field and in front of the media. The latter was understandable – he came in for some fierce criticism, often unnecessarily harshly delivered. The former was less easy to defend. So formulaic was his captaincy sometimes, I’d imagined him before walking out on to the field with a piece of paper in his pocket from the master in charge of cricket, showing him when to change the bowling and where to put the fielders.

He was also dealing with the retirement of key players, turmoil at the top of the ECB and the KP issue. He was so busy fighting fires he probably didn’t have time to lead the team as he’d have liked. But peace, in the end, came. The New Zealand series was the turning point. Almost by accident, he realised just what his young team was capable of – and he liked it. They gave him confidence and now that he had a young team 100% behind him, he was able to reflect that confidence right back to them. Loyalty, support and commitment went both ways. A joie de vivre, missing for so long, returned.

So confident, calm captain Cook began to make good decisions on the field, tactically sound and often productive. The decisions weren’t made for the sake of being seen to make them, they were made because they were the best for the team. They were made because they came naturally to him. Finally the title of England captain sat comfortably on him.

I do still harbour reservations about his batting which I’m sure isn’t anywhere near as good as a few years ago. On the off side, he still seems to poke at the ball hard with his hands out in front of him and the way he was LBW to a straight half-volley in the Trent Bridge test was concerning (how did he miss it by so much?) but what his batting has now is self-belief again and that’s more than enough to paper over the cracks. He remains a good batsman if no longer a great one, and is an important foil for the expansive players down the order.

Cook the captain is so confident now that he was quite comfortable to say, after the Ashes had been won, that he hadn’t expected the team to be ready to win them just yet. He also went out of his way to thank Peter Moores. And his voice cracked with emotion when he talked about his team, the lads who had backed him all the way and played out of their skins to pull off a remarkable win. An Ashes win is always a defining moment for a captain but when that captain has been through what Cook has been through, it is a moment that resonates way beyond the field of play.

SEIZE THIS OPPORTUNITY FOR WOMEN’S CRICKET

Tags

, ,

It was announced today that the ECB has pledged £3m for a new women’s cricket six-team Super League, starting next summer. It will be a T20 tournament played in a two week block and will attract the best players from around the world as well as around the UK. This represents a hugely positive step for the women’s game.

But here’s my plea: let’s learn lessons from where we find ourselves now in the men’s game. All cricket is stuck on Sky and the game is suffering because of it. While women’s international cricket has just begun to make its presence felt on Sky, what we have here with this domestic competition is an amazing opportunity, the very start of something new with a world of potential.

The audience for this could be significant if it’s well marketed and it could start a generation of cricket-playing girls who could grow to become the generation of women who play cricket every weekend, who play for their counties, who play for the country, who play for a living or who play for fun.

Maybe there will be enough sponsorship for a few more players to be paid to play and to practise – and with practice the standard will rise. With raised standards will come an even better spectacle, which will increase interest. Girls and women will attend matches and maybe give it a try. People will write about it, talk about it, bring it into the national consciousness.

But please, please, please put it on terrestrial television. This will be the oxygen that keeps it breathing. Women’s cricket needs to be seen as mainstream and accessible. People need to come across it when they flick on the TV and sit down to watch for the first time. Players need to become household names, role models, heroes.

Women’s football is entering this territory now. It is on terrestrial television thanks to the World Cup; there are full matches being shown, highlights shows and expert discussions just like men’s football. Players are becoming better known. The game is improving. At the end of last year, 50,000 spectators piled into Wembley to watch England play Germany.

Cricket doesn’t need to compete with women’s football, it just needs to join in the fun. And by getting it on to terrestrial television, everyone can see how much fun it is.

Out of sight, out of mind

Tags

, , ,

An abbreviated version of this article appeared in All Out Cricket magazine, June 2015

Two weeks before this season began, we heard that one of the sides in our division (Division Two of the Derbyshire County Cricket League) had pulled out, unable to guarantee enough players for two teams. The week before the season began, three more teams pulled out of divisions lower down the leagues. This is becoming a familiar pattern. It is the tangible evidence to match the ECB’s figures released last November, which revealed that in recreational cricket across England and Wales the number of players aged 14 to 65 dropped from 908,000 in 2013 to 844,000 in 2014, and more than 5% of games were conceded because at least one of the clubs was unable to field a side.

There are many reasons for this worrying drop. It’s a complex picture which has much to do with the times in which we live. However, one overriding factor eclipses all others: Sky TV.

Great, comprehensive coverage it may be but so few people can see it. In the glorious summer of 2005, there were days when the test matches on Channel 4 had 8.4 million viewers. Cricket was part of the national collective consciousness, a thread woven into the fabric of society, a national cultural reference point. It was also so exciting and such great sporting drama, that you couldn’t wait to get down the cricket club to share the thrill with your team-mates.

How did the ECB ride the crest of this wave? Take it off terrestrial television and move the decimal point on those viewing figures in the wrong direction.

The ECB’s solution seems to be predicated on funnelling large amounts of Sky money into ambitious player recruitment projects. These are, by and large, undeniably a good idea – Chance to Shine, for example. What’s not to like about a programme to take cricket into schools and introduce kids to the game?

But Chance to Shine – and other ideas – are simply making the best of a bad job. Having someone come into schools to teach cricket might interest one or two for a while but when the coaching stops, in all likelihood the interest will stop too. In contrast, a child grows up in a family that loves cricket, where cricket is on the television and where the local club is part of their lives, and there’s a much stronger base for the creation of a cricketer for life. People need to learn the joys of cricket, not be told them. Schemes imposed from the top down simply don’t work as well as organic growth from the grass roots.

Part of the issue is that the joy of cricket is not always immediate. It is in its nuances, in the reading between the lines, in the story that is so much bigger than its constituent chapters. By growing up with cricket all around you, on the television, down at the cricket club, you grow to understand that it’s not all about the occasional blast of action, it’s also about the barely noticeable tremors. It’s about a bowler’s skill, a batsman’s temperament, a mental battle, a verbal joust, a tactical fight, the pitch, the weather, the state of the ball. This is a game where moving one fielder one yard could change everything. You don’t pick up this kind of nuance by seeing a 30 second clip on the news. This is the stuff that seeps into your consciousness over long periods of time, catalysed perhaps by the insight of Benaud, Cozier or Atherton.

Without the deeply-rooted love of the game fostered in their youth, adults too easily lose the habit of playing. The complete absorption I find in the game seems to be thinner on the ground these days. Saturday cricket was (and to a large extent remains) the focus of my week in the summer months but for many these days, it is simply something to do if they have nothing else on.

Numbers, therefore, are falling. Clubs find it difficult to keep going. Once a club is struggling, it can be a slippery slope. Players have the choice of staying with their local club which may be struggling to put teams out, can’t pay a groundsman, can’t afford to repair the showers and so on, or they can go to one of the big clubs, with its four Saturday teams, grant-funded clubhouse, club pro and belting track. One player goes, then another, and another and the tipping point is soon reached. Another club falls by the wayside.

Sadly these clubs that are falling are often the traditional, small village clubs – clubs that used to work perfectly in their unique environs. They don’t have any ambitions to be a big club with 10 junior teams, four senior teams and a host of ex-professionals. But the latter is exactly the kind of club that receives most of the focus, and has the wherewithal to secure funding and support. So this kind of club keeps getting bigger and the little village clubs continue to die away. It’s a self-perpetuating homogenisation of the recreational game that is not helpful in the long term. With participation decreasing, surely we should be more creative and less prescriptive?

As clubs disappear, we’re in danger of losing cricket as a broad church and consequently the diversity to attract different people to take up and stay in this beautiful game. No amount of Chance to Shine money is going to arrest this decline.

In the mind of Andrew Strauss

Tags

, , ,

Being, occasionally, a contrary sort I have been reading all the reports, tweets, FB posts etc about Strauss and KP and I’ve been thinking, ‘If everyone agrees that this is all wrong, how did some clearly intelligent people who know cricket, especially international cricket, far better than I ever will get into such an unholy mess?’ The fact is, Strauss looks like an establishment man who has let a personal spat interfere with a much larger situation, while the ECB continues to crash around like a drunk, embarrassing itself and others while occasionally popping up to say, ‘I’m not drunk you know.’

The bare facts suggest that Pietersen was told that if he wants to be considered for selection he has to ditch the IPL and score runs in county cricket. He pulls out of the IPL contract, plays for Surrey (for nothing) and scores 355 not out. Then he is told he can’t play after all because of ‘trust issues’. He won’t play this summer but a return in future isn’t ruled out. Although really we all know it is.

As opinions of KP vary so wildly and views on how the situation should have been handled are equally diverse, I wondered: is there any way at all Strauss and co. could have come to a better solution?

It’s only been eight months but I think some people have forgotten the sort of things KP wrote in his book. He wrote about Anderson, Broad and Swann running the dressing room and commented, “I thought, ‘I reckon I could hit these guys’”. Two of ‘these guys’ are still playing.

His reservations about James Taylor, who remember only played once alongside Pietersen – and they put on 147 runs together – extended to recommending a career as a jockey rather than an England batsman.

Alastair Cook is Ned Flanders, Andrew Strauss the reverend, and a player who many current players remain fond of, Matt Prior, is the Big Cheese or, according to KP, “a Dairylea triangle thinking he’s Brie”.

In 2012, KP sent texts to his South African friends in the opposition saying Strauss is a doos. About the new Director of Cricket, he wrote in his book, ‘Sometimes you have to tell Straussy the facts of life’.  I imagine Strauss had that printed out and stuck on his bedroom door, and whipped a copy from his inside pocket before the ECB interview.

Speaking about the book at its launch, Pietersen said, “My character has been assassinated for the last five or six years on a regular basis by the ECB publicity machine.”

In response, Cook said about KP that his autobiography has tarnished one of the most successful eras for the national team and that he did not recognise “the culture of bullying” Pietersen alleges occurred in the dressing room.  Cook said he “feels hurt” by the claims in the book.

In November Strauss said that the fact that there was so much negative comment from KP about such a successful period for English cricket was ‘hurtful for all of us that had been part of it’. He added, ‘That is why the pride feels diminished. We all worked incredibly hard to achieve something special and it doesn’t seem so special anymore.’

Of course it’s equally hard to trust the ECB at the moment. They have been a shambles in the last few months and I’m sure the victims of various leaks wouldn’t put ‘trustworthiness’ at the top of their list of the ECB’s attributes at the moment. Remember, too, that KP was dropped after tops-coring on the recent Ashes debacle and was sacked as captain arguably because of Peter Moores’ failings.  And of course, Strauss called KP ‘a complete c**t’ just a few months ago. It’s a long way back from there.

This is only 7 months ago. Feuds in history tend to be measured in decades and years, not weeks and months.

People say that these critical words don’t bother them but of course they do. At least Strauss is honest – he says there are trust issues. I expect these issues would stretch to the aforementioned players too. Blame who you like but there would be some serious hurdles to jump. Perhaps the ECB have concluded that at 34, it’s just not worth the effort with KP. By the time he’s integrated again, it’ll be time to retire. And who’s to say that after one match he might change his mind or get a serious injury? What a lot of effort, sacrifice, awkwardness, distraction, compromise and damage limitation for the sake of a game or two. Yesterday’s decision, as far as the management are concerned, is the only realistic way out. I can see their point. Having made a poor decision initially by sacking him, this was the only course of action this time. They set themselves up for this.

There’s lots of other stuff too. Pietersen is nearly 35, had a poor run in his recent tests etc but frankly this has – ridiculously – become irrelevant.

It seems to me that KP constantly needs a new challenge to keep him alive. He needs to prove people wrong, prove himself right. He’s not alone in wanting what is forbidden more than what is allowed – this is a fact writ large in the human condition. Remember he retired from ODIs because he wanted the IPL. He unretired because he was told he wouldn’t play T20 for England if he didn’t play ODIs. He called county cricketers muppets and played nine county championship matches in nine years before 2015. Then suddenly it became the most important games of his life. He was committed to Surrey…until yesterday. Now he’s leaving on Friday. Did he wonder how that would be for his team mates?

The challenge had gone so the desire had gone.

Interestingly he said before the Strauss meeting that he wanted to win the Ashes back for England. I wonder whether he meant ‘with’ England. Probably not.

So, to summarise, this matter was closed until ‘no-nonsense’ Colin shot from the hip. Colin Graves made this situation foreground again instead of a background rumble. Now everyone at the ECB is scrambling to say they’re all singing off the same hymn sheet but of course they’re not. Otherwise Graves wouldn’t have sung the solo before the choirmaster was ready to choose the choir.

The damage had already been done in the shambles that was the ECB ditching KP in the first place. This time around, Strauss had no choice. He would have taken the job and fully understood the implications of the still-smouldering bridges behind KP. The fact that KP was standing there with a fire extinguisher meant nothing. Too little, too late.

nb I haven’t mentioned the fact that Strauss offered KP a role as England’s ODI consultant. For the life of me, and despite reaching into the far corners of the part of my brain marked ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ and ’empathy’, I simply cannot understand the thought processes that came up with this spectacularly ill-judged and crass idea.

nb 2 On overnight reflection, I think the above situation was nothing more than a piece of disingenuous political posturing. Strauss said just enough about it to leave us to infer that this was Petersen’s way back in, the olive branch, the first step in the mending of trust issues. By making Pietersen an offer he could only refuse, Strauss laid the foundations for a ‘Well, we tried to start repairing the relationship with him’ comment months down the line. This is unedifying from Strauss and the ECB, and ironically (or maybe deliberately) echoes Petersen’s own faux naïveté in accepting Graves’ words as gospel. Please see here https://smelltheleather.com/2015/03/18/return-of-the-prince/ for my unusually prescient piece on this.

Alistair Cook: slump in form or end of career?

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

I don’t know what it is about the Aussies but they always seem to back the right horse. A new player who looks like they’re never going to make it? Back them, back them, back them until they do – à la Steve Smith and Glenn Maxwell. Old player who could be finished but might just be in a form slump? Back them, back them, back them until they come good. Steve Waugh, Hayden, Langer, Mark Taylor. Other greats tend to have the happy knack of quitting while they are still ahead. Even Ponting, who I remember as a distinctly fading force towards the end, managed to average 43 in his last year of test cricket, with a top score of 221.

So, Alistair Cook then. Do we stick with him and hope for the phoenix from the Ashes? Or is his goose…ahem…cooked?

In the last two years of test cricket he has averaged 31.66 with just one ton in 20 matches. That’s 37 innings opening the batting with one century. Just to prove this is no fluke, it’s 27.70 in 28 ODIs over the same period, top score 64.

That’s a long bad trot. I’m all for loyalty but how long can he live on past glories? It can only be his highly distinguished career that saves him at the moment. The likes of Carberry (average 28.10 in the most recent five dismal Ashes tests against the best attack in the world), Robson (average 30.54 in seven tests) and Compton (average 31.93 with two tons in nine tests) must be biting their tongues so hard they’re drawing blood. All have a comparable average and all were just starting out.

Then there’s Adam Lyth, selected for England as an opener after spending the whole of 2014 as an opener for the Division 1 County Championship winners and scoring 1,489 first-class runs at 67.68 with six tons. Now he’s carrying the drinks for Cook and Trott.

With Cook, it’s not just the stats that are troubling though. It’s the fact that he looks like a walking wicket. Where before he was natural and fluid, now he looks as if his body is made of entirely of sharp angles and limbs that don’t quite move together as they should. He pokes at the ball from a distance, hands thrust out in front of him. It’s mechanical, awkward, unnatural and painful to watch.

Then there’s Trott. To be fair to him, he’s stacked up a pile of runs since his return but rushing him back in when his position wasn’t available was unfair on him, on us and on Lyth. Clearly Trott still has challenges to overcome with his technique – you just can’t be ambling across the stumps so spectacularly as an opener, hitting on the move and still expect to score consistently.

If you were an opening bowler lining up these two, you’d fancy your chances. It’s not like they’re going to get off to a flier either…

England just seem to be so uncertain in their selection – and their default is safety first; for example choosing Tredwell over Rashid for the first Windies test. It’s a similar selection to Trott’s – he seemed to have been selected solely because he’s familiar.

Somehow England need to find this sixth sense that other countries have when it comes to identifying someone who’s going to come good (fingers crossed for Stokes…) – and also being bold enough to call time on a career when all evidence points to terminal decline.

Return of The Prince?

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

*At the time of writing, KP may or may not have signed for Surrey. But he has certainly indicated his desire to play county cricket and win his England place back.

Unless I’m very much mistaken (a distinct possibility), KP is, with Machiavellian cunning, playing the political game with the ECB to great effect and setting himself up to be the wronged suitor – again.

Let me first just make one point so old arguments don’t interfere with this one – the ECB’s dropping of KP was a shambles and an embarrassment. KP’s comments in his book burned his bridges spectacularly. I can’t see any way he could play again with people he wrote about in the way he did. For me, this whole situation is not solely the fault of one or the other – both parties can take their share of blame.

Back to the present situation. What KP is doing here is taking one single remark by Colin Graves, which was as far from being a definitive statement as it could be, and basing his career choices for the 2015 season on it.

This is what Graves said a couple of weeks ago. And remember, this is the Graves who is not yet even in post…

“The first thing he has to do if he wants to get back is start playing county cricket. The selectors and the coaches are not going to pick him if he’s not playing, it’s as simple as that.

“At the end of the day it’s down to the selectors and coaches and what they feel is best for English cricket. They will make the decisions and I will support their decisions.”

That doesn’t sound to me like the red carpet is being laid out to welcome KP back into the fold. It sounds like a bloke giving a personal view about something that might have to happen before something else might happen – and before he’s really thought about how it might sound or how it might impact on his ECB colleagues.

What KP appears to be doing (again, I reiterate, I may be wrong; there are other commentators with far better inside knowledge than me) is deliberately giving huge weight to this throwaway remark and apparently basing his entire season (and potentially career) on it. By employing this spectacularly passive-aggressive straw man, KP will be able, when this all inevitably ends in tears, to say, ‘But I acted in good faith. I gave up lucrative T20 contracts to play in England because I was told I could get my place back. This is nothing more than the ECB persecuting me..’ etc. You get the idea.

Let’s remember that the managing director of the ECB, the chairman of selectors, the coach and the captain have all said that there is no way back for KP. Cook even said it today! They have also not implied it, wondered about it or queried it – they have said it clearly and unequivocally.

I simply can’t see any way back for KP unless Graves ditches Downton, Whitaker, Moores and Cook. So either KP is playing a masterful political game or we’re in for one hell of a summer.

Oh, England

Tags

, , , , ,

England’s World Cup capitulation is not easily explained. I suspect the combination of factors will defy a simple solution and anyone who claims to know all the answers is probably misguided. Or Geoffrey Boycott.

We can point to any or all of the following: the wrong county structure, uncompetitive county one-day competition (including playing the  wrong number of overs for four years recently), the lack of a franchised T20 competition, a World Cup mental block, no left-arm seamers, no left-arm spinners, no express pace bowlers, no-one who can bowl Yorkers, persistence for too long in picking the likes of Bell and Cook when other countries were picking the likes of Warner, Finch, Miller, Roussow etc, not introducing power hitters like Maxwell, somehow taking natural talent and flair and homogenising it through the prescriptive coaching machine, not allowing international players to play county cricket, replacing the desperately out-of-form captain with a desperately out-of-form captain, playing a warm-up series on completely different pitches to what we’d find at the World Cup, shambolically ditching arguably our best batsmen for reasons still not yet clear,  a county coach rather than an international one, a muddled vision, a hopeless ECB hierarchy, unconscious and debilitating post-colonial guilt…(ok, that one might need further consideration) – and I’m sure there’s more. Feel free to add to the list by writing a comment below.

Why can’t our players just play like Australian or New Zealand or Sri Lankan or Indian players? Just smash it to the fence, bowl yorkers, catch everything. Somehow freeing themselves from the shackles of doubt, uncertainty and fear just doesn’t seem to come naturally to England players.

Unfortunately it’s far more complicated than saying ‘just play with no fear’. It’s like telling the arachnophobe not to fear spiders. They might know a particular spider can’t do them any harm but their way of being is not a rational construct. Knowing something only gets you so far. (By contrast, being a know-it-all gets you to be editor of the Daily Mirror). In the same way, until a player, or we as a nation, understands why they play with fear, they cannot be expected to simply overcome it.

At the moment we have an awkward middle ground. We hate the player (yes, KP I’m looking at you) who says after holing out to long-on and throwing the game away, ‘that’s just the way I play’ yet we laud the likes of Warner, Maxwell, McCullum for their no-fear approach to the game which appears to involve very similar risk. (And to be fair to KP, there were times towards the end of his career where he did try to rein it in for the sake of the team and then got criticised for not playing his natural game. Sometimes you really can’t win.)

The commentator on the radio during the game against Bangladesh exhorted Morgan to play with no fear, at which point he deposited the ball down deep-square leg’s throat. A fearless shot. And a dreadful one. Utterances of this banality add nothing to our understanding of the highly complex and utterly debilitating mindset England have got themselves into.

We tell our players to ‘express themselves’ but I have no idea what this means, and my guess is that the players aren’t too sure either. It’s one of those phrases that has entered the lexicon, been used until it is but a husk of a word devoid of the marrow of meaning and now floats about, falling off the tongues of captains and coaches who can’t be bothered to think of anything better to say. See also: ‘put them under some pressure’, ‘you’ve got to back yourself’, ‘we’re playing the right brand of cricket’ and ‘he hasn’t hit his straps’.

When Peter Moores got the job again, I was perfectly prepared to give him another chance. But now I’m starting to believe there really is something in this perception of him being too much of a stats man, a pre-planned, inflexible, stats-rule kind of coach. When questioned about this approach, he always utterly refutes any claim that he is too stats focused.  Then straight after the Bangladesh match– which presumably he had been watching – he was asked for his view on what went wrong and he said “We’ll have to analyse the game data”. Oh lordy. Mind the petard on your way out Peter.

I don’t want my coach hunched over a computer or wheeling out percentages. I want him to watch the game, understand it, spot patterns, strengths, weaknesses. To look at his players, understand them too and what it takes to allow them the freedom needed to play with pleasure, with passion and with brilliance. To only use stats to add to his intuitive knowledge, not as the source of all knowledge, inherently second-hand, filtered and inferred. To make every interaction with the players count. To inspire. To be a presence. To be a leader.

England players have forgotten both how to play on instinct and also how to think for themselves. If you come off the field and wait for one of 17 support staff or a computer to tell you how you did, then you’ve stopped thinking and you’ve stopped reacting to the situation. How can we expect players to think on their feet in the middle of a match if they have to be told what to think by a computer programme (or its cipher, Moores)? This is a game played on a pitch not on a computer. Let’s replace artificial intelligence with the real thing.

I know it’s easy from the sidelines but when so many people can see the problems but Moores seemingly cannot (dropping Taylor from no.3, bringing in Ballance, not playing Hales, not putting Buttler up the order etc), surely it’s time to ditch the laptop and just watch the game. The way Moores watches cricket is like spending your holiday looking at all the sights through the viewfinder of your phone. Put the phone down and soak in the big picture.

So, what next? I imagine someone – probably Colin Graves – will announce a ‘root and branch’ review of the system, especially one-day cricket. He’ll announce it like it’s a bold new idea and be hurt when no-one jumps up and down with excitement and gratitude.  I don’t know if Moores and Morgan will carry on but I’d be surprised if there weren’t casualties somewhere among the hierarchy. Downton isn’t exactly sitting pretty. If I were looking to ‘take the positives’, I couldn’t think of a single one Downton has brought.  County one-day cricket will have to change, I think, and T20 might do too.

But these things will take time. In the meantime, what are we going to do about our team? Well, it really is the perfect opportunity to be radical.

The thing is, when England pick what they believe is their best, most experienced, balanced side we supporters tend to watch their games through the lens of positive expectation because, frankly, we are England supporters and want them to do well. Even in this World Cup after thrashings by Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, I was looking forward to England making the quarters and then a couple of upsets and then…well. But when England experiments with the side, we expect the worst and are quick to point it out when it happens. We ask why Bell isn’t in the side and why Stokes is (well, some people do anyway). We crave familiar mediocrity rather than the challenging sight of talented players learning on the job, and mostly losing. But the fact is, whoever is picked, the side mostly loses. So let’s get radical.

Ditch: Morgan, Anderson, Broad, Ballance, Bell, Bopara, Finn, Jordan, Tredwell.

Choose players who look like they might have a bit about them: Root, Moeen, Stokes, Woakes, Taylor, Willey, Hales, Gidman, Vince, Roy, Trego, Rashid, Footit, Mills, Dunn.

Then give these players a couple of years to play. Expect them to lose, rejoice if they win. Expect them to be exposed, enjoy seeing them defy the odds. Let them play without expectation.

And if this frightens you off, remember these stats: England’s leading wicket-taker this World Cup is Chris Woakes with five wickets in five games at an average of 46.80. Stuart Broad? Three wickets at 79. James Anderson, our highly-regarded, best in the world, king of swing? Four wickets at 57. Two against Scotland, two against Bangladesh. Moeen Ali had England’s best bowling economy rate – 5.28 – while there are 44 other bowlers at the tournament with a better economy rate.

In a tournament where 300+ was commonplace and 400+ seen a number of times, we had just two batsmen scoring at a run a ball – Moeen and Buttler. Elsewhere there are 47 other players with a SR over 100, seven of them in the Australian side.

To recap, we spent years planning, five months playing dozens of ODIs in preparation and took our very best squad to the World Cup and were ignominiously dumped out at the stage it was meant to be impossible to be dumped from. Why not give a team of greenhorns a go?

It’s an interesting exercise to go back to my pre-World Cup blogpost ‘Yeah but no but yeah but’ where I looked first at the squad as positively as possible, then more negatively – or as we were to later find out, realistically. Don’t bother with the positive list but have a look at the other. I’d say only Buttler and Root failed to live down to expectations.

The Art of Academies (extended remix)

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

This article is an extended version of an article I wrote for All Out Cricket. Although AOC were very generous with the space they allowed the article in the magazine, there was so much to say, I wrote this version too.

WARNING: This is a long read. Anyone who doesn’t love cricket and who has less than 15 mins spare ought to think twice before having a crack at it. For those that do go ahead and read this, thanks for taking the time; I hope you’ll enjoy it and find food for thought.

“It’s a bit like Daoism,” are the words I wasn’t expecting to hear.

“They have to find their way. If you’re looking at profound learning, they must find their way themselves,” adds Chris Tolley, Academy Director at Nottinghamshire CCC.

As the father of Daoism, Lao Tzu, says, ‘He who knows others is wise. He who knows himself is enlightened.”

As it turns out, the semi-joking reference to the ancient Chinese philosophy is surprisingly apposite. County cricket Academy Directors are thoughtful individuals, focused on developing the person as well as the player.

Although many counties had strong youth player development systems in place beforehand, it was the ECB’s creation of the 18 county academies that really galvanised the counties’ approach. With each academy granted £100,000 a year by the ECB (a sum which can be – and sometimes is – supplemented by the county), the governing body stipulates that academy players do at least 20 hours per week and that their involvement is far broader than coaching alone, really aiming to narrow the gap to the professional game. One step below the academy, each of the 39 county boards (first-class and minor counties) runs age-group squads, usually leading into an Emerging Players Programme (EPP), a stepping stone to the academy.

While county academies do seem to take a broadly holistic approach, the whole process remains necessarily uncompromising. A place on the academy is far from a guarantee of a career in the game, or even the chance to have one. The number of academy players making it on to the staff varies from county to county, ranging from around 1 in 12 to 1 in 4. So 25% at best – that’s still the vast majority of young players not living their dream.

It’s interesting to ask, therefore, what are academies for? Bear in mind that each year, £100,000 or more is spent on these young players and tens of thousands will have been spent on putting players through the county’s age-group cricket. The number of players diminishes as the process reaches academy level until perhaps ten are recruited. Of those, maybe one or two make it on to the staff and perhaps one of those has a long career in county cricket. So, in purely reductionist terms, that’s well over £100,000 to potentially produce one county cricketer. Perhaps one in ten of these cricketers plays for England (an optimistic figure for most counties). One of ECB’s stated aims for academies at the very outset was to produce England players, so on these admittedly back-of-a-fag-packet figures, an England player might be a £1 million in the making. In terms of return on investment, this seems staggeringly high.

The only conclusion, then, must be that finding England players, and even county players, cannot possibly be an academy’s sole purpose. In fact, it is the individuals and the broader game that also stand to gain much from the work academies do. These young players learn valuable lessons for life: self-sufficiency, the rewards of hard work, critical thinking, personal development and, for the vast majority, first-hand experience of dealing with life’s crushing disappointments. Nott’s Chris Tolley speaks of ‘academy graduates’ and there is very much an element of cricket university in the way academies work with young people.

For some counties, their Academies and youth systems are not just for finding the next generation of players. Durham has a unique outlook on what success looks like. John Windows explains:

“The Academy is very much part of the raison d’être of the whole club. Our geographical location means local cricketers used to have to travel a long way to play country cricket, including past Yorkshire of course. So while our Academy has produced about 80 players in the last 12 years and six England players, we also want to ensure those who don’t make it to professional cricket do still stay in the game, supporting local club cricket. This is very important to us and the area as a whole.”

So what are counties looking for in their chosen few? Chris Tolley again:

“Of course they must have the skills but attitude is key. They must be willing to come into an elite environment and become an elite performer. It doesn’t sit well with everyone – some will come through it, some won’t.”

One county to have had some success with home-grown talent in recent years is Northants. Phil Rowe, Academy Director, says they have some characteristics they’re looking for when choosing players for the Academy:

“We look for these characteristics: character, ability (both proven and potential, with the focus on the latter), desire, the ability to learn, a range of skills, physicality and a genuine potential to play first-class cricket in all formats. This final point is very much a function of our being a small county – we have to make the very most of our resources.

“In terms of players, look no further than David Willey. He had been through all our age groups, the Emerging Players Programme and the Academy. In terms of skills and technical ability, I’m sure he won’t mind me saying he was average; but what we knew about him was that there was more to come and we knew he would really stretch himself and get the best out of himself. He really ticked the boxes for character and desire, and forced his way on to the Academy through sheer strength of will.”

Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.

Lao Tzu

Speaking to the Academy Directors reveals that academies are far from the sausage factories they may at first appear from the outside, with all the ingredients being thrown in and a bland, homogenised product churned out at the end. In fact, academy heads deliberately leave space for character and individuality to develop and actively encourage a player to find their own path to success. John Stanworth, who has been Academy Director at Lancashire since the Academy’s inception in 2002, and the Club’s Player Development Manager for almost a decade before that, comments:

“The challenge of any academy is to allow the players to develop naturally and to allow a natural expression of how they play and how they compete. The whole process has to recognise that it’s all about having a method of performing that is understood by the player. The challenge is to design training sessions that challenge people and their psychological traits, to put them under pressure as they would be on the field of play.

“However, it is a gradual process, with a series of incremental challenges along the way. Our young cricketers gradually understand what they have to do at each level to meet the standard. What I do tell the players is that a place on the Academy is not ‘making it’, it’s simply an opportunity. They still have to earn the right to be recognised. No-one has a God-given right to be there and there’s no room for complacency.”

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.

Lao Tzu

We are treated to some astonishing cricket these days, with skills and fitness levels beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. The flipside of this, though, is that you can’t just parachute into the pinnacle of the game – you have to climb up, becoming acclimatised along the way. You simply have to be part the system to succeed. Like the bird released from a cage into an aviary, there is freedom to spread its wings but the limits remain. And so it is that young players are encouraged to spread their wings, and are boundaried only by the demands of the system that feeds, develops and rewards them.

So what is it like being on a county Academy? Simon Webster is on the Notts Academy and has been on the England Development Programme too, before a frustratingly long period of injury set him back. Now, aged 20 and expecting to be fully fit for the coming pre-season, he will spend his fourth year on the Academy. He reflects:

“Being on the Academy is like a lifestyle. It’s very professional and it’s a time when you start training around the first-team for the first time and really start to learn what it’s like to be a professional player. I remember having a period where I was finding it hard and I was just training for the sake of it, going through the motions. But when I started to see more of the first team, I realised why we had to train so hard and the sessions, for me, became much more focused because I could see exactly why we were doing them.

“We train five days a week, not only cricket but also player development welfare sessions such as nutrition, money management and anti-corruption sessions that deal with betting rules and how to deal with being approached. We have sessions with our psych on dealing with mental stresses and techniques, and there are sessions on media skills and how to run your social media accounts.

“We do have to keep up with our school or college work too, and the county works hard on its relationship with the schools. They stress the importance of academic success and the fact that it’s our responsibility  to make the situation work.

“We are not spoon-fed in any way, and in fact the coaches will let us fail so we can work out what went wrong and deal with it. When we do need help, though, there’s always someone there for us. Who succeeds is down to who’s got the bottle, who’s willing to get to work when things get tough, who can handle the stresses of first-class cricket. It’s really up to us if we want to succeed.”

Stephen Parry made his England debut in March 2014, playing a handful of ODIs and T20s. It could all have been very different. John Stanworth, Lancashire’s Academy Director, says Parry ‘didn’t quite get it as a younger player’ – a charge Parry readily admits:

“I was in and out of the age group sides until I made a breakthrough in the under 16s. I had a decent year and then at under 17s, I had a really good year. I bowled well and I batted at four. I was the leading wicket-taker by far. I got picked for the Academy and then I think I kind of believed it was just going to happen. Well, it didn’t and Stanny [John Stanworth] kicked me off.

“It was a bit of a wake-up call. I’d been on top of the world the year before and now I was off the Academy. I hadn’t pushed on enough. No-one wanted it more for me than Stanny and he was probably disappointed. I was upset and disappointed too at the time but now I know it was for my own good.

People in their handlings of affairs often fail when they are about to succeed. If one remains as careful at the end as he was at the beginning, there will be no failure.

Lao Tzu

“I could’ve gone either way then. I decided to postpone university and I went to Australia to play cricket – and I think I probably grew up a bit. When I came back, I went trialling all over the place off my own bat and then eventually I got a chance of a game for the Academy after another player got injured. I got 96 not out. This was half way through the season and I then had a run in the side and got a contract at the end of that year, when I was 20.

“You could argue that 20 is quite late but I think sometimes it’s important to go through the experiences. Having been dropped, it was all about how I reacted. I could’ve walked away but, as my Dad says, I was like a bad smell – always hanging around! It helped that I’ve always really enjoyed my cricket and whether I’m playing for my country or my league club, I just try and bowl my best ball each time.”

John Windows, Academy Director at Durham, agrees that players’ development has to be organic:

“As coaches we have to see what we can add – a bit of fitness, a bit of fielding and so on – but it’s decision-making that’s more relevant and that comes from players having confidence in themselves. The players do work hard but they also play a lot and most of their learning comes from playing matches, it gives the players chance to come up against different scenarios and see how they tackle them.

“Any technical improvement is usually as a result of playing matches. For example, someone might get sick of being bowled out over and over again by a left-arm spinner, so they address the problem. This is far better than doing endless pre-emptive net sessions against left-arm spin. In the tough, competitive matches they play, any frailties are quickly exposed.”

Trying to understand is like straining through muddy water. Have the patience to wait! Be still and allow the mud to settle.

Lao Tzu

It’s hard to argue with John’s logic and he’s not alone in his outlook. Northants’ Phil Rowe says he is ‘on the lower intervention end of things’ when it comes to coaching. ‘The thing to get right,’ he says, ‘is the environment, this gives players the best chance to shine.’ He continues:

“The game has changed and these days there a lot of ways to make runs and take wickets. There’s just no point in any young player trying to play like someone else. They have to learn for themselves how they can become the best they can be by doing it their own way. What we do is stress-test the basics. So we take what they can do and see how they cope under different stresses and in different conditions.

“At the same time, we have a ‘safe to fail’ environment. I don’t want any player to be afraid to try something. The other day, I sent down about 50 balls to a guy who was reluctant to pull. He hit 10 and timed two. I talked to him about the two he timed. He trusts that I’m not going to bollock him if he gets it wrong.”

Phil is a big fan of Professor of Sports Science, Damian Farrow. He has published several books and papers on how sportsmen acquire their skills and is an advocate of what he calls ‘implicit learning’, whereby players learn better by doing something themselves rather than being given step-by-step instructions.

Writing for the Australian Sports Commission, Damien Farrow says:

“A major conundrum faced by coaches is the most effective method of conveying information to learners…A growing amount of experimental evidence suggests that the use of instructions may be unnecessary, and in some instances, leads to performance degradation rather than enhancement. Explicit learning…is used to coach a learner about how to perform a skill. This process typically results in the learner being able to verbalise how to perform the skill, although it does not guarantee the learner can physically execute the skill. In contrast, implicit learning methods typically contain no formal instruction about how to perform the skill yet result in a learner being able to perform the skill despite being unable to verbally describe how they do it…Interestingly, this is a characteristic possessed by many elite performers.

“Players given instructions were found to more likely preoccupy themselves with thoughts about how they were executing the skill, which in most sports is detrimental to performance. Under pressure, the players were found trying to consciously control normally automatic, implicit or subconscious processes, commonly termed ‘paralysis by analysis’. Alternatively, players who did not have any instructions to refer to were less likely to think about how to execute the skill because they did not consciously know what they actually did.

“Remember, sometimes the best instruction a learner can receive is, ‘Just do it’!”

Phil adds, ‘The person who has learned implicitly is much more adaptable than the drilled player. He is more resilient and responsive.’

This may go some way to explaining why the Durham approach pays off – and given their record of success with local players recently, who could argue that it doesn’t? There’s also no need to rush, says John Windows:

“I don’t think the drive to catch them young and do everything as quickly as possible really works. It’s a late-developing sport. We try and leave the academy process until a bit later, let the lads play and mature. In the meantime the lads are training regularly with the first team and getting to know them, so when they do make their debut they’re confident and feel very welcomed into the side.”

An ant on the move does more than a dozing ox.

Lao Tzu

There is arguably something of a dissonance between this view and the fact that all counties start their young cricketers off very young. Age group squads tend to be formed by under-11s at the latest, and from then they’re in the system. If they end up playing or practising cricket nearly all year round, does it become more of a burden than a pleasure? Can these youngsters forget to enjoy it?

‘Great question,’ says Lancashire’s John Stanworth. He adds:

“I have researched this and the research says that between the ages of 13 and 15, kids’ desire to participate in an activity is dictated almost exclusively by the enjoyment they get from it. It is crucial that people involved in talent progression understand this. It takes a real skill to manage the young person at this stage. What you want to happen is for a player to enjoy improving, and for that desire to improve to become their motivator to practise their skills. It must come from them. Above 15 years old, you move into more ‘purposeful practice’, without which players simply won’t achieve what they could.”

Retaining the players’ individualism while still giving them the tools to succeed is the ongoing challenge for coaches. John continues:

“There must be room for a player to develop in his or her unique way. This country’s system for coaching coaches is quite rigid and as a coach you are at best shaped by that system, and at worst indoctrinated by it. Where would Malinga have been in our system? Chanderpaul?

“I used to think that if you were technically proficient, you would achieve. I soon learned it’s not about that. When Jimmy Anderson came to us, I knew little about coaching fast bowling. But what I did know was that for a 16 year old, he bowled fast. I didn’t really concern myself about his action. I didn’t do any technical coaching with Jimmy, we just thought about tactics and situations. He just bowled. Other coaches told me I’d have to sort his action out but I left him alone, and that, in retrospect, was good coaching and a valuable lesson.”

When Anderson went to England, of course, they did try to make changes and they learned for themselves what John had already worked out.

Notts’ Chris Tolley backs up John’s approach. He says:

“Knowing when to intervene is the art of a good coach. At an elite level it becomes much more of a mentoring role. By the time players join the staff, they should be self-sufficient. Professional cricketers are left to their own devices a lot. When you walk over that white line, there’s only you. It does take a while to understand your own game, though. Speak to most pros and they’d say they’re probably 24, 25 before they know their own game really well. Instant success is the exception rather than the rule.

“This is why there is still room in the game for late developers. It’s happening less and less but it’s still possible. I got a call from Cornwall saying I must see this lad – 26 years old and playing in the leagues and minor counties. I saw him, we played him in a few second team games, and then the Director of Cricket shoved him in the first team, he took a five-for and never looked back. That was Charlie Shreck.”

John Stanworth also likes to see late developers getting their chance:

“Tom Bailey played in our first team at the end of last season but he didn’t play any representative cricket until he was 19. And going back a few years, I had a call from a mother whose sons played cricket and she said that her lads keep coming back from nets at Burnley Cricket Club talking about this lad, Jimmy Anderson. So I went to see him at 16 and he was playing for England three years later.”

Soon, however, it may well be that this kind of story is one found only in the history books. You only have to look at the truly extraordinary shots some modern players can play in T20s today to realise that the game is moving on fast, and the gap between professional and good recreational cricket is widening at an ever-increasing rate. As Northants’ Phil Rowe says:

“The skills levels these days are so high that you simply won’t make it if you don’t put the effort in. There’s no room for talented players who take it all too easy. It’s no coincidence that the best players tend to be the best trainers. I’m a champion of late developers but the problem is that in English cricket, the jump from club cricket to county cricket is too big. I do think we need to look harder at club cricket, university cricket and minor counties cricket and see if we can get some of these players into second team games.”

And this is perhaps the crux of it. As spectators we crave originality, difference, uniqueness. But with skills levels so very high these days, natural talent alone will no longer cut it. In the end, everyone has to get their head down and work damn hard. Everyone has to buy into the same culture. Most players have been in ‘the system’ since 11 or 12, have made those incremental improvements needed to progress to the next level, and bit by bit they become highly skilled, incredibly fit, mentally resilient cricketers.

When Durham beat Warwickshire at Lords in the Royal London One-Day Cup final last year, there were nine players born within 15 miles of the ground. That’s a pretty resounding pat on the back for the Academy. ‘It’s great but there’s pressure to keep things going,’ says John Windows, encapsulating of one of the central challenges for Academies and the counties’ broader youth programmes.

On the one hand, the Academy Directors speak of allowing players the time to find their own path at their own pace, to develop the individual style through a learning process that involves trial and error as well as committed practice. On the other hand, the counties themselves need the academies to turn out successful players at a reasonable rate in order to push for success.

But when dealing with people, there are no guarantees. Who is to say an Academy’s processes are wrong if the county has an unsuccessful run? There are so many variables that go into a county’s success or failure that making an objective judgement becomes almost impossible. A county academy’s reputation tends to become part of a narrative applied retrospectively when a county does well. But really, the situation is in constant flux and depends as much on individuals, parents, relationships, injuries, call-ups, weather, school and so on as it does on systems, processes and coaches. In 2011, Lancashire’s Academy was being lauded for the part it played in the county’s Championship triumph and again when they won the second division on 2013. Both successes were followed by relegation. John Stanworth comments:

“At the moment, I’m under pressure because of relegation but if you’re clear on what you’re trying to produce, it will be cyclical. You have to be patient with the players. You can’t hurry talent progression. Our skill is to know when the players are ready to step up.”

It’s striking just how long youth and academy coaches stay in their jobs. They are away from the immediate glare of publicity, of course, so are less likely to lose those jobs to political expediency but they also make a choice to stay – often for decades. But having spoken to a number of Academy Directors, it is easy to see how intoxicating their work must be. Not only is every intake of players a fresh set of challenges, but so is every individual in that intake. And each of those players is changing all the time, and presenting new challenges and requiring constant reassessment of the best way to help them develop. Like surrogate parents, these coaches simply want their charges to be the very best they can be, and take enormous pride in playing their part in that journey. When asked about their role in a player’s success, of course, they downplay it, saying it was all down to the player.

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.

Lao Tzu

But what they have done is to give that young person, within the constraints of the system, the very best chance of success and of bringing their unique talent to the game we love. They have done all they can. They have let the caged bird sing.

Yeah but no but yeah but…

Tags

, , ,

Now this is frustrating. For so long, I’d been certain that following England at the World Cup would be quite straightforward. We would stumble along in the Pool matches, win a game against one of the big boys and be full of optimism – then have a stinker against Scotland, Bangladesh or Afghanistan and not even make it to the quarters.

I was determined to enjoy the World Cup simply as an opportunity to see some great matches and if England did, by some miracle, make it to the quarters then my cup would have runneth over.

And then England did the decent thing and relieved Cook of his position. Morgan came in and talked straight and talked sense. He scored a ton. Then England smashed India. And I could feel that sensation again, that feeling that I thought had been banished when it came to England in ODIs. Hope.

They beat India by nine wickets. Surely that meant they could beat anyone? Nine wickets!

I sniffed a chance for England. So back to their squad for a quick look…

Morgan – Positive skipper, solid bloke, evident new energy in the side since his appointment, always gets runs as skipper.

Moeen – Rapidly becoming a legend. Free-flowing bat, fearless smasher of the ball from the start, rapidly improving and important bowler.

Anderson – Still the swing king, four cheap wickets the other day, well rested and raring to go.

Ballance – A real find last year, adaptable player, great cricket brain.

Bell – 187…141…smooth stroking, late cutting, cover driving, finally delivering.

Bopara – Finally found his role with the bat and has an ability to smash it miles; canny bowler.

Broad – Experience, pace, accuracy with the ball; mercurial ability with the bat; loves showing Aussies what he can do.

Buttler – Was the first of England’s new generation to seal his place. Plays shots that appear to be impossible; feared by opponents; secure in his position; improving with the gloves and pretty decent now.

Finn – Tall, quick, awkward. A five-for to boost his confidence the other day. Has stopped raising his arm, smoothing his hair and looking bemused after every delivery that the batsman misses. Finny’s back!

Hales – Devastating opener who scored a spectacular T20 ton for England and scored county runs for fun last year. Exciting.

Jordan – What a find. Lively bowler with a knack for picking up wickets, top catcher and half-decent biffer. A ‘makes things happen’ kind of cricketer.

Root – Looks utterly at home for England in all formats now they’ve allowed him to bat in the right position. A pivotal player in the middle order, and handy fill-in offie.

Taylor – Talk about taking your chance. He basically got one knock to secure a place and nailed it. Looks a great option at no.3. Whacks it harder than he used to and is pretty  inventive.

Tredwell –  As inconceivable as it is to imagine him in his whites for England, it’s equally hard to  imagine another specialist spinner usurping his one day spot. Solid performer.

Woakes – Another fella who’s taken his chance. Looked far too weedy and military medium when he debuted for England but now looks a nailed-on pick and fully deserving of his place. Very decent bat too.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is quite an exciting line-up. So, let’s have a look at that fixture list. So Australia first up. Who have they got? Oh…Warner and Finch. Ah. Smith, Bailey, Maxwell…Johnson, Faulkner, Starc. Well, maybe if we get Warner early. And Finch. And Smith. And hope Maxwell doesn’t come off. And Clarke’s hammy goes. And Johnson’s having an off-day…

Alright, so if we lose that one, who’s next?

New Zealand. OK, well we usually have a chance against the perennial overachievers. So who have they got? McCullum, scorer of four test tons including a triple last year;  Anderson a revelation in recent months and holder of the quickest ODI ton until a few days ago; Elliott – ton today; Ronchi – 170 today coming in at no.7 today…Taylor, Vettori, Williamson, Southee. Hang on, this is a damn good side. This is not a team of underdogs.

Who else? Sri Lanka – just lost to them comfortably. Scotland? Afghanistan? Real banana skins.

So I look at our side again…

Morgan – Until his ton a few days ago, hadn’t scored a run for ages with a recent record worse than Cook’s. Golden duck today.

Moeen – Whack whack whoosh. I fear quick 20s and 30s will be more likely that match- defining tons.

Anderson – If it doesn’t swing, he’s in trouble. On a flat deck – fodder.

Ballance – Unproven. Possibly a bit stodgy for ODIs.

Bell – Surely flattering to deceive. Spent 150 matches promising much and delivering little.

Bopara – Had more drinks at the last chance saloon than anyone. Not as good as we hope he is (average in ODIs 28.3 since 2013, 40.88 with the ball. (Hat-tip for the surprising stats @NickSharland.))

Broad – Injury-prone, has lost the snap in his bowling and underperforms with the bat

Buttler – Hit and miss. Inexperienced.

Finn – Still not firing on all cylinders. His five wickets the other day came from poor shot not great deliveries. Just one of those lucky days. Still bowling well below express pace.

Hales – Selected but not trusted. Limited technique has been found out by international teams.

Jordan – Expensive, inconsistent, inaccurate; has a run-up and action that could go very wrong at any moment.

Root – Playing well, if a little slowly.

Taylor – Unproven against world-class bowlers. Early shuffle across the stumps could prove his undoing.

Tredwell – Best of a bad lot. If a team decides to take him apart, they generally do.

Woakes – See Anderson. No swing = absolute fodder.

I’m trying to persuade myself that the second assessment of the players above is the right one and I should retreat to my position of no expectation of success. But really, I know it’s not true. They could do something at this World Cup, England, couldn’t they? Even if it’s unlikely, it’s not impossible.

I can’t wait for it to start now…Damn you, hope, damn you.

Stephen Parry – it could all have been so different…

Tags

, , ,

It has been announced today that Lancashire spinner Stephen Parry has joined Australian Big Bash League side Brisbane Heat for the rest of the tournament. Researching an article for All Out Cricket magazine, I spoke to Stephen recently about his early days and how it could all have been so different. 

Stephen Parry made his England debut in March 2104, playing a handful of ODIs and T20s. This achievement would have been unthinkable when he was trying to make his way in the game. John Stanworth, Lancashire’s Academy Director, says Parry ‘didn’t quite get it as a younger player’ – a charge Parry readily admits:

“I was in and out of the age group sides until I made a breakthrough in the under 16s. I had a decent year and then at under 17s, I had a really good year. I bowled well and I batted at four. I was the leading wicket-taker by far. I got picked for the Academy and then I think I kind of believed it was just going to happen. Well, it didn’t and Stanny [John Stanworth] kicked me off.

“It was a bit of a wake-up call. I’d been on top of the world the year before and now I was off the Academy. I hadn’t pushed on enough. No-one wanted it more for me than Stanny and he was probably disappointed. I was upset and disappointed too at the time but now I know it was for my own good.

“I could’ve gone either way then. I decided to postpone university and I went to Australia to play cricket – and I think I probably grew up a bit. When I came back, I went trialling all over the place off my own bat and then eventually I got a chance of a game for the Academy after another player got injured. I got 96 not out. This was half way through the season and I then had a run in the side and got a contract at the end of that year, when I was 20.

“You could argue that 20 is quite late but I think sometimes it’s important to go through the experiences. Having been dropped, it was all about how I reacted. I could’ve walked away but, as my Dad says, I was like a bad smell – always hanging around! It helped that I’ve always really enjoyed my cricket and whether I’m playing for my country or my league club, I just try and bowl my best ball each time.”