Burns Eye View

Can England Excel Across All Formats at Home and Away?

Yet another England tour to Australia ended in an Ashes debacle for the visitors. In 3 of the past four Ashes tours, England has lost 14 tests to nil.

Without a depth of quality, hostile bowlers who pose a potent threat with both the new ball and the old ball plus a top quality spin bowler, England’s demise this winter was predicatable. And that is before we get on to the ongoing deficiencies with the batting line up, especially at numbers 2 and 3 in the top order.

Despite the 4-0 defeat, and a succession of players who claimed the series was a close-fought contest, assistant coach Paul Farbrace chose to front up to the media and acknowledge England’s vulnerabilities as a cricket team. Fundamentally, this England team has struggled badly during the past two winters to be competitive away from home, let alone be successful. Farbrace’s candour was welcome in an era of anodyne statements trotted out by players and coaches in the wake of defeats at the majority of media conferences.

Honesty is the best policy.

But, the key is what people do with the information that emerges from 'brutally honest' conversations. It should not be merely a cleansing experience for people to release their disappointments and frustrations.

When heavy defeats on Ashes Tours become acceptable (and avoiding a whitewash is deemed a relative success) then our game is in real trouble. And, just because "the lads stuck at it, and team spirit remains good", it should not mask the need for a forensic examination of all things English cricket. Realistically, this should be happening all the time, not just after horrendous results on Ashes tours.

And, when you factor in that England's overseas tours to the sub-continent continue to be a disaster - consistently being outplayed against spin, then we are 'one-trick ponies' in home conditions. And, that trick may disappear with the eventual retirement of James Anderson.

The batting has been a problem for a long while. In the past 30 years we have been 'helped out' by South Africans Allan Lamb and Robin Smith, and in the best years of recent times by Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen. And now, Dawid Malan looks like establishing himself. And, if Mark Stoneman/ James Vince get dropped for NZ/next summer, then I expect Keaton Jennings to return. It is suggested by some good judges that he has the character to succeed, despite a difficult experience last summer.

The spin bowling has not been a priority in English cricket at domestic level. And, the development of fast bowling has never flourished in a structure underpinned by full-time county cricket. Monty's demise has been sad to witness, and what happened to Adam Riley at Kent who was tipped to be Graeme Swann's replacement? At least Somerset are making progress in this department, both with their turning pitches and the opportunities afforded to their emerging spinners.

The fast bowling will always be a difficult nut to crack. Frank Tyson, Fred Trueman, John Snow and Bob Willis were exceptions back in the day. And today, despite the excellent money on offer through central contracts, the sheer volume of cricket played renders the prospect of consistent fast bowling almost impossible without the probability of injury.

One possible answer is to set up a fast-bowling programme which enables a pool of bowlers to be rotated in the England team and 'managed' outside of county cricket. I loved our 2005 attack for its skill and variety - despite being all right-arm over. Maybe another such group can be developed? And, for long-term solutions, how about a more innovative approach to developing fast-bowling talent by allowing the maverick talents of coaches like Ian Pont and Steffan Jones a proper platform and a healthy budget to see what results they can produce when given a percentage of the resources available to those who are responsible for the mainstream programmes led by the National Cricket Performance Centre?

And, as for spin bowling, the dearth of senior professionals bowling quality, wicket-taking spin in the game reflects poorly on both the development processes and the many heavily-funded initiatives by ECB over the past 20 years. Plus, the issue probably reflects poorly on county captaincy too.

For example, which teams have an English spinner at the forefront of their success? Jeetan Patel dominates Warwickshire's bowling, and Essex won the County Championship largely because of their recruitment of South Africa's Simon Harmer - he made the difference although Jamie Porter excelled with the ball too.

In my opinion, too many County Cricket Clubs have been ‘lazy’ and have chosen to recruit Kolpaks rather than develop their own players to a higher standard. I hear that one county's likely answer to their present difficulties is to spend the best part of £0.5m on a Kolpak player (who has retired from international cricket) for the next 3 years. It is being justified because "everyone else is doing it"! And Derbyshire spending a small fortune on Hardus Viljoen to be injured last season while they propped up Div2 is not my idea of the wisest way to help transform cricket in the midlands region of the UK. Sadly, it is not an isolated example. Leicestershire, among others, have been very guilty of this too down the years, and Glamorgan have become major offenders in terms of ‘overseas’ cricketers in recent times.

With all the people involved, and the big money spent, it is time for more accountability - developing quality cricketers (via Academy or elsewhere) isn't about them making a county debut or playing regularly for the county 1st XI. It should be about developing successful players for England. The more players developed who are 'good enough' to be selected for England, the better.

The strength of a national team tends to be correlated with an era of strong domestic cricket. Recently, England has picked players who clearly aren't good enough judging by their results at the top-level - and in domestic cricket too. And, so few counties can claim to have been successful at developing successful England cricketers.

Rather sadly from this coach and former cricketer’s perspective, I think the influence of many sports scientists has 'hijacked' our sport. And, coupled with this, I think the language being used by some coaches is beyond belief. The game is both complex and simple, and having rich experience as a player assists with the process of deeper learning about the intricacies of the sport. It is a game of skill, subtlety and strategy. And there is much randomness too. Not everything is quantifiable to match a theory.

The best coaches in sport keep it simple, but understand the complexity. They rarely speak, but they observe closely. And they know their players, inside and out. Their whisper can be louder than their 'shout'! Fundamentally, they are good judges of ability and character. And they don't take any nonsense from impostors! Administrators rarely like such people and prefer 'yes-men' because the best would put them in their place.

I find myself wondering what the great manager/coaches of yesteryear would do if the CEO or Chairman dared to get near a microphone. Yet today, the ego of people without 'coalface knowledge' of sport seems to allow them to be quoted.

The same can be said about some players’ public quotes too. Why do they feel the need to 'big-up' ordinary performances by their colleagues, other than to 'be positive'? It diminishes the public's assessment of their professional judgment. For example, I have heard some people say how 'fantastically well' Mason Crane bowled. Really? He took 1 wicket for 198 runs!!

An old-fashioned view from a wise cricket person (I have come to know very well) struck a chord with me during the Ashes. Put simply, he said: “Bowlers need to bowl plenty - to get strong and learn their own 'individual' action.

Batsmen need to bat plenty, in all conditions, and learn to become a master of their balance in order to have control over the ball.”

And, “fielding practice needs to be a priority every day - NOT FOOTBALL IN WARM-UPS for team spirit! “His view was:

"If you want to play football, try and become a footballer!!"

Please don’t get me wrong – I am not intending to bash the coaching industry en masse. There are some fine coaches out there...and many volunteers are doing splendid work in encouraging the future generation to play the game. But ‘over-coaching’ is an unwelcome ill. Better no coaching at all, and allowing players to ‘teach themselves about themselves’.

England Cricket’s under-performance relative to their level of investment is an issue. The best programmes excel when it comes to looking closely at return on investment. Lack of money isn't an excuse ECB can hide behind.

Winter Test match defeats cannot be masked by excellence in one day cricket. And, with England Under 19’s experiencing another woeful ICC U19 World Cup, the future doesn’t look as bright as it should based on the level of finances thrown at junior programmes either.

Fundamentally, England has relied too heavily on Southern Africans to positively affect its’ performances. Soon, a Barbadian in the name of Jordan Archer may provide the solutuion to our next possible ‘discovery’. Not enough Englishmen are producing top performance consistently. It has to change if England is to becom e’world’s best’.

The modern challenge is to excel across all formats. And the very best enjoy performing against the best, in foreign conditions.

The Future:

Right now, it's time for 'the brains trust' of England Cricket to really earn their money. Another alternative would be for them be replaced by wise, hard-nosed cricket people who understand the learning and development journey. But, I fear, the talk will shift on to preparing for 4 years time, and the importance of the 2019 World Cup, with all the platitudes being trotted out about how much progress is being made in 'white-ball cricket'. However, I do recognise the transformation in approach under the leadership axis of Eoin Morgan and Trevor Bayliss. I just hope the players can see it through, and not end us as a team who ‘flatter to deceive’ under big pressure.

I don't buy the level of propaganda being peddled by many in our game to the extent some others do – let’s face facts we were woeful in the Champions Trophy semi-final in 2017. We were poor in the final at Edgbaston with victory in sight. And don’t mention previous World Cup campaigns! As a national team, too often we haven't performed when it matters most in tournament play where the psychology is different to playing in a series which offers ‘second chances’. And, performing well against the best, in knockout scenarios, is the nub of being a top performer in sport.

The modern focus on preparation in cricket has unwittingly overtaken the old-fashioned currency of runs and wickets. It has also enabled personality to become too significant in selection. Many modern coaches tend to want to develop harmony in their group - but is their 'tune' worth having? Personally, I would prefer to have top players (even if they challenge me and my working environment) and are 'edgy' as people. Fundamentally, top sportspeople tend to be 'difficult' characters who want to impose themselves on a match situation or an opponent. In their developmental years, they are often 'rebels' and can get excluded from 'player pathways' in the modern world.

Instead, I notice that in many development systems 'the good lads' get 'the inside lane', and many players learn how to play the political game. Wise judges see through this B.S. and can identify and nurture 'the difficult one' because they tend to be 'the diamond'.

The future is a concern. School cricket is effectively dead, apart from in the well-resourced environments of the private schools. Club cricket is the heart of the sport and better financial resources MUST be allocated to enable them to a) survive and b) thrive. Paying overseas/Kolpak cricketers to play county cricket is not a sensible decision when 'serious' local clubs are dying.

For all the optimism that Tom Harrison and co like to convey, the reality is that despite the success of the England Women's team, our game is in danger of becoming irrelevant to many young people, and it is causing some people who have spent their lifetime in and around the game to walk away in exasperation at the inability of leading administrators to resolve the core problems. And, the problem is not unique to ECB. ICC could do more for other countries around the world by ensuring the money gets spent more wisely to ensure a healthy, sustainable sport.

Above all else, right now, we need people who lead the game to be more exacting and instil higher standards of performance at every level of the professional game, and ensure the club game doesn't continue to die as a feeder to top-level cricket.

Will it change? Let's see...

Neil Burns


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