Burns Eye View

Hope Springs Eternal as England Embrace All-Round Opportunity

As 2019 begins, England’s cricketers are preparing for what could turn out to be a momentous year.

From a variety of different and exotic locations, England’s most sought-after players are gearing up for a home World Cup and an Ashes Series too.

The team arrive in the Caribbean for a Test series against the Windies, knowing their hosts may be in disarray having been shorn of their Australian coach Stuart Law, (who has left international cricket for the county game as Head Coach of Middlesex) and many of their best players who have opted to play the short forms of the game exclusively.

I visited Barbados last April and spent some time in conversation with some of the region’s leading cricket people and I picked up a vibe that the hard line stance taken by the Windies Board towards its treatment of ‘star players’ and their rejection of many legendary names from ‘the glory years’ to help shape the future of the international team, has created conflict and some deep division among the cricketing community in the region.

Once upon a time the rivalry was between the different countries that make up West Indies Cricket, on the field of play and with the number of players from each country who gained selection of the West Indies team. Today, despite the success of the World t20 tournament win, my sense was that there exists such a deep dissatisfaction with the administration of the sport, that a sense of defeatism has taken over the minds of some previously influential people. Maybe this is what happens over time as part of ‘the life process’? Does such a natural culling create room for the next generation to come forward and enjoy more ‘space’ to influence the future?

Today, Windies Cricket is led by President Dave Cameron, a former banker from Jamaica, and a CEO from England, Jonny Grave. Grave is a former employee of the Professional Cricketers Association in England, and a man who has been keen to draw a line under previous disputes between high-profile characters and start afresh. His desire to have a diverse coaching team has seen Stuart Law assisted by South African Nic Pothas, a former Hampshire wicket-keeper, Welshman Toby Radford as batting coach, and Pakistan spin wizard Mushtaq Ahmed as a bowling consultant, and another South African in Richard Pybus to act as Interim Head Coach. Meanwhile former Windies captain Jimmy Adams has been a force of ‘power behind the throne’. Does it make for a richly diverse management set-up, or does it represent a muddle of mixed culture that has no clear philosophy on how to move the region’s cricket forward? Time tends to reveal the answer. Could 2019 be a momentous year for the twice World Cup-winning team?

Joe Pucovski, the 20 year-old Victorian batting prodigy has been drafted in to the Australian Test squad for their tour to Sri Lanka following the home series defeat to India. It would seem that time and patience has run out for ‘highly-promising’ players such as the Marsh brothers, Shaun and Mitch. Their Test careers may well be over unless Australia gets hammered in Sri Lanka, or a new Selection Panel is convened before the squad for the 2019 Ashes series in England gets announced.

It is always exciting to see new names come into the public’s consciousness and it raises the expectations of the possibilities of being able to see ‘the new Ricky Ponting’ or ‘the new Viv Richards’ early in their international careers. Of course, there can never be anything other than the authentic individual themselves, but the power of legacy is such that players (and the public) are forever inspired by the deeds of the greats from yesteryear. They set the benchmark of what represents the shift needed if a player is to move ‘from good to great’.

Perhaps the 2019 Ashes Tour to England will offer Australia the chance to progress the careers of a future team through the backing of talented players? Much like when Lawrie Sawle, Bob Simpson and Allan Border helped the Australian team transform its’ fortunes thirty years ago with a World Cup win and a successful Ashes Tour soon after, the current team has an opportunity to weave its own thread through the rich tapestry of the world’s most famous and successful cricket team. Sawle, Simpson and Border inspired Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ian Healy to become the men who the team could be built around for the next decade. Who might the next group of iconic names be?

Pakistan’s recent beating at the hands of a highly-competitive South African team, inspired by quality fast-bowling, suggests they are not among the world’s best teams currently. And Sri Lanka’s heavy defeat at the hands of England before Christmas 2018 leaves only India as a sub-continent team entering the New Year full of confidence, following their outstanding series win in Australia.

With a rapidly-developing Jasper Bumrah as the main threat, India has the class and variety with the ball needed to dismiss top batsmen. Add Viraht Kohli’s brilliant batsmanship into the equation, and India possess the quality with bat and ball that most teams will fear. Despite being beaten in England in the summer of 2018, India has been able to re-group and with top order batsman Pujara finding his best form in Australia, India look as near to being a complete team as they appeared to have when the iconic players Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Ganguly, Kumble and Srinath were blazing a trail en-route to developing the culture which enabled the likes of MS Dhoni and Zaheer Khan to come in to a top team. They pushed the competitive attitude up another notch in tournament play, and challenged each other to attain higher levels of physical fitness to ensure they won the ICC Cricket World Cup as host nation.

It was a triumph of leadership for MS Dhoni under Gary Kirsten and Eric Simons’ wise coaching support. The team embraced the expectations of their nation and inspired themselves to produce their best cricket when it mattered most. Can England repeat the feat in 2019?

With an emphasis on all-rounders and an expansive style of play encouraged by the leadership group, England enter 2019 as favourites for the World Cup, and to regain the Ashes. Will it be as straightforward as ‘just’ having to play to their potential? Yes, I think so.

If England’s brilliant all-rounders play well, no team should be able to live with them in the heat of the battle. The depth of their batting and the power in their hitting, means few, if any bowlers, will want to go head-to-head with them unless the batting surface favours the bowlers. As host nation, I would be surprised if England batted on anything other than true batting surfaces, thus leading to my conclusion that 2019 could be the biggest opportunity English cricket has had to ‘sell the sport’ to a wider audience and inspire future generations of enthusiastic young people to make cricket their sport of choice.

Could this be as big a year for cricket in this country as Euro 96 proved for football? Let’s hope so. We may even have a team of heroes to rival Bobby Moore’s men from 1966.

Neil Burns


Click here for other blogs