Seeing new players emerge onto the sporting scene is one of the great delights of competitive sport. It’s almost as pleasing as watching seasoned professionals performing at the peak of their powers (which reputedly occurs at around the age of twenty-six); or hanging on beyond their pensionable age through sheer brilliance, force of will and managerial loyalty.
Sometimes the arrival of new players is the consequence of panic. Managers, coaches and selectors, fearing the sack or the harsh side of their supporters’ tongues, look for solutions in new faces. The trouble is, this approach doesn’t usually work unless it is part of a wider, more-considered strategy. Fergie’s kids may have been kids, but they were the product of a carefully-considered youth strategy.
I remember the dread days of English cricket in the 1990s. New faces seemed to appear as often as they did on that eponymous show of the 1970s; and if they failed, they would get the same cruel treatment from those infinite legions of judges ready to cut them down. A player (or a comedian) might achieve fame for their allotted fifteen minutes, then be cast back into their obscurity and only reappear, if unlucky, a couple of decades later in a game of Trivial Pursuit (this also applies to the comedian).
There were reasons enough to panic in those days: not least the West Indian executioners masquerading as bowlers; though it’s probably more accurate to call it fear. The real panic was with the selectors. They struggled to find an eleven with which they were happy, and only later realised that a debutant was as likely to fail as succeed. Though that was the era, was it not? And the lack of team continuity – and confidence in selection – perhaps contributed to a poorer win-loss ratio.
It’s a statement of the obvious that young, inexperienced players are more likely to succeed if they debut in a settled side. Andrew Strauss’ first test match perhaps illustrates the point: a century at Lords against New Zealand in 2004. He might have got off to this flying start anyway (and average just over sixty in his first year), but the settled nature of the team helped. Trescothick, Vaughan, Flintoff, Hoggard and Harmison formed the backbone of a side on the up; and a year later they won the Ashes in that great summer, of which I remember escaping from the office into the sun and watching the drama unfold in the nearest establishment possessing a television, and then later on the day of celebration at Trafalgar Square to witness the intoxicated victors falling out of their bus.
We forgive winners, I’ve noticed that. Six years after the 2005 Ashes, the English rugby team got up to their own mischief during the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. But there was one key difference. They didn’t play well. Vaughan and Flintoff won, while Tindall and Tuilagi lost – simple.
Between getting knocked out of the 1999 World Cup and winning the competition in 2003, the England rugby team possessed a winning culture. Against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, they won ten out of twelve games, which is no easy task. At that time, players emerged into a team imbued with confidence and true ability, each adding something new rather than merely trying to arrest the decline. Okay, so a review of the debut list shows quite a few forgettable names; but each player who broke into the side for a permanent run, rather than so Clive Woodward (not yet knighted) could ‘take a look,’ were genuine talents. Ben Cohen, Mike Tindall, Iain Balshaw (what could have been had injury not blighted him!), Jason Robinson and Steve Thompson all made the team better for their inclusion.
Sporting fortunes rise and fall: Always. After 2003 and 2005, the rugby players and cricketers alike fell off quite drastically. But the cricketers were soon back, even reaching number one in the ICC rankings and winning the two most recent Ashes series. There is a buoyancy to the side, and the expectation is that each new player will succeed rather than fail as they did in earlier eras. Take Anderson, Broad, Swann, Cook and Trott: they all improved the side and they all succeeded almost immediately. One might mention Anderson’s pre-2005 Ashes debut, but he was only kept out of the side by the great quartet of Flintoff, Hoggard, Harmison and Jones. That’s no insult.
We are currently in the throes of the Autumn Internationals. England has already played Australia and Argentina, winning both quite comfortably, and there is a sense that a player will now only force their way into the side if they are going to improve things, rather than because there is no other option. That’s where we want to be, and it doesn’t really matter what happens against New Zealand at the weekend.
I don’t expect England to win the game, although they might, and despite last year’s unexpected triumph; the All Blacks won’t have forgotten that one, and they’ve not lost a single game since. No, the mood is buoyant and the supporters can tell Lancaster and this crop of players might be onto something. Which makes it all the more exciting to see new players pulling on the shirt for the first time: because to get into this side, they really do have to be pretty good.