Since England has lost the 2013/14 Ashes series 5-0, it is both tempting and easy to think English cricket is in a parlous state. Losing to Australia is never something to pep the old English spirit, but it is, as we of a minimum age are well aware, not the first time it has happened. It is also true that every lost series is soon followed by a new season and new opportunities to put things right. As it happens, the last whitewash at Aussie hands was the catalyst for three consecutive Ashes victories, so perhaps those weary disciples of English cricket presently having ‘doubts’ should think of Brian and look on the bright side.
There are, of course, one or two other reasons for pessimism: Andy Flower, the coaching architect of recent success, has gone; Kevin Pietersen, England’s most outrageously talented batsman in years, perhaps ever, has also departed; the English top order, with or without Pietersen, seems incapable of scoring runs; and the usual post-debacle vortex of speculation, recrimination and general unseemliness appears to be in full whirling motion.
But things are not so bad. Although Graham Swann’s departure leaves a difficult hole to fill, England’s bowlers are still highly capable; they were not the problem in Australia. And although Andy Flower has certainly been great for English cricket, the arrival of a new coaching regime with fresh ideas should give the team a welcome lift. It is not all cloud and rain over English cricket. Yet there is work to be done to ensure this loss, as emphatic as it was, is but a blip. In the spirit, then, of constructive criticism, here are three things the new hierarchy might like to consider for the future:
Find a new Geoffrey Boycott
This might seem like a strange suggestion, especially at the very moment the selectors and Paul Downton, the ECB’s new managing director, seem to be taking a stand against players who might be a little difficult to handle. But it is not Geoffey Boycott’s team-building skills to which England should look; it is to his stubborn refusal to give up his wicket without a fight.
Success in recent years – three Ashes wins in a row, don’t forget – was built on scoring runs up front. Counter-intuitively, this means batsmen prizing the defence of their wicket above the scoring or runs – up to a point. Stick around long enough and the runs will come, but lose early wickets and the middle order is exposed to the new ball.
Last summer Ian Bell’s brilliant middle-order batting obscured the top order’s failure to stick around and score runs. To have expected him to reproduce the same form in the return series in Australia was to expect too much. The English used to cite ‘scoreboard pressure’ as a key factor in their success, but it’s not been mentioned much recently. Perhaps the team’s lack of runs made such talk irrelevant, but perhaps they also thought the middle order would get them out of trouble again.
So the England selectors might like to begin the search for someone with the same belligerent, ‘wicket before runs’ attitude as Geoffrey Boycott and stick him somewhere in the top three. Nothing lifts opposition bowlers like a few early wickets, and nothing gives your own bowlers confidence like having 500-or-so runs to defend.
Solve the ‘four bowlers or five’ conundrum
Just as playing with five bowlers weakens the batting, playing with four bowlers weakens the bowling – unless, that is, a great all-rounder is available to balance the side. Not since the end of Andrew Flintoff’s test career in August 2009, having played a pivotal role in securing the Ashes, has England had a balanced side. A great all-rounder can make the difference, but a great all-rounder is a rare breed. Most teams have to manage without, and if they are successful it is usually because they have at least two outstanding bowlers who have the power of three: such as McGrath and Warne for Australia, and Anderson and Swann for England. Either that or the opposition is dire.
England came unstuck in 2012 when they last played South Africa in England, losing 2-0. Although they managed, with the assistance of playing a sixth batsman, the very workable totals of 385, 425 and 315 in each of their first innings, South Africa matched them, scoring a whopping 632 for 2 declared in the first test. England’s bowlers, capable as they were, simply ran out of steam. Bopara, Pietersen and Trott were not of the required standard to cover the absence of a genuine fifth bowler. Even Anderson and Swann were not enough, Swann actually being dropped for the second test. South Africa, needless to say, played Morkel, Philander, Steyn, Kallis and Tahir.
This was also, it should be said, the series Kevin Pietersen was dropped for disciplinary problems. But he was not the reason England lost: the South Africans were the better team, not only for the simple reason that they scored more runs and took more wickets, but because their team was balanced by the inclusion of a genuine fifth bowler. Not much needs to be said about Jacques Kallis, except that he is a batsman who has taken more test wickets (292) than many great bowlers, and a bowler who has scored more test runs (13,289) than many great batsmen – the perfect all-rounder.
Yet it is not as simple as just sticking in a fifth bowler and assuming everything will be fine. England played five in Australia and we know what happened. Ben Stokes did well, scoring his maiden test century and taking wickets; but the top five were not scoring runs, and even five bowlers could not defend the meagre totals they were given.
So England will probably have to decide whether Stokes is good enough to score runs and be that fifth bowler. If he is, England’s future looks promising, but if he is not, the coach and captain might be better served by playing six genuine run-getters in the hope of suffocating the opposition with sheer weight of runs.
Stop stockpiling young cricketers – or sort Steven Finn out
One of the most dispiriting images of this tour was Steven Finn struggling in the nets. He was, and remains, a great talent. Graham Swann predicted that he would be the best cricketer in the world by about this time, and he wasn’t joking. That it hasn’t happened; indeed, that Finn seems to be disintegrating at a shocking rate, poses serious questions for both coaches and selectors.
When he first appeared for England, in the 2010 series in Bangladesh, his arrival was much heralded. With tall delivery, lively pace and a mouth-watering ability to pitch the ball on the perfect line and length, he seemed like the bowler to emulate Glenn McGrath. For him, taking wickets would be like picking low-hanging fruit. But it hasn’t happened. England will hope his dip in form and confidence is temporary and that he is still finding his style and will come good. Yet some cricketers, for all their promise, fail to forge successful careers.
Finn might prove to be one of these cricketers, though we surely hope not. If he is, then so be it; but young cricketers need to ‘find their game’ by playing cricket. They cannot do that carrying drinks or working in the nets. They need to play games, in the middle, against real batsmen who are going to fight back. There is nothing so nonsensical as taking young cricketers on tours to learn how to tour. If they are not going to play in the test team, they should probably not be on the tour at all. There is also a very strong argument that all that spare time has had an adverse effect on Finn’s psyche, and that his efforts in the nets have been counter-productive: that he has, in fact, been over-coached.
So England might like to think about their youth policy. Young cricketers should be playing, if not with their counties, then with the Lions, or perhaps with a grade team in Australia; but they should not be carrying drinks at a stage in their careers when they are still developing and getting to know their game. Squad cover should be left to the older cricketers, to those who have already learnt what they can and cannot do on the field of play. Cricketers, perhaps, like Graham Onions.