Responsibility is a challenge for all of us at some time in our lives. Some of us develop it young, some never quite seem to grasp it at all. Life circumstances can help or hinder us, as can some luck along the way. Celebrities and public figures face the same challenges we all face, but they do it in the public eye where everyone can (and does) judge them. Throw in fame and money and the challenge gets all the larger. Rather than wait for mistakes to happen and then lambaste our young role models, is there anything that can be done to help and prepare them?
One area where cricket differs notably from many other team sports is the management structure. The England team have coaches, they have a captain, and then there are the selectors. Other international sides have similar arrangements. The responsibilities are shared between multiple parties. In some ways this is a good thing — the team captain has significant responsibilities which enhances their standing and their authority on the pitch. Other sports have the coaches, and the captain, but they usually have a single key figure of responsibility — the manager. The closest figure in cricket would seem to be the chair of selectors, but this seems to me to be a role that comes with lots of power and precious little accountability. Is the current system really the best? How might cricket teams benefit from a “manager”, and what might the role of a manager be? I’ll try to make the case for introducing a manager for the England cricket team and see if I can persuade you.
I’ve felt for quite some time that the England management setup isn’t based on a rational analysis of what would work best, but is simply based on historical precedent. The current arrangements seems to me to have the following significant problems
- A disjointed “committee” approach that obscures responsibility
- No-one taking responsibility when things off the pitch go wrong, instead players are left to deal with issues themselves
- A lot of responsibilities on the captain, when the captain should be focused on their individual performance, and team tactics on the pitch
The first issue is evidenced by some inexplicable choices in selection — for example when Simon Kerrigan was prematurely picked against Australia, was utterly demoralised by being smashed around the park, and hasn’t seen international cricket since.
The second issue is evidenced by a long catalogue of issues with players mental health and players behaviour. In recent years there has been the premature retirement from international cricket of several leading players including Marcus Trescothick, Jonathan Trott, and Graeme Swann. There have also been issues with player behaviour off the pitch including Freddie Flintoff (Pedalo-gate), Anderson & Broad urinating on the pitch, and most recently Ben Stokes involved in a fracas in a nightclub. And on top of these there has been the Kevin Pieterson affair which has contrived to deprive England of the best batsman of his time.
The last issue may seem less significant with Joe Root looking promising in the role, and his predecessor Captain Cook opting to continue playing despite losing the captaincy. Andrew Strauss retired too early, and his form as an opener suffered from the demands as captaincy. The same could be said for Michael Vaughan too. Asking an opening batsman/captain to go out for the toss, and then do media interviews, instead of preparing for their innings, would be unthinkable in other sports.
I believe that having a mature and experience figurehead could be effective in managing these sorts of issues to the long term benefit of the team. The most obvious example to start with is one of the most effective and famed managers of modern times, retired football manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
Taking each of the issues above, let’s ask if that issue or something similar is likely to have occurred amongst the Manchester United players during the 27 years that Ferguson was manager? Next, let’s ask how it worked out in the long term, and how successful the team was afterwards.
1. Mental Health
The simple rules of averages suggest that numerous players must have had mental health issues whilst playing for Ferguson. The pressure and fame would be comparable to playing for England. The criticism from the press and public could be even more relentless. The important record though is that there is no suggestion that any players retired prematurely under Ferguson due to mental health problems. On the contrary — superstars like David Beckham and Christiano Ronaldo have gone on public record to describe Ferguson as a “Father figure” that they could approach for help with any issue inside or outside of football. Who would an England cricketer approach as a Father figure in the current setup?
2. Off the pitch
Ferguson was rightly renowned for his approach to managing off-the-pitch behaviour. The very best players want to be the best, and he made it clear to them that if they were going to achieve that, there were rules they have to live by. In the early days there were some players who didn’t toe the line. Ferguson set a clear example in the early days with the drinking culture and sold 2 of United’s top players Norman Whiteside & Paul McGrath. He later intervened with a young Ryan Giggs who chose to follow the rules and had a record setting career.
3. Focusing on the game
No matter what happened on or off the pitch, Ferguson protected his players in public. Players could give interviews after the match, and were given needed media training. Overall responsibility lay with the manager and he would share that out in a way that he felt wouldn’t distract players from their number 1 job — winning games. Responsibility for strategies, tactics and training was also distributed from the manager to others.
A manager role for cricket would of course be different from that in football. The players seem to be more mature, the media glare isn’t quite as harsh, and the team have a different pattern of being together. There are also long tours abroad which footballers don’t have to deal with. There should be a greater role for the captain than in football, one of the things that is better about the current cricket system. None of these differences makes the role significantly more challenging to implement than in football.
I believe that with a “father figure” manager England could rapidly become the world number 1 side. The players would have clearer boundaries to help them avoid mistakes in their private lives, a “father figure” to support them with the demands of being a public figure and other life challenges, a “protector” from the harsh glare of the modern media, and more time to spend on their training and playing.
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