In the biggest cricket news of the day England have announced Kevin Pieterson will no longer be in their plans, effectively sacking their leading batsman. This has finally triggered me to write my first article since the disastrous Ashes series began nearly 2 months ago. I’d like to give you fair warning reader, that as hard as I try to always be positive about the great game there are occasional days where what needs saying just doesn’t feel very positive. This is one of them…
I wish to present a case to you, a case that at the top levels of English cricket there has been a series of serious failures, and that these failures that show no sign of being corrected. I will also outline my alternative to the current status quo.
1. The failure to manage KP
KP has been a tremendously successful cricketer for England. He is the player who particularly excites the crowd. The guy who can totally change a game with the bat. There haven’t been many like him, and won’t be many like him again. He does however have his issues, and these need careful, thoughtful and creative management. When Michael Vaughan was captain there weren’t the same public issues with KP, and when you hear Michael Vaughan talk about KP it is easy to tell why. Vaughan is clearly someone with impressive people-management skills. The ECB should have ensured, after the first KP débâcle (when he was sacked as Captain), that they had someone in place to manage him. As I argue below, I would infact extend this idea and believe the setup should have a figurehead “manager” who manages the team, coaches, players etc. Someone like Michael Vaughan?
2. Failure to manage the media
The media haven’t been kind to England recently. However, most of this appears to me to be of England’s own making. As a team they’ve appeared to the outside world to be very insular. Every defeat or poor performance is met with a “we know best how to fix this” attitude which is both unnecessarily defensive, and also guaranteed to frustrate the pundits. Frustrated pundits still need to fill columns, which they do by finding other things to write about, and these are frequently in less favourable terms when the pundit in question has been effectively stonewalled by the team. A basic study of media behaviour, and individual psychology, should have made it obvious that more positive connections with the media would be a good idea — especially as so many of the leading pundits are former top cricketers themselves.
3. The challenges of captaincy
Captain after captain takes on the captaincy, and within a year sees their average drop. England have a long history of appointing top (and usually opening) batsmen as captain, who then loses form, putting themselves and the team under pressure. In the modern game, with the numerous demands from sponsors, media, etc the team setup needs to be re-evaluated. Placing the primary responsibilities on a player doesn’t seem sensible to me. Can you imagine the player-captain in a football team having the same level of responsibilities? The captain already needs a substantial range of skills — skill as a cricket player, skill as a tactician, and skill as a person-manager. Heaping additional responsibilities on the captain will, most likely, lead to a reduction in the time and resources they have available for their primary responsibilities. The ECB should appoint a team Manager, who has the same kinds of responsibilities as a football manager. This person should be responsible for all the media interviews, whilst players and captain focus on the actual playing of the game.
4. Managing the coaching system
It seems to me that different player personalities click better with different coaches. Some (e.g. Alastair Cook) may well thrive with a highly technical and critical coach (a Geoff Boycott character for example), whilst others (Pieterson) clearly wouldn’t get the best from this kind of coach. So the obvious question is why have a single batting coach. How about having a coach for each player, or for a coach for several groups of players. The impact of finding the “right” coach is illustrated nicely by the change in success for Andy Murray after he started working with coach Ivan Lendl at the start of 2012.
5. Managing player selection
The Joe Root situation is one that has again illustrated how incompetent some thinking in the England setup has been of late. The initial decision to bring in a very talented youngster was a good decision. Since there everything has gone a bit astray. Root should have been given a year or more to slot into the team before he was moved to opener. Moving him to opener immediately ahead of an ashes series, albeit it at home against a poor Australia side, was not a sensible gamble, especially with a good range of other options available to England to open. However, having made the decision to drop him at the deep end the selectors should have been willing to commit to giving him a good run in the position to give him time to find his feet there. Instead they lost faith and dropped him back down the order sending the kind of mixed messages that are so often detrimental to a players confidence.
6. Player psychological management
England are beginning to develop a history of players who have struggled under the pressures of the modern game. Marcus Trescothick was one of the finest opening batsmen England have ever had, lost early to the team due to stress. Steve Harmison “didn’t travel well”, and Jonathan Trott has clearly been struggling for some time. I’m also going to include Graeme Swann in this list, as he is the finest spinner England have had in the whole time I’ve been following the game, and his retirement is hugely premature. Somehow all of these players got to a point where they felt something was wrong, either with them or with their game. The same could even be said for the premature retirement of former captain Andrew Strauss. Whilst not every possible issue can be anticipated or managed to the extent that the player can remain part of the team, the number of England players suffering seems higher than other international sides. I’m not an expert on psychology, but it seems to me that unless this is a highly improbable statistical spike there is something wrong with the England setup. The answer may lie with professional psychologists, it may lie with expertise from other international sides, or it may lie with former pros, but the ECB should at the very least be trying to find out what has gone wrong, and trying to learn how to prevent similar problems developing in the future. Although I am by no means an expert, I do regularly deal with teenagers who have lost confidence in their ‘ability’ or lost their natural sense of curiosity, and based on this experience, I recommend the ECB start by looking at the work of Carol Dweck.
7. Management of tours and matches
This is the one area where England have done reasonably well in recent years. England have led the way in having different sides for T20 and 50-over cricket, and using these sides to develop youngsters with a view to them potentially progressing to full Test cricket. There is still much room for improvement however. How we agreed to back-to-back Ashes series is something I will never understand — I can entirely understand the players on the way to Australia thinking “Haven’t we just sweated blood and tears to win this urn? Why do we have to do it again straight away?” There is also far too much ‘other’ cricket being played. If we have a T20 world cup, Big Bash, IPL, and others, do we really need some T20 matches on every tour we go on? The same goes for 50-over cricket. I’d love to visit Australia in the British winter for 7–8 weeks — but if I was spending half the year abroad without my wife and kids I think I’d soon start to feel tired, miserable, and negative about the game. Limiting foreign tours to an 8 week maximum, and playing a maximum of 2 away test series a year would still provide plenty of cricket and mean those players who don’t like being away so much will always have sufficient “light at the end of the tunnel” to be able to focus on their game. Furthermore — if we can play 2 away series a year, we can also play 2 home series a year. It is perfectly possible to play cricket in England from May until September — more than enough time for 8 or more Test matches. Playing more home tests a year would be very beneficial to the counties who have invested in grounds.
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