England’s failure in Australia was symptomatic of an erosion in individual freedom, a lack of trust in the players and poor coaching. The system is broken and it’s taken the players’ will and the fans’ spirit with it
The wild selection policy implemented in the final Ashes Test, though brought on by exceptional circumstances, can be seen as an implicit acceptance by the selectors that it was the machinery inside the England camp that had broken England’s cricketers and consequently England cricket fans’ hearts. They called on someone from outside the system in the hope that his individual expression could counter the grinding homogenisation that had sapped the energy away from England.
I believe the England team places too much emphasis on a player’s ability to become, by an agreed upon definition, an England player, and not enough on their natural ability. Once selected, simply being the player that got them selected doesn’t appear to be enough.
A player has to fit. He must become assimilated into the culture of team England, a totalitarian regime where every aspect of their game is remodelled to further the cause of the whole. But when this plan fails, as it did in Australia, players are finding that their instincts have been coached out of them. Michael Carberry wasn’t playing his natural game during the Ashes, and Steven Finn hasn’t for 18 months now. Individuals are told to abandon things that they have done for years – and what brought them to the attention of the selectors in the first place – to further the ‘greater good’. They are told to buy into a brand of cricket that coaches and analysts believe has the best statistical chance of success. Unfortunately, the game of cricket is won and lost on the field of play. Though battle plans can be drawn up behind the scenes, the war is played out on the blades of grass inside the boundary rope – and often inside the heads of the participants.
The question I kept asking myself during the Ashes was: are these the best 11 players we have? And, for the most part, I agreed they were. So why weren’t they performing better? Any changes that I could think of would have substituted in a less talented player. But would he have been able to perform with a freedom that players who have long been exposed to Flower’s vision seem to lack? Someone who, when faced with a challenge, may have called upon their own experiences, technique and instincts, rather than ones which had been set out in a team meeting.
I don’t want to suggest that when a player reaches the international set-up their development is complete, but I do wonder what remit international skills coaches have. Is it not telling that when Pietersen struggles, he returns to work with Graham Ford and sort his game out, not Graham Gooch. For all of Monty Panesar’s troubles, he credits his return to the international arena to the work he put in with Neil Burns – someone outside of the gargantuan England coaching set-up.
These are the people that the England team should call upon. A one-size fits all approach doesn’t work – not at this level. The idea that the best batting coach for Jos Buttler is the same one as it would be for Alastair Cook is preposterous. Once a player has been selected for a tour, the coaches’ job should be to get them into form and spend time doing what the batsman wants – not prescribing new methods that are unfamiliar. Arrest mistakes that are spotted yes, but don’t apply wholesale changes that sacrifice the individual for the generic.
It’s in the batsman’s interest to take this matter into his own hands, but whether there’s the culture of freedom in the current England set-up to allow this is cause for debate. Senior players like Ian Bell and Alastair Cook should know their game well enough by now to make prescriptive coaching redundant – certainly from those who played little role in their ascension to becoming an international cricketer.
Saker’s approach with Finn has clearly failed. It should be marked as one of the largest black marks against the coaching staff that Finn has not even been able to make the starting XI on this tour – when the indications were that he should have been leading the attack by now. Chris Wright, who was flirting with international selection following the 2012 domestic season, can credit his success to Graeme Welch’s input. So would his progress have accelerated or been arrested by Saker’s involvement if pushed into the England camp?
Mickey Arthur’s attempts to instil a discipline-led, rigid approach to coaching proved unsuccessful with Australia. Yet we can now consider Darren Lehmann’s approach to resonate more successfully with the Australian players. While Flower and Lehmann nominally have the same job, it’s obvious that each person views their job description and position within the camp differently to the other. Lehmann is a man-manager and motivator. There to fire up his charges, act as a confidante and a friend. His players have been selected for a reason, the best thing he can do is create an environment that allows them to flourish, one where they feel comfortable and accepted.
Flower, to an outsider, puts his emphasis on the micro-management of the player so that it fits in the macro-management of his team. A player needs to prove that he fits the model, which appears more important than any individual success. Outliers will be tolerated, but not wholly welcomed. I imagine if there was a player who could fulfil 80 per cent of Kevin Pietersen’s KPIs, but was considered a ‘better fit’ he would have superseded KP immediately. Yet players like Pietersen don’t come around very often, and Flower has been forced to find a way to include him.
Yet the point remains that, for the most part, the England XI that was put out in the first Test match was the best that could have been selected. That those players would lose the series 5-0, and look like shells of the cricketers England fans knew they were, is a failing not of individuals, but of a system, a culture and an environment. England don’t need to copy the Australian model, but the approach they hold so dear in the backroom has been shown up because it forgot a basic tenet of sport – and life – people perform best when they are happy, and it seems like it’s been a while since we saw a happy English cricketer.