Self Denial & Uncomfortable Truths

In amongst the litany of white ball cricket that we have been served by England over the last couple of months and away from the high profile Test Series’ that have/are going on in South Africa this winter, one might have had to look mighty hard to know that the England Lions, supposedly our next generation of Test cricketers, were playing their counterparts in the West Indies at the same time. Now we might not expect for England’s 2nd string to garner as much attention as the Test Squad, but considering that we have been once again embarrassed in Australia, I did feel that there might have been some added focus on this tour (especially as the Lions play an ever decreasing number of red ball games). However apart from the odd murmuring on Twitter, a fairly hidden scorecard on Cricinfo and a very hazy stream on the WICB website, this tour felt that it passed most by. And boy are the ECB glad it did, as England were pretty much humiliated by their West Indian counterparts on slow, spinning tracks. As a reminder this is not India B or Australia B, but the West Indies, who have seemed to lose all of their best players to the T20 world tour, who have made miniscule investment in their domestic game and who have a board that makes the ECB look like a sane and well run administrator.

It has been highlighted that winning away from home in red ball cricket is one of the tougher assignments, but this wasn’t even close, it was a complete horror show from the Lions from start to finish. The England batting line up startled by the ball turning on a non green seamer fell apart in a heap and our supposed spin bowling savior was not only completely out bowled by his teammate but hardly threatened to take a wicket. So who do we turn to for some accountability for this debacle, well yes our friend Andy Flower is now running the Lions and of course, he was quick to blame the heavy series defeat on anything and anyone but himself:

“It is right to examine whether the systems and people we have in place are right, its purpose is to bridge gap between county and international cricket. What we want to do is create tough young competitors so when they get the chance to play for England they are adding to the team’s strength. It is a very important role.”

“You have to be able to learn about the opposition and solve problems out in the middle in real time. Unfortunately our batsmen have not been able to do that,” said Flower. “We made the same type of mistakes again and again which is the most disappointing aspect of the tour.”

Well this seems vaguely familiar, an England team devoid of ideas and with only one plan, comes unstuck when the conditions aren’t to their suiting. Now I’m not going to say that Flower is a truly awful coach, because that would be incredibly unfair; Flower toughened England up after Peter Moores part 1 and took England to the top of the Test rankings, but it soon came apparent that England’s attritional, bowl dry tactics were quickly being worked out by the opposition and disliked by his own players. It is also fair to say, that Flower wasn’t the most approachable or liked England coach in England’s history, even putting aside the Kevin Pietersen debacle, with many in the press and the team feeling uneasy about criticising Flower’s tactics or overbearing personality for fear of redress. So after the disaster of the 2013/14 Ashes, whilst certain individuals were hung out to dry in public, Flower was able to slip through the backdoor with reputation intact (in the ECB’s eyes at least) and allowed to take up a role looking after England’s youth set up (then latterly the Lions) and having a large say in the running of Loughborough, the so-called bastion of England’s youth development. Naturally, there were no interviews for this position, no outside candidates, as the ECB have proved time and time again, success is optional, but being from the right type of family is mandatory for their management roles. So when Flower comes out and says that they have to examine the systems, the systems that he is actively in charge of, then surely it’s fair to question Flower’s worth and expertise after seeing the Lions humiliated. Loughborough has also been under his watch and whilst it has always been a basket case of an organisation, England’s pipeline of young talent is getting worse not better. These might be the difficult questions that people hesitate to answer as Flower seems to have some aura of invincibility in front of the press, but surely someone has to question where England’s investment in our youth is going, especially since we have been thrashed by a team who have virtually no support from their board.

Flower being Flower naturally had his ‘get out of jail card’ primed and ready:

“There is no doubt it (franchise T20 tournaments) is going to become more of an issue. The increase in number of franchise T20 tournaments and the draw of being involved in those, and earning money outside county contracts, of course that is going to compete with our programme,” he said. “We have been dealing with instances like that over the last couple of years. At the moment Strauss wants to make decisions on individual basis which is a mature and fair way to go about it. But I can only see those issues increasing over next couple of years. Without a doubt some players will be torn. There are more choices available these days and that is the reality of the world we live in now.”

Would these be the very franchise tournaments that Colin Graves and Tom Harrison have pinned as the only answer to the malaise of interest from the masses in English cricket? Seems slightly contradictory to me and more a poor excuse for what was an incredibly embarrassing performance by the team and an inept performance from the coaching staff. We have of course seen a few high profile individuals decide to become white ball specialists over the past few weeks, Rashid, who was too mentally weak for England’s Test team (supposedly) and Hales, who was too lazy for the Test team (supposedly) decided that they would rather make money elsewhere than trawl through the arduous (and poorly paid) county season knowing their card had been marked with regards to Test honours. Don’t confuse this as me taking the rise in T20 competitions lightly, there seems to be one every other week going on somewhere in the world, but this is not the raison d’etre for the lack of talent and application coming through the pipeline for English cricket. As Danny pointed out, the All Stars Cricket programme looks like a giant ‘white elephant’ and investment levels from the ECB in grass routes cricket is quite frankly pitiful. We then have the county championship, supposedly the breeding ground for the next generation of England’s Test team being pushed further to the fringes, with games in early April and then mid September (perfect timing for green seamers and rain affected matches) and wonder why our batsmen are unable to play in conditions that aren’t typical English conditions. From 2019, this is going to be even more farcical when Harrison’s T20 circus comes to town, alongside the T20 blast and various other forgettable white ball tournaments.

All in all this seems to be a pretty gloomy view for the supposed aspirations of England’s Test team and Director Comma’s proud assertion that he wanted to take England to the number one slot again, though one soon learns not to take any of Strauss’ comments at face value. Once Cook, Anderson & Broad retire, the cupboard won’t just appear bare, more like ransacked. Of course, this goes back to priorities once again, make money or strive for sustained red ball success and we certainly know which side the ECB’s bread is buttered on. So for those of you out there who enjoy England’s success in the white ball format, then times might not be too bad ahead, but if like me, you are a fan of the traditional game, then the future is looking bleak. The ECB have had their cake and eaten it, and no doubt, when Bayliss finally decides to quit the England set up, Andy Flower will be welcomed back with open arms. After all, that’s meritocracy ECB style…

Update: I’ve only just realised that we have part 4 of the ODI series against NZ starting tonight. Naturally any thoughts on the game or on the above, then please feel free to comment below: