Coach Wanted – Englishmen Need Not Apply

There’s a vacuum at the heart of the men’s England team right now. The question of who should be captain is in flux because there is no coach or selector to make that call. There is no coach or selector because there is no director of cricket to hire them. There is no director of cricket because there is no chair and the chief executive is too busy fleshing out his CV for his next victim employer.

There is a lot of speculation about who will fill these roles though, with a great many names mentioned. What is becoming increasingly clear is that almost no one believes the next coach will be English, and many wouldn’t be surprised if that was also the case for the director of cricket. Indeed, no current English county coach or director of cricket appears to have even applied.

All of which begs the question: If there are 18 county teams with 18 head coaches and (I’m guessing) 18 directors of cricket, how come not a single English candidate is qualified to lead the England team?

It should be emphasised that this is not a new problem. The last (and only) English head coach to win an Ashes series is Mickey Stewart in 1987, and the only English head coach to win a men’s T20 or ODI World Cup is Paul Farbrace in 2014 with Sri Lanka. Trevor Bayliss (Australian), Andy Flower (Zimbabwean) and Duncan Fletcher (Zimbabwean) all came in and won something with the England team. Fletcher is the only one of these three to have spent any time coaching a county side, with two years at Glamorgan.

It’s difficult to look at this record, at the complete absence of high quality English coaches competing for the vacant positions, and not think that something has gone badly wrong within county cricket.

I have to preface this by saying that I don’t really follow county cricket particularly closely. I’ve never lived in a town or city which hosts a county team. I have lived the vast majority of my life outside of any of the eighteen major counties. I don’t pretend to have any expertise on the subject, and what follows may well be foolish generalisations based on nothing more than hearsay and my inherent biases.

All that said, being appointed coach in county cricket (and the England team) seems like it is much more about who you know rather than your skills or past results. Take England’s coaches: Graham Thorpe, Paul Collingwood and James Foster were all England teammates with director of cricket Ashley Giles. Although head coach Chris Silverwood appears not to been on the field together with Giles, they were certainly both in the same England ODI squad in 1997. I get the impression that the majority of county coaches are ex-players from the same teams. These kind of appointments are always popular with the fans/members (see Darren Gough at Yorkshire CCC), but don’t obviously lead to qualified or skilled coaching.

The methods routinely used within county cricket and the England team have to be questioned. The majority of English coaches appear to have a level 3 or 4 (‘Elite’) ECB coaching qualification. If no one who goes through this course appears to be any good at coaching professional first-class cricketers, should it not be changed?

There seems to be an extreme level of conservatism inherent in county (and international) coaching, which the ECB training seems to reinforce. Coaches don’t want to intervene or criticise players, even in private and on matters of basic technique. The emphasis appears to be almost entirely on boosting the players’ confidence. This is no doubt important, particularly on tour, but it shouldn’t be used as an excuse not to fix fundamentally flawed approaches to batting and bowling.

This is exacerbated by English cricket’s almost uniquely insular attitudes to both hiring coaches and gaining experience. A large number of coaches from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the West Indies or Zimbabwe have spent a lot of time working outside of their home countries. This is rarely the case in England, where having eighteen professional clubs plus a plethora of highly-paid roles at public schools means that ex-players don’t have to stray outside their comfort zone to make a living. This limits their experience, and means that they never see other methods of helping players develop.

One obvious consequence, if coaching in county cricket is almost universally substandard, is that this would inevitably harm the development of county cricketers. After all, how can players reasonably reach their potential if the people who are supposed to be teaching and managing them aren’t up to the job?

This is why I think that coaching is the key issue regarding the quality of English Test cricketers. There are undoubtedly a great many other factors: The pitches, the scheduling, county youth systems and financial incentives to name just four. They all should be addressed as soon possible, but I don’t believe county cricket will start producing Test-quality batsmen again before the coaching fundamentally improves. In the short term, that might involve the hiring of significantly more overseas staff until English candidates become employable.

If you have any thoughts on this post, or on anything else that crosses your mind, leave them below.

West Indies vs England – Third Test Preview

It’s difficult to know what to write here, since so little has changed in the past week. The series is still 0-0. Wood and Robinson are still out injured. Matt Parkinson is still warming the bench. The only real cause for optimism comes from the photos of the pitch, which at least look like a little grass has been allowed to remain.

With the fragility of both teams’ batting lineups, that should be plenty to force a result. Whilst some people are talking in hopeful tones about a new era for English cricket, with Dan Lawrence and Jonny Bairstow helping Joe Root lead the team to somewhere near basic competence. They have done well, as did Mahmood in his Test debut, but these performances have to be placed in the right context: The pitches were incredibly flat, and the West Indies are not a good Test team.

As it stands, the West Indies are eighth in the World Test Championship table (England are last in ninth), having won just one Test against Pakistan in the current cycle. It shouldn’t be a surprise that a team with England’s financial resources, England’s first-class depth, England’s unique focus on red ball cricket should be able to bat out a draw on benign surfaces. It should be a minimum expectation.

Aside from the players, the individual who has most obviously benefitted from England not losing two Tests in a row is Paul Collingwood. The interim head coach has apparently put his name forward for the permanent role, and not losing a Test series (as Silverwood failed to achieve four times in the past year) is clearly enough to at least be considered by the ECB. One notable aspect of this is that he has never worked as a coach in county cricket. He had several spells as a coach for Scotland, and has been with the England team for the past three years. This means that he has no experience as a head coach, and almost no track record for his potential employers to examine.

This is a very common trait amongst people who the ECB are considering for their vacant senior positions. It was reported today that Rob Key is in the running for the Director of Cricket position. I don’t have anything against him as a person, but he appears to have gone straight from his playing career to the Sky commentary booth. Whilst he might talk a good game (that is his job, after all), there’s absolutely nothing to prove that he can back it up. He has that in common with Andrew Strauss and Ed Smith, who both transitioned directly from punditry to senior ECB positions.

There are six candidates listed for the Director Of Cricket job in this article: Rob Key, Ed Smith, Tom Moody, Marcus North, Nathan Leamon and Mo Bobat. As far as I can tell, the only ones with any experience of coaching or managing a domestic cricket team are the two Australians, Moody and North. Smith, Leamon and Bobat have all only ever worked worked for the ECB as head selector, analyst and performance director respectively.

It is possible to look at this and say that the ECB are disrespecting county cricket by not recruiting people from that talent pool, but I have to question if there are any candidates who obviously deserve a shot with England. After all, Chris Silverwood was appointed by England after his team won the Championship but failed to make any impression in internationals. Peter Moores and Ashley Giles were also both county coaches before their spells with England. There is a long running and active discussion about how county cricket is failing to develop talented Test batters, but very little time is spent looking at the quality of the coaches and other staff. The two issues may well be linked. After all, poor coaching and management aren’t exactly helpful in helping the next generation of cricketers reach their full potential.

I honestly don’t know enough about county cricket to know if this is an entirely accurate picture, or what could be done about it. It doesn’t give me much optimism for any change in England’s fortunes over the next few years though.

If you have any comments about the Test, the ECB’s recruitment, or anything else, please leave them below.

West Indies vs England – Second Test Preview

There is a lot to be said for having low expectations, particularly as an English cricket fan. With a sufficiently poor outlook on the Test team, even the remotest evidence of adequacy comes as a pleasant surprise. You’d be forgiven for thinking, having read the press reports about the first Test, that a new dawn was on the horizon for England and the previous twelve months was just a transitional period. Zak Crawley is the successor to Cook, Leach is the successor to Swann, and Bairstow has finally refound his form.

Except obviously none of this is true. West Indies are a bad Test team, and the pitch was as dead as England’s chances of reaching a World Test Championship final in my lifetime. But such are the depths of the England team’s failings that not collapsing on an extremely batting-friendly pitch against a mediocre Test bowling attack is cause for celebration.

England have already announced the team for today’s game, with Saqib Mahmood coming in for the injured Mark Wood as the only change. It is a little surprising that there hasn’t been more rotation of the bowlers, with three Tests back-to-back, particularly with regards to Ben Stokes. Before the series began, the consensus seemed to be that Ben Stokes would only be used as a last resort bowling option and yet he ended up with 41 overs in the first test.

Alex Lees has the most to prove after a disappointing debut. Opening in Test cricket is always difficult, but he looked terrible in his two very short innings so far. Chris Woakes could also be bowling for his Test career, albeit having scored a useful 46 runs with the bat.

On the plus side for England, the photos of the pitch suggest that it will be very flat again. A cynical person might suggest that the grounds and boards benefit financially from the Barmy Army coming to the ground for five days, and they probably don’t care as much about whether there is an exciting match or result. It’s not a great business model for a sport, but it is what it is. Both sides certainly have the capacity to collapse twice on any pitch, so there’s still no guarantees of a bore draw.

As always, please post your comments below if you have anything to say about the Test or anything else.

West Indies vs England – Series Preview

I love Test cricket in the Caribbean. It just feels right. Glorious sunshine, steel drum music, 2pm starts. After the Ashes, it is a huge improvement.

Since 1974, England have won just one Test series from ten attempts in the West Indies. You would be hard pushed to find many English cricket fans who don’t think that this series will follow this pattern. The hosts might be without such legends as Richards, Holding or Lara, but defeating the current England team hardly requires that level of talent.

Behind the scenes, the England team must be a mess right now. They currently have no head coach, head selector, or even a Director, England Cricket. It’s not immediately clear who’s in charge, or who will still have a job in a month’s time. Paul Collingwood is acting as interim coach, but I don’t have much faith that he can do anything to turn things around. I loved him as a player, but he has been on the England men’s Test team staff for six years now and it would be hard to identify any positive impact he could have had in that time.

Changes have been made on the field as well. Both openers from the Ashes have been dropped, with Zak Crawley and Alex Lees being the latest ones to try their luck. Ben Foakes replaces Jos Buttler, who is currently resting in preparation for the IPL. Malan and Pope have also been left out of the playing squad, meaning that just four batsmen (Crawley, Root, Bairstow and Stokes) survive from England’s disastrous tour down under.

The headlines have all been about Anderson and Broad’s exclusion from the team. I have to say that I don’t really care about this decision for two reasons. The first reason is that I don’t think that it massively alters the chances of England winning this series. If the batsmen struggle to post scores of 300 or more, it doesn’t really matter which bowlers you select. The second reason is that I am, and I realise this is an unpopular viewpoint, a huge proponent of rotation. Keeping every player both physically and mentally fresh is vital in cricket (and every other team sport), not least after the past two years of bubbles and quarantines. To be honest, I’d have also rested Ben Stokes as he is currently considered unfit to bowl. Rotation also gives other bowlers the opportunity to step up and make their own mark.

That said, the signs from the four-day warmup game agains a West Indies President’s XI were not exactly promising. Ollie Robinson and Mark Wood both picked up injuries, although Wood did return to play in the second innings. Despite facing an inexperienced and largely unimpressive batting lineup, England’s bowlers only took 17 wickets in the game. Without Anderson and Broad’s experience, or the injured Jofra Archer’s pace, the signs look ominous for the first Test.

The only real saving grace for England going into this match is that the West Indies aren’t that great a team either. England’s last four Test series have been against the three teams at the top of the ICC’s Test rankings (India, New Zealand and Australia). The West Indies are sitting at number eight. Were I a boorish owner of a convenience store chain, I might even go as far as to call them ‘mediocre’. The truth is that the West Indies are still probably favourites to win this series, so what does that say about England?

If you have any comments on the series, or anything else, leave them below.

Farewell to Greats

I was thinking this morning I would write a piece about the love of cricket inspired by the feats of great players, not specifically about Rodney Marsh as the news of his death came through, but in one of those reflective moments when those you are familiar with as a child leave us. I was in two minds about doing it, there’s nothing worse than seeing such news breaking and immediately thinking of how to make it about me, or us. And then the shocking news of Shane Warne came through as well. I can’t write a tribute to them, I’m neither capable nor do I deserve to.

I didn’t know either of them, never met them, never anything more than seeing them across the field or on the television. I’ve no story about queueing for an autograph or a quick chat in a bar somewhere, they were and ever will be strangers to me. So plenty will tell their tales of when they did, while the chroniclers of cricket history will place them in their appropriate position as giants of the game, statistically and in terms of their impact. And we will read their wise words and nod in appreciation, as we should.

Their different generations make the reflections and memories so different, Rod Marsh for me was the permanent presence behind the stumps for Australia when I was a child, listening to the commentators (also largely sadly gone now) talking about how he was a truly special exponent of the art of wicket-keeping, which to my young ears was simply irritating, because he was an Aussie, and the reason they were talking about that was because he’d just flown in front of first slip to take a great catch, and thus yet another English wicket had fallen.

Warne was of course much later, and part of that dominant Australian team that ripped England to pieces for a decade and more. As a near contemporary, today’s news perhaps appals more, but in his case it was his sheer vitality, and larger than life presence that makes it such a shocking thing to hear about.

In both cases, they formed the backdrop of the rhythms of a game that is an ever present part of the lives of so many of us, the flow of opposition cricketers who evoked a feeling of grudging admiration and considerable irritation as they weaved their magic on hapless English victims – and it was always English in those days where matches between other teams were never shown on television. So to that extent it was always every couple of years you’d renew televisual or ground acquaintances who would proceed to ruin your summer most of the time.

Perhaps that’s why as an English person the fondest memories either came later or in other circumstances. Marsh might have had a fantastically brilliant career, but for me it was his shaking of his head, crossing of his arms and clear unhappiness at the Trevor Chappell underarm incident that raised him from opposing-far-too-good-player-how-irritating to three dimensional character. I doubt I saw that incident at the time either, but was familar enough with it at the time I was watching him. And of course towards the end of any great player’s career you start to appreciate them more than was previously the case.

Warne too, his brashness when he announced his arrival with that ball, was bound to wind up pretty much every English supporter, especially so when he backed that brashness up, again and again. There was that dawning horror in all England supporters as he became rather obviously far more than just a show-off, but in fact on his way to being one of the all time greats. And doing it for years. Saving his best for England, which invariably makes an Australian the pantomime villain, the one we adore but daren’t admit it. Thus it was that his last series in England, the 2005 Ashes ended with him becoming something of an honorary national treasure, the chants of “We only wish you were English” alongside the clear and abundant pleasure he was taking in being part of such a special series, even on the losing side. And perhaps it was partly because he was on the losing side he received that transparently warm and affectionate farewell from the English crowds. Either way, he deserved it.

And ultimately, isn’t that the point? Cricketers rise and fall, are new and exciting or veteran and grizzled, but what they leave behind even more than the runs, wickets and catches they score and take are the memories – the honour of watching them, the laughter or the frown when they end up on the front pages as well as the back. Feet of clay the lot of them, imperfect as all human beings are. Marsh was fantastically sardonic as a radio commentator, Warne endlessly frustrated because he could so often be banal, before suddenly being so extraordinarily insightful to the point you were hanging on every word.

But didn’t they seem fun? Characters you’d want to share a pint with and just listen to all evening long, at least while still upright. I can’t pay any kind of meaningful tribute to them, and the loss for their families is too much to take as it always is. But they have been part of the soundtrack of our lives, and maybe that’s as high a praise as can ever be offered. Cricket is poorer for their loss, but we’re all poorer for their loss.

The words are hopelessly inadequate. They’re the best I can do. I’m upset at the news of two people I didn’t know. And so are very many others.