Last month, I wrote a post about the ECB’s High Performance Review consultation document, written by Sir Andrew Strauss and a consultancy firm called Twenty First Group. My post wasn’t really about the contents of the report itself, but more about how it’s possible to lead readers towards a conclusion simply by altering the titling, scale and orientation of graphs. It’s not an uncommon trick, and you can see it all the time in advertising, politics and business. I honestly thought it would be somewhat boring and esoteric for most readers, which is why I was surprised at how many people liked and shared it. As it stands, it is now the most read post ever on BeingOutsideCricket.com.
Because that post was almost entirely about presentation, it didn’t deal with the conclusions and proposals contained within the report. This post will address each of the suggestions made within the ECB report, as well as my own solutions for the problems which it highlights
It is somewhat ironic that England’s results following the commission of Sir Andrew Strauss’ report have arguably undermined its foundations. Few people would have predicted England winning six out of seven Tests during their home summer, nor losing seven from eleven ODIs and T20Is. At the same time, the success of the Test team seemingly occurred in spite of long-standing issues with the team rather than by addressing them, and the white ball teams’ successes in previous seasons could easily be viewed the same way. Effective leadership, which is able to maximise a team’s strengths and minimise its weaknesses, makes a huge difference with regards to results on the field.
You will notice that this post includes no charts and relatively few statistics, particularly compared to the report written by Sir Andrew Strauss and Twenty First Group. There are two key reasons for this. The first is that a lot of the issues discussed are broadly unquantifiable. When considering a cricketer’s potential in terms of batting or bowling, or how close they are to reaching that potential, you can’t really put a numerical figure on that outside of video games.
The second, more important reason is that statistics on their own offer very little insight into the issues that the England teams are facing and often have counter-intuitive outcomes. One example would be how people understand that the best T20 bowlers often have worse economy rates because they are chosen to bowl in the most difficult portions of the game. Another example would be England Test spin bowling. Here is a table of the best eleven Test bowling averages for English spinners since 1990, with players from the last ten years highlighted in bold:
Over a thirty-two year period, eight out of the eleven bowlers with the best averages were from the last ten years. In purely statistical terms, you could choose to argue that we are in the middle of a golden era for English spin bowling. The reality, as people who watch Test cricket will know, is very different. Outside of Graeme Swann, English spinners have been asked to perform very limited roles and largely protected from the most dangerous batters. However, it is very difficult to quantify this difference in a meaningful way.
There are forty three proposals or ’emerging ideas’ contained within the review from Sir Andrew Strauss. They can be placed into three broad categories: Increasing the role of the ECB, expanding on current practices, or failing to consider the knock-on effects which would follow.
In 1999, the ECB had an average (i.e. two employees on a six-month contract would equal one ‘average’ employee over the year) of 96 employees excluding cricketers and umpires. In 2021, this had risen to 305 employees on average, again excluding cricketers and umpires. The average annual wage for these employees rose by 96.8% from £25,458 to £50,104 between 1999 and 2014 (the last year wages were separated by category in the ECB’s accounts). That is close to twice as much as the rate of inflation over this period.
The reason for this is a culture within the ECB which suggests that spending money on a problem is the same as resolving it. Participation is down? Create a new directorship and employ a large staff to address it. Participation continued to fall, but the ECB could point towards the amount of money and resources they were expending as proof of how serious they were with regards to the issue. It’s no way to run a sports governing body, or anything else for that matter.
Place a new High Performance Non-Executive Director on the board – Adding another highly paid role to the upper echelons of the ECB, presumably with a number of extra staff to support them. It does bear saying that there is already a non-executive participant on the ECB board who is supposed to give their expert opinions on how to improve the England team: Sir Andrew Strauss. He has been chair of the ECB’s Performance Cricket Committee since 2019, and part of his role is advising the board on this very subject. In this context, it is very odd that he was chosen to head this review.
Have the existing Performance Cricket Committee singularly focused on England performance/Creation of Performance Advisory Board – This would seem to suggest that the current Performance Cricket Committee, of which Sir Andrew Strauss is chair, should be split in two: One committee focused on the England teams and the other on developing players, each with their own staff. This would have the effect of doubling the number of employees (and cost) involved in this purely administrative process, but wouldn’t obviously lead to an improvement in results.
Research into ‘What It Takes To Win’ (red and white ball), leading to another report – This is the holy grail of consultancy: Make one of the conclusions of a report you write a recommendation to hire you for another report. It is also pretty damning of the ECB, suggesting that they don’t understand what it takes to win a cricket match after twenty five years of existence.
If it helps speed things up, I can summarise What It Takes To Win (or WITTW, as is used several times in the ECB’s review) in six words: Score more runs than the opposition. You’re welcome, ECB.
Annual performance summit bringing together English game (players, coaches, Directors of Cricket, sport science, ground staff etc.) – Aside from the cost, and the disruption to the counties as half their staff decamp to a massive conference, what would this achieve? Apart from anything else, the ECB have historically been very poor when it comes to listening to others so the dialogue for this event would presumably be one way. If that is the case, then its function could just as easily be fulfilled by an email.
Broaden development curriculum (Directors Of Cricket, etc.) – Every English coach in county cricket has an ECB coaching qualification, due to a programme which began in 2000. In fact, every ECB-affiliated club in the country is required to have an ECB Level 2 coach (apparently at a cost of £300 each) in order to pass the Clubmark standard and play in leagues. If that approach has not worked, which the need for a High Performance review suggests, then why would extending the need for ECB qualifications to Directors of Cricket improve the situation?
Coach development to adopt ‘What It Takes To Win’ framework/Practical coaching opportunities, including leadership exposure – On one hand, changing the training framework for English cricket coaches makes a lot of sense when you consider their track record; No English men’s coach has won an Ashes series since Micky Stewart in 1987, and none has ever won an ICC tournament with England. Doing something different at least offers the chance of improvement.
On the other hand, maybe part of the problem is that every coach is being taught to deal with every player in the same way? Perhaps moving away from the ECB training coaches altogether and allowing every team to develop their own approach to improving their own cricketers rather than insisting on a single ‘ideal’ method would yield better results?
North vs South red ball match in UAE during pre-season – What better way to prepare for the County Championship in April, or the One Day Cup, than a red ball exhibition match in Dubai? Whilst theoretically a showcase for talented players to press their case for England selection, it would also seem like it hurts the prospects of a good start to the season for everyone chosen.
Formalise overseas club programme for selected players – As the word ‘formalise’ suggests, this already happens. It would just be the ECB organising it rather than the counties or the players themselves, which doesn’t obviously add any extra to the process.
Clear principles to defined how England want to play and to win/Clear, consistent communication of selection criteria aligned with ‘What It Takes To Win’ – This suggestion will go down like a bucket of sick with everyone involved in the England team. It essentially says that the ECB board will mandate to selectors, coaches and captains the criteria for selection and the playing strategies for all of the England teams. Who would choose to work under those conditions?
More Of The Same
It is said that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is a sign of madness. If this is true, then I suspect there are a few offices with rubber walls at the ECB.
Exploration of mobile ball tracking – Presumably this would mean the ECB having more data regarding cricketers in non-televised county matches, and particularly the County Championship. The thing about ball tracking data, as well as other statistics, is that it doesn’t tell you anything that watching the match wouldn’t. If every county match is already seen by a scout, and videoed, then it’s questionable whether this could justify its cost.
People who don’t have a firm grasp on statistics often think that they might offer a perfect, flawless means of selecting a cricket team. It is ‘science’, after all, rather than the guesswork of a has-been ex-cricketer who is probably biased towards his former team anyway. This is sadly not the case. For the easiest possible demonstration of this: Cricket analysts disagree with each other. All the time. Every player, every match, every delivery has so many factors involved (The path of the ball, the pitch, the air conditions, the light, the state of the game, the number of balls the batter has already faced, and team strategies, to name but a few) that data analysis has to somehow quantify in order to give a standard numerical value. Each analyst or company therefore has a wide range of data which they can incorporate or ignore in order to produce an output which looks ‘right’ to them, and every single one has come up with a different solution.
It bears saying that the business of cricket analytics is not contingent on results. As far as I am aware, no outside analysis has been performed on the accuracy of predictive services such as CricViz or individual analysts. Their business model is in selling themselves to executives like Sir Andrew Strauss or broadcasters like Sky Sports, and is reliant on not letting people view their ‘proprietary’ systems or auditing their effectiveness. If a company were able to predict cricket matches with any degree of accuracy, they would be able to make a thousand times more money through betting on the outcome of matches than accepting a stipend from cricket teams and broadcasters. A professional gambler is financially dependent on correctly calculating the chances of a team winning or losing a match, which is why I am much more inclined to trust their judgement than that of an analyst.
Roll out ‘What It Takes To Win’ scouting system – Considering that ‘What It Takes To Win’ hasn’t even been defined yet, and apparently needs another review to do so, Sir Andrew Strauss certainly seems to have a strong idea about what it will be. I suspect, given the previous proposal, that it would use ball tracking data to identify county cricketers with similar data profiles to successful international players.
Formal, game-wide communication plan (goals, ‘What It Takes To Win’, feedback etc.) – The ECB publishes strategy documents every few years (Cricket Unleashed in 2016, Inspiring Generations in 2019, etc.), so the next one is due in the coming eighteen months anyway. Presumably this is already in the process of being written behind the scenes.
Proactive scouting of players to transition to performance roles/More quality & opportunity in existing roles, not ‘new’ roles – There are two things which confuse me here. The first is that I can not grasp who needs this. Seeing as every county and England coach I can name is an ex-cricketer, it seems like the path from player to backroom staff is well-established and working fine. The second is the apparent assumption that it’s desirable for coaches to be former professional cricketers. Doing something and teaching something require very different skill sets, and limiting your choice of new coaches to a few dozen retiring players every year doesn’t seem entirely wise.
Review of County Partnership Agreement from 2025/Potential reward based on impact: performance, inspiring generations, talent development etc. to align with English cricket objectives/Meaningful compensation for counties who develop elite players – The County Partnership Agreement is negotiated between the ECB, the counties and the players’ union (the PCA), and fundamentally determines how money flows through the sport. The current agreement runs from 2020-2024 and ensures that every county receives roughly the same amount of money regardless of winning competitions or how many England players they develop. For the ECB to substantially change this policy, to make payments performance-related instead, would probably require at least twelve of the eighteen counties to vote in favour. This is unlikely to happen, because half of those teams would (correctly) say that they would lose out in that scenario. Why would teams such as Glamorgan, Leicestershire or Derbyshire support such a proposal?
Explore warm weather training facility partnerships – Teams already do this now. This year, a quick search confirms that Derbyshire (Spain), Essex (Abu Dhabi), Gloucestershire (Dubai), Lancashire (Dubai), Leicestershire (Spain), and Somerset (Abu Dhabi) all spent time abroad before the season started. This might be linked to the North vs South proposal, as it would be easier to organise if all eighteen counties were training in the same country, but doesn’t offer any obvious performance benefit.
Continuation of the under-19s programme/Reinstate international matches at under-17 level – As the word ‘continuation’ would imply, there would be no change to the under-19s programme. It is therefore strange that the review would include it at all. As for the under-17s, I am very doubtful that touring with a group of sixteen year-olds will have a significant impact on their future playing careers.
Extend role of Lions teams – Name one player who credits a Lions tour with improving them as a cricketer. Just one. I know I can’t. This is not to say that A teams are worthless, as India A has a great record of developing several of their international stars. Playing more, more regular matches would make the Lions superficially closer to the Indian system, but the difference in results between the two programmes might be due more to the personnel involved than the number of games played.
Ways other than wildcards to connect the T20 Blast to The Hundred – This does not have any obvious impact on improving player performance.
Maintenance of fast bowler central contracts/Athlete monitoring system/Improved profiling, screening, and surveillance of athlete workloads – Three fast (as opposed to fast-medium or medium-fast) bowlers currently hold England central contracts: Mark Wood, Jofra Archer and Olly Stone. All three are injured, and haven’t played a single Test or first class match between them this season. Even if you expand this to all thirteen centrally contracted pace bowlers, only four of them (Anderson, Broad, Stokes and Craig Overton) have managed to play in more than five Test or Championship matches in 2022. There certainly needs to be an improvement made, but the broader question might be: Are the methods and philosophies currently used by the ECB fundamentally flawed?
One of the more frustrating characteristics of the ECB is its tendency not to think through the consequences of its proposals. Even when they have a good idea, it almost inevitably either isn’t taken full advantage of or has a negative impact elsewhere.
Trial use of different balls to develop variety of skills/A bonus points scoring system to incentivise better pitches in the Championship – I don’t necessarily disagree with either of these suggestions, except for the effect that it would have on the competition. If the Championship’s rules are changed so that conditions are much more batting friendly, then the obvious outcome will be a lot more draws. As a spectacle for fans, and as preparation for Test cricket, this is not good.
Fewer days of cricket, to aid player performance/T20 Blast schedule optimised to maximise narrative and attendances – The narrative that counties play too much relies on the idea that teams are or should be selecting the same people in every game possible. To take an example from another sport: Liverpool FC played 63 competitive matches last season, but no outfield player started more than 51 of them. Whilst there are certainly debates about whether football teams play too much, or in too many competitions, the clubs and players found a solution which worked for everyone involved: Rotation.
Strongest possible 50 Over competition in April, with a smaller group stage and emphasis on knockouts – The move to April is possibly good, as it would allow all county cricketers to play the fifty over format. It is important that all players get an opportunity to become familiar with the pace and skills needing in that length of match. White ball cricket is also arguably more resilient with regards to wet weather and longer nights than its longer counterpart thanks to DLS and floodlights, and so a move to April might not hurt it as a competition. The smaller group stage with more knockouts might be problematic though, as it reduces the number of guaranteed matches a developing player might be able to experience. It was already the competition with the fewest number of matches (8 group games compared to 14 in both the Championship and T20 Blast), this move could make that difference even greater.
Smaller top division in County Championship – This suggestion appears to be more about reducing the number of total first team county matches in a season in order to allow The Hundred its own window rather than offering any performance benefit.
It also offers an unnecessary complexity to the potential structure, as the proposal appears to be for two Division 2s of six teams each to sit below Division 1. In order to determine which Division 2 winner actually gets promoted, a play-off between the two will be played at the end of September. Which begs the question: What happens if it is a rain-affected draw?
Higher allocation to multi-format players, multi-year deals – Lucrative contracts for multi-format players does make some sense. They have the option of eschewing Test cricket altogether and making as much (or quite possibly more) money on the global T20 circuit, and so it may be worth paying them more if they are an improvement on the red ball specialists who are available. The last part is important, because multi-format players are probably the ones most at risk of burning out due to spending so much time away from home.
The idea of giving players multi-year deals requires a significant level of faith in the England selectors, which is not obviously warranted. To take one example: Rory Burns currently has an England central contract. They are awarded in October, and Burns was in the Test team at that time. By January, his England career was apparently over. In total, he has played in just three of the fifteen Tests in the contract period. There is an argument that central contracts should be made shorter, and more reactive to changes in form, rather than longer.
England match fees to cover higher percentage of pay for red & white ball specialists – You can’t logically complain about player workload and also incentivise them to play as many England matches as possible in order to maximise their pay.
Of course, all of my criticism of the report does not mean that things in English cricket don’t have to change. Here are my own proposals in order to improve the performance of the England men’s teams.
It almost goes without saying that the strength and depth of talent within county cricket depends on the efficacy of the counties’ junior pathways, and yet the public release of Sir Andrew Strauss’ report fails to mention this area once. If counties are unable to recruit young cricketers with the greatest potential at the ages of seventeen or eighteen, then the overall quality of county cricket and the talent pool for England selection suffers as a result.
Seek to improve overall junior participation, rather than relying on ECB-led programmes – There are a number of concerning issues relating to junior cricket in England and Wales, but the main, overarching problem could be participation levels. Whilst the ECB has not released official figures in a long time, it would certainly appear to be the case that junior participation has declined significantly over the past twenty years. ECB-led programmes such as All Stars Cricket and Dynamos and the independent charity Chance To Shine have not obviously arrested this decline. Measures could include a new website focussed on directing parents towards local clubs, significant promotion on social media and through the ECB’s media partners from February through April, and resources being made available to help clubs promote themselves locally.
Do not include children from schools with extensive cricket coaching and facilities in county age group programmes before the age of fifteen – The next step in the path to becoming a professional cricketer after club cricket are the county trials. There is widespread anecdotal evidence suggesting that invitations to this greatly favour white children from wealthy backgrounds, predominantly from independent schools. This is a major issue because it severely limits the number of youngsters which English cricket draws on. There is little to be gained from a few hours every week with county coaches as these kids are already receiving a high level of support, and so the coaches’ time could be better spent with children who have less access to training, fitness and nutritional advice. Instead, treat independent schools as self-funding academies and play against them to gauge the abilities of both groups.
Approximately 7% of children in England and Wales attend fee-paying schools, and yet 62.6% of men’s Test appearances between 2007 and 2017 were by former public schoolboys. This appears to at least partly be because they are heavily favoured at the earliest stages of player development. One outcome of this is that most English Test cricketers come from a demographic smaller than the population for any full ICC member, including New Zealand (7% of the England and Wales population being approximately 4.1 million people). This unnecessary limiting of the talent pool would logically lead to finding fewer high quality players.
The reliance on private schools is not necessarily having a positive impact on the England men’s Test team. The four current Test players with the most appearances since 2019 are Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Stuart Broad and James Anderson. Of these four, Broad was the only one to enter the county system whilst at a fee-paying school (Root gained a cricketing scholarship after joining Yorkshire).
Make all county age group programmes free (or as cheap as possible) for all participants, in order to ensure that no potential England cricketers are discouraged from a career in the sport – Ideally this would also include transport expenses, as most counties cover a large geographical area and even reaching the training grounds on a regular basis might be difficult for many families. The county pathways appear to systemically discourage children from low or average income backgrounds progressing. Some age group programmes expect parents to pay over £1,000 per year for coaching, equipment and travel. This level of expenditure will obviously exclude vast swathes of potential cricketers.
Encourage older children who might have little interest in cricket but physical attributes suited to the game, such as height and speed, to train and play at clubs – If batting conditions in the County Championship were changed so that teams needed a full compliment of rapid fast bowlers in order to regularly take twenty wickets, then there might not be enough players in their junior systems to satisfy that demand. The ability to regularly bowl 90 mph seems so rare in county cricket that it’s possible even junior club leagues could not supply enough for all eighteen first-class counties. If this is the case, then it would be necessary to branch out recruitment beyond kids already playing cricket.
County cricket is different from the other two sections of my suggestions because developing cricketers is not necessarily the primary focus of everyone involved. Whilst teams might want their players to improve, other factors such as winning competitions and making enough money to be financially independent might be considered as important or more so. A majority of first class counties are also nominally controlled by their members who could theoretically obstruct any proposals. Therefore, any changes to county cricket will have to balance a number of factors in order to be approved and effective.
In order to decide how best to change county cricket, it is first necessary to consider what are the current broad strengths and weaknesses within English cricket. In red ball cricket, the main strength is probably medium-fast/fast-medium bowling and wicketkeeper-batters whilst the weaknesses would be batting (and particularly opening), fast and spin bowling, and slip catching. In limited overs formats, the strengths appear to be batting and fielding whilst bowling may not be quite as strong.
There appears to be a broad consensus that making conditions more batter-friendly in the Championship would help improve the development of Test batters. The current conditions certainly don’t seem to discourage the use of medium and medium-fast bowlers, which can be relatively rare in Test cricket. However, such a move would lead to more draws which could hurt both the competition and counties’ ability to attract fans unless other changes are made.
Switch the ball used in Championship matches to one which is less responsive to swing and seam – The Dukes red ball appears to act differently to those used overseas in Test matches, in that it allows seam and swing movement for many more overs. A red Kookaburra ball seems to deviate very little after roughly twenty overs, which encourages a different strategy when it comes to both batting and bowling. Opening batters are even more important for their role of seeing off the new ball, so that the middle order can take advantage later in the innings rather than being exposed to the new ball. Fast bowlers have to learn to take wickets without relying on seam and swing alone, which should encourage them to develop other techniques. The Kookaburra and SG balls might also lessen the gap in effectiveness between medium-fast and spin bowlers compared to using the Dukes.
Incentivise teams in the Championship to produce more batting-friendly pitches by offering batting bonus points only to the home team, whilst encouraging bowling teams to recruit and develop more talented bowlers in these conditions by offering bowling bonus points only to the away team – For example, the reward could be 2 points for the home side reaching 400 runs in the first innings or the away side bowling the opposition out within 100 overs in the first innings.
Play fewer, five-day matches in the Championship – One puzzling aspect of the debate regarding cricket formats in domestic competitions is that the argument frequently levelled against The Hundred or the defunct Pro 40, that they don’t prepare players for international matches, is almost never applied to the first-class game. Playing a red ball match over four rather than five days makes a significant difference to the pace and strategies needed to succeed, as the differences between men’s and women’s Tests could indicate. If conditions become more batter-friendly, then longer games will help reduce the chances of draws. For spin bowlers, longer matches would both increase demand for their use in a holding role in the first innings and as an attacking option on the fourth and fifth days. For batters, it will allow them to stay at the crease longer without being forced to artificially increase their scoring rate for a declaration, as well as offering more opportunities to bat on a spinning pitch. Ten five-day games would require a maximum of 50 days’ first-class cricket, compared to 56 for the current structure.
Introduce a high minimum match fee for all Championship games in the 2025-28 County Partnership Agreement – A core issue which may need to be addressed is that of imbalanced financial rewards for players. A talented young batter within county cricket has the ability to focus on improving themselves in various different ways, and may well consider the career prospects of those decisions. Test cricket is by far the most lucrative format for English cricket as a whole, and yet the salaries for playing in the County Championship are typically less than impressive. The 90th best English T20 cricketer can still expect to receive a £30,000 contract in The Hundred on top of their main county salary, whilst there is no parallel in first-class cricket. A smart player would look at this situation and prioritise improving their white ball skills in order to maximise their earnings over the remainder of their professional playing career. £5,000 per game, for example, could increase competition for places and hopefully lead to more players prioritising red ball cricket.
Propose a limit on the number of matches and/or days’ play any county cricketer can play in the English season in the next County Partnership Agreement, in order to avoid overwork and fatigue. For example: 35 matches or 60 days’ play over six months – It is a matter of great importance for players and their union (the PCA) that county cricketers feel they do not have enough time to rest or train during the English season due to the number of matches. This would address the concerns of the PCA, although it could lead to lower average pay for players if teams require larger squads as a result.
Allow counties to sign a second overseas player in the Championship, with the requirement that they have to be a member of a touring Test team – One proposal being publicly floated in response to Sir Andrew Strauss’ report is to ban overseas cricketers from the Championship. As a broad aim of reforming domestic cricket is to hopefully raise the standard of play closer to international matches, it does seem like an odd choice to reject the services of actual international players. Counties gaining the services of successful and experienced Test cricketers to offer an example and possible mentoring to the rest of their squad appears to have few downsides and should be encouraged, even if it is only for a few games. This will hopefully encourage active Test cricketers to participate in the competition, particularly before their series starts in order to acclimate to English conditions. Depending on the number of players interested, it may make sense to limit this to Division 1 teams.
Poach talented overseas players – This probably won’t be a popular suggestion, but it might well be very effective. The period when England were arguably closest to Strauss’ aspiration of being the top men’s team in all three formats was 2010-12, between winning the World T20 and dropping from the top spot in the ICC’s Test rankings. In that time, 10 out of 37 England cricketers were born overseas. Their inclusion boosted England to being (briefly) the best team in the word (except in ODIs, which was arguably an issue of selection rather than available players).
Playing in and for England would certainly be an attractive and lucrative prospect for players from most countries, particularly if their skills were suited more towards Test cricket. If counties were able to sign prospective international cricketers as home-grown rather than overseas until they gained England eligibility, that would generate an influx of talent within just a few years. Many of my proposals would take ten years or more to feed through to the England team, and so this could potentially operate as a stopgap solution until then.
Change the schedule – This is the kiss of death for a discussion about improving the performance of England and county cricketers. There is absolutely no possible solution which can or will satisfy the ECB, counties, players and fans. It does not help that no one can seem to agree on what the priority of county cricket is. Is it to develop the best possible cricketers for the England team, which provides most of its funding? Is it for counties to become financially self-reliant? Is it for the enjoyment of its fans? In the context of a High Performance Review, it makes sense to try and consider changes which could potentially improve the England teams in some way.
If the county calendar was structured wholly in order to support the England teams, then the ideal schedule would likely be very similar to the international calendar but a few weeks ahead. This would mean that every England player would be able to play three or more matches in the relevant format at the domestic level immediately before the beginning of (as well as during) an international series. However, there would be significant disadvantages in other areas. The T20 Blast and One Day Cup would each have to be split in two across the season, in order to accommodate the two three-match ODI and T20I series that England play every year. Players in particular seem to generally prefer playing formats in single windows. This approach would also mean that the domestic calendar changed drastically every year because a season with a five-Test series has a very different structure to one with two three-Test series, which would make it harder for counties to build an audience for their competitions year-on-year.
Another possible viewpoint would be considering how many games in each competition counties should play. A typical English summer is perfectly balanced between the three formats: 6 Tests, 6 ODIs and 6 T20Is. If you compare that to this season, county cricket had 14 Championship, and either 22 T20s or 14 T20s and 8 One Day Cup matches (excluding knockouts) depending on whether a player was selected in The Hundred or not. It is difficult to justify the need for the ninety best English T20 cricketers playing a minimum of twenty two group games between the Blast and The Hundred, taking up almost half of the season, in this context. However, it is highly unlikely that counties or their members would agree to any reduction in such a popular and profitable competition as the Blast whilst The Hundred is apparently contractually protected until 2028.
International Cricket And The ECB
Another area largely overlooked in Sir Andrew Strauss’ report was how the England team and other elements of the player pathway operated centrally by the ECB helped or hindered the development of world class cricketers. The assumption running through the document appeared to be that the ECB would do a better job than the counties in terms of training and managing young players, an assumption not necessarily backed by their own past performance.
The ECB runs several programmes which are intended to facilitate the step up from county to international cricket. An under-19s team which participates in ICC competitions, the National Cricket Performance Centre at Loughborough, and the England Lions international A team are the ones which run continuously, with others such as spin and pace bowling camps held overseas on an ad hoc basis. Given that a High Performance Review was needed in the first place, it seems fair to suggest that these systems might need significant improvement.
Have more batting coaches for the Test team – One consequence of England’s struggles in Tests has been the selection of younger cricketers, particularly batters. Because no specialist batter to debut for England since 2014 has managed to maintain a Test batting average above 33.00 and selectors have been reluctant to go back to previously dropped players, there have been an increasing number of debutants aged 24 or less chosen. Despite this, the coaching structure of the England Test team seems largely the same as it was ten years ago. Whilst a single batting coach might be fine for a team made up largely of veterans, perhaps more are required when so many players are young and inexperienced?
Start central contracts at any time – We are currently in the weird position where Rory Burns has played three Tests since being awarded a central contract, whilst Alex Lees has played ten Tests in the same time and does not have one (and may not even be on this year’s list). If you are going to play a cricketer, it only seems fair to pay them.
Scrap Lions tours and play more overseas Tests – A decade of consistent failure to develop Test cricketers has rendered the purpose of Lions tours virtually obsolete. If there is a talented batter, spinner or fast bowler, they immediately enter the Test squad. There is no thought of preparing them for the experience or wanting a closer look before giving them a cap, because no one already in the team has nailed down these positions. The success of the India A side might have been in part because India had a strong first XI, meaning that even their reserves still had Test-quality players who simply couldn’t get a game at the time. This is not the case for England. If the players the ECB are looking to develop are already in the Test squad, it makes more sense for them to play extra matches. Because they now have a separate coaching staff for Test cricket, this would be easier than ever to do.
Having a Test team tour has several advantages. It means the host country will be able to sell TV rights for the matches, which will presumably make arranging a tour much easier and less expensive than with the Lions. This extra money would engender good will with other cricket boards, and possibly help the ECB get their way in the ICC. Full TV coverage would presumably mean that the matches have the ball tracking data that so many within the ECB are enamoured with. The opposition teams would be stronger, and offer a greater test of the English players’ abilities. It wouldn’t need the ECB to recruit a second set of coaches, or produce different kits, or (I’m guessing) pay for their own room and board. There would be more pressure on players to perform, including from the media. It would have to be made clear to all involved that the senior players like Stokes, Root, Anderson and Broad are likely to be rested, but I think it is workable.
Routinely review player outcomes – Between the international teams, the Lions, Loughborough and age group cricket, the ECB and its coaches spend a lot of time with players. At least once a year, a report should be written for every player detailing what coaching a cricketer received and how each their ability, form and fitness changed as a result.
One of the most frustrating aspects of being an English cricket fans is the constant repetition of mistakes. Whilst everyone in the coaching staff is obviously doing their best, English cricket seems to be amongst the worst when it comes to keeping their fast bowlers fit and healthy. This is in spite of the ECB being the second-richest cricket board in the world. At the same time, no one ever seems to be held accountable. Through a comprehensive, regular review of how ECB coaching has affected every cricketer, it would hopefully help identify which techniques and coaches are or are not doing their jobs well.
Close the National Cricket Performance Centre at Loughborough – Since 2003, the National Cricket Performance Centre has been based at Loughborough University. It is a state of the art indoor training complex with multiple nets, ball tracking, biomechanics technology and dozens of highly qualified coaches, all dedicated to the production of fast bowlers capable of succeeding anywhere in the world.
Unfortunately, like data analysts, the methods used at Loughborough continually promise a future which never comes. Success is always just beyond the horizon.
Over almost twenty years, the staff and methods employed at Loughborough have appeared to ruin multiple promising bowling careers through ‘tweaking actions’ either to gain a little more pace or (ironically) avoid injuries. It is, if anything, getting worse in recent years. If a review of player outcomes found the coaches and techniques at the National Cricket Performance Centre fundamentally harmed the development of England cricketers, there would seem little point in continuing to fund such an expensive facility.
Examine role and composition of the ECB’s Performance Cricket Committee – One running theme within the ECB is a lack of accountability among senior staff. The most important example of these with regards to performance on the field could be its cricket committee, which is dedicated to the management of the England teams and their support structures. If a High Performance Review was needed, raising a multitude of issues which all come under the committee’s remit, then they have clearly not fulfilled their purpose. The ECB’s own review even tacitly acknowledges these shortcomings by suggesting that a second committee should be formed in order to take over many of its existing responsibilities.
To answer the question of whether the interface between the ECB board and the Managing Director of England Men’s Cricket (Rob Key) needs two, one, or possibly zero committees, it would be interesting to learn how other cricket boards operate. As far as I can tell, New Zealand Cricket has one committee to deal with these areas whilst the BCCI and Cricket Australia don’t appear to have any at all. Having two committees would seem like an overly bureaucratic solution if this is the case.
It is frankly bizarre that the chair of the Performance Cricket Committee was placed in charge of a review into the efficacy of his own work. It is a colossal conflict of interest which no one appears to acknowledge.
If there is one change which needs to be made in order to improve the performance of the England men’s teams, it is introducing accountability throughout the ECB. Not just the visible roles of captain and coach, but the highly paid employees in board rooms and behind the scenes who seem to always avoid being blamed for England’s issues but are very happy to accept bonuses for their successes. This would require an enormous cultural shift and, I suspect, a large number of redundancies. Good governance and being able to admit when mistakes have been made will make a huge difference to English cricket, both on and off the field.
Congratulations on making it to the end. This somehow ended up being the longest post I’ve ever written, and that is saying something for me. I have ignored the elephant in the room that is The Hundred. Obviously elements of scheduling would be much easier if it was scrapped, but it has been made abundantly clear that the competition will exist until at least 2028, and take place in August until at least 2026. I tried to limit my writing to what I thought the ECB and counties might agree to, and scrapping The Hundred is not one of them.
I don’t expect anyone to agree with me on everything in this post. I am criticising most of Sir Andrew Strauss’ 43 proposals and making 18 of my own, so it would be pretty bizarre if someone did see things exactly as I do. If you have your own suggestions or feel that I’ve got something wrong, feel free to post them in the comments below.