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:

Advertisements

And There Upon A Rainbow Is An Answer To….

One for all you Limahl fans out there.

A Never Ending Story indeed. The tour that started way back at the end of October rolls on to New Zealand and the one day international saga resumes. England face New Zealand in (looks up because frankly he hasn’t checked) five 50 over contests, and the first is tonight, in the early hours, in Hamilton. Feel free to comment away on here, and who knows, we may even watch some of this series. There are priorities at the moment and giving up a night’s sleep for JAMODI is probably not one of them.

I hope we can put a post or two up in the following week because there also looks to be a cracking test series in the offing in South Africa as Australia are visiting. I’ll be looking forward to catching as much of that as I can and while I think Australia have to start slight favourites, South Africa were pretty resilient at home to India and the quality of the pitches will be really interesting. Sometimes I think too much is made of a wicket with a bit of life in it, but that Joburg surface was a brute. We are about a week away from the ODI qualifiers for the World Cup. Much has been written about the structure of 2019’s edition, but this could provide some thrilling cricket which very few of us will see…

The big news this week were the white ball contracts for Adil Rashid and Alex Hales. This isn’t really new, as overseas players have been on these for a while now, but the two players have shown their cards and as is everyone’s wont in the cricket world, there has been much hand wringing and wailing. Rashid is the less surprising of the two. He’s had a while now of being briefed against – once again Selvey was at it recently with his “colleagues have formed a view” – but he is penned in now as an ODI and T20 bowler and that is it now. How we can blame Adil for doing this when he can only be of limited value in the County Championship, and the test team don’t want him, I don’t know. Hales has taken the path of least resistance, and in my view he wasn’t in with a shout for the test team because if he was, he wouldn’t have taken this view. Despite a white ball barrage in the last couple of years, he hasn’t got an IPL contract. He’s also one of the players who has a reputation for off the field stuff, so goodness knows what is really going on. Sean is going, possibly, to delve into this more and I’ll leave his path clear. But one thing it leaves me with is that the England set up doesn’t exactly seem to be engendering a love for the game.

As the snow and ice moves in to the South East, and the county cricket season draws closer, the contrasts between what we have now and what we might have this summer is stark. The overseas commitments for England and its staff continue until early April, and it is little wonder that the players feel burned out. The summer doesn’t exactly offer respite. The final test ends on 11 September – not last summer’s end of September farce – but it’s an intense summer against India, preceded by 2 tests against Pakistan, and for some reason not related to money, Australia are popping over for an ODI series.

A couple of observations. Michael Atherton wrote an article this week for The Times that read like it was a blog post from here, or from The Full Toss. But it was Atherton who wrote it so the press went absolutely all over the shop about it. It was “brilliant, amazing, wonderful” etc. etc. This is the damn problem. Atherton can write an article bemoaning the illogical nature of cricket and its decision making, but the fact he is employed by News International, commentates on Sky and writes for The Times he can’t speak the bloody obvious. That a decision made to hide the game behind a paywall for 12 years now has been an unmitigated disaster for the sport’s visibility. That didn’t appear in his list of cricket’s “failures” or ” mad decisions”. I thought it wouldn’t have made the cut for this place, but of course, cricket’s cognoscenti and those in the sport’s media probably saw it as hard-hitting and great. Athers is like a mafia don, and they were all paying their respects.

Out in the West Indies, our Lions took a pasting. Andy Flower is charged with bringing on the talent. The team included a man with a test hundred (Jennings), the child prodigy who has gone off the rails (Hameed – I’m not going to tell you I told you so), the man who has had his tyres pumped for a while and who will be touring New Zealand (Livingstone), a test debutant who made the media lose their minds (Crane) and someone who would have played in the Ashes if he’d stayed fit (Roland-Jones). 4 test players and a couple of others who have been in squads. And we got destroyed in the second game. Flower allowed himself to be interviewed afterwards, and his nonsense went relatively unchallenged. As some in the comments pointed out “I’m not a selector” has to be one of the great rib-ticklers of the modern England cricket era. He’s not a selector but his favourites seem to get “publicised” and “picked”.

“People should be patient with his development and he should find a balance of pushing himself with high expectations and standards, but also understanding that he is a 21-year-old leg-spinner,” Flower said.

Good. I agree. So why dump him in the middle of an Ashes series, with his run up not sorted, with no real hope of success? To find out if he doesn’t fall apart at the seams? To find out whether he can recover from mental scars? To watch our media lose their bloody minds? It made no logical sense.

“Just because he’s been picked for the New Zealand series doesn’t necessarily mean he will pull up trees.”

This begs a rather bloody obvious question. WHY THE EFFING HELL HAS BEEN PICKED? James Whitaker must be seething at how he has been slung under Alexander Dennis’s finest double decker.

He’s a confident young guy and I like that he’s combative. But he also knows he has got a lot of learning to do, and overs to get under his belt, to come anywhere near to mastering his very difficult art.

3-0 down, off you go. Good luck! Shane Warne didn’t bowl well in his first test and all that…. Also, I’d prefer our players to be “good” “excellent” or merely “very competent”, but instead “combative” seems what we want. Good, we need another gobby player who can start fights? Or am I misunderstanding what Flower means by “combative”.

Selection is not down to me but on pitches that turn he has shown himself to be very effective and has been the dominant bowler for us. In Sri Lankan conditions and with continued development, there is no reason why he can’t make an impact.

Stop laughing at the back. Mr Leach has taken a ton of wickets on this tour, but he needs to develop to play. Meanwhile someone patently not ready is off to New Zealand for a test tour. It’s a giggle this England test selection lark. Selvey had already received his briefing…

Leach nearly pulled the first game out of the fire and added another 6 in the only innings in the second game. But that’s ordinary, “he’s been told”. Who told him that?

Most reasonable people understand results are not always connected to resources, otherwise India would win every series they play. A big part of the Lions is to give players opportunities to grow and learn. We have lost on big turning pitches and batsmen haven’t coped. So that tells us where they are and informs how we work with them.

“Our top score in four innings is 60 from Paul Coughlin at No 7 and that is not OK. So I am not going to talk about who has been impressive, as no one has been. There have been snippets of class but nothing substantial, nothing to match what West Indies have done. People underestimate them and denigrate them but they are proud performers and have a lot of talent.

It doesn’t take Matthew Syed and his common sense dressed in fine flowery pyscho-babble to pick apart this drivel. Four of these players have played test cricket, so should be very much at home at this level. If you have more resources then you should do better – big clubs, well organised nations, well funded Olympic associations win more than those without – but Flower is throwing the players under the charabanc, and not his own well-tried methods that have never rubbed anyone up the wrong way.

The third game starts on Monday. Could be worth monitoring.

OK. You’ve heard enough from me. ODI time tomorrow. Ben Stokes may well return. Cue the noise.

Cheers!

England’s Missing Lions

As TLG so eloquently covered in his last few match reports, it was very little surprise to see England lose the last Test, the moment that we let India score close to 450 meant that we were always likely to be playing catch up. We had 2 particularly poor sessions with the bat on Day 2 and then on Day 5, where we again capitulated against the spinning ball contriving to lose the last 8 wickets in a little over 38 overs. We can all laugh about Australia’s batting woes and believe me I have, but whisper it quietly, this England batting unit can collapse in a heap just as often. That this has basically been written off as a ‘lose the toss, lose the game’ shows how good we’ve all become at writing off loses in the subcontinent as ‘one of those things’, something to be endured in the travails of English cricket with the result in Rajkot proving to be a nice surprise so that we don’t have to endure another whitewash at the hands of a sub-continental team.

I clearly remember the nadir that was the 1993 India tour, where we weren’t just beaten by India, but absolutely crushed into the dirt and in the build up to this series, I must admit looking at this squad and fearing something similar. The line from the England camp at the end of the Visag test has been the standard ‘take the positives’ and that ‘we’ve competed with this Indian team for 10 days of the tour so far’, yet we’ve got a batting line up that is likely to collapse in a heap as soon as the ball starts spinning. In reserve, we have a woefully out of form batsman who has done nothing to improve his technique since he was dropped and a wicketkeeper that hasn’t played a red ball game in over a year. That I can tell you doesn’t really fill me with immense confidence. The fact that we also have 3 highly inexperienced players thrown into battle against a strong Indian side in both hostile and alien conditions, is also very much something to be concerned about. Australia might be playing tombola with their selection process at the moment but we had four players with under ten caps start for us in Visag.

Now the last thing I want to write is about individual selections for the tour for it’s a well trodden path now that some individuals like Cook and Root thrive when thrown straight into the deep end, others like Bairstow and Woakes struggle at first when thrown into the Test arena but go away, reassess where it went wrong and come back to the team stronger. There are course those that struggle and never see the light of day in England colours, but again that is par for the course, Test cricket is not meant to be easy. However the one thing that really strikes me is the question around why are our young players, who have been identified as the potential players of the future, are not being given experience of different conditions before they’re thrown into the deep end in Test cricket? Scoring a lot of runs in English conditions is about a 1,000 times different to having the technique to score a lot of runs in both the subcontinent and in Australia/South Africa. It would be fair to say that this is where my major gripe lies, with how we are using the England Lions and the complete lack of exposure our next generation are getting to play hard cricket in different conditions before being thrown into the Test arena.

If I gave you the chance to guess how many four-day games the England Lions had played since 2014, what would your guess be? 10? 12? Well actually it’s 3. I mean 3 games in over 2 years, that is simply astounding for a team that is supposedly striving to be number one in the Test arena. Of the 3 four-day games we’ve actually played in the last two and a bit years, 2 of which were against South Africa A away (both draws) and another first class game against another South African team (can’t easily find out which one), with the last one being over 18 months ago. Seriously no wonder the likes of Duckett and Ansari (and you could include Rashid & Moeen in last year’s UAE tour too) have come in and struggled against spinning tracks, as they’ve never been properly given exposure to them before. It would be like promoting an England under 21 footballer to the main team after he’s only played 5-a-side for the past two years, that simply wouldn’t happen in that sport, yet it’s fine for our England cricket team to do something similar with our next generation of players and then wonder why most don’t make the grade. It’s all fine and dandy to give our Lions team more experience in white ball cricket, which they have done a lot of recently, but where has been the exposure to red ball cricket to fill some of the gaping holes we have in our line up (apart from the middle order, as we all know that there are no vacancies there)? Well the Mood-hooverer in chief had this to say:

“The purpose of it is bridging the gap between the county game and the international game,” Flower says. “The county game is an excellent breeding ground for our international cricketers but we believe there is a gap that exists in a number of areas and our purpose is to bridge that.”

“It did mean that we haven’t given them any red-ball exposure,” Flower admits. “In the Test side we know there are a couple of positions up for serious debate in the selections for the winter and in a way, we don’t have the in-depth knowledge that we want because we haven’t exposed these young guys to any red-ball cricket over the last year to 18 months at Lions level. That severely affects our understanding and knowledge of our young red-ball cricketers.”

So even the top brass (and make no mistake Andy Flower is certainly one of them) have realised that this team is at best average, with holes in most positions, but rather do anything about it, they’ve chosen to simply stick there heads in the sand and hope that they can find another Joe Root behind the sofa. Way to go chaps, I can see why they pay you the big bucks, that’s obviously a winning strategy in all types of businesses. Yet what is the answer the brains trust have come up with? Well obviously the first thing to do is to have a nice re-brand with the England Lions now being known as EPP (The England Performance Programme in case anyone is too bothered) because that’s obviously a key to success; this has then followed by a training camp in Loughborough where the England bods can make fatal amendments to our bowlers actions, finally followed by a trip to the UAE with three one-day games against the UAE and a three-day game against Afghanistan thrown in for luck. Seriously am I missing something or somebody at the top having a monumental laugh? The one bit of red ball cricket that the Lions are going to play this year is a 3-day game in Dubai? I bet Afghanistan are mightily pleased too, to be offered one whole 3-day game by their paymasters, another sign of England’s commitment to growing the game!

image1

I would also question, quite fairly I would hope, the reasons why we are going to the UAE in the first place to get some experience of sub-continental conditions. Does Mrs F need a new suntan or some expensive Christmas gifts from the Dubai mall? Perhaps the squad needs to have a nice team-bonding trip by heading up the Burj Khalifa? I ask this because the pitches in Dubai will be nothing like a pitch in Sri Lanka or in India. The pitch in Dubai has always been flat and certainly wouldn’t deteriorate to anywhere near the extent the one in Visag just has (you could have a 8-day game there instead of 3-day game and it would still do nothing), in fact the only reason we lost the Test there last year was from a fantastic session of fast bowling from Wahab Riaz on the morning of Day 3 of the Test, I know as I was there. As you may have worked out, I’m struggling to grasp how this is going to give our batsmen and bowlers the experience they need when the ball turns square from Day 1. I have seen that the Lions are due to tour Sri Lanka in February time, yet the ECB have once again been very vague around the exact number of competitive four-day cricket they’ll play there, only confirming that there will be a ‘mixture of red ball and white ball cricket’.

This brings me onto my final question around how this is meant to have helped our cricketers in this tour of India? I mean this piece of crazy scheduling has been available as part of the FTP for years now (I believe David Collier signed this off when he was still in tenure). Surely it would have made some semblance of sense to organise a Lions trip to India or Sri-Lanka last winter, where we could have looked at some of the players on the fringes of the national team and worked out whether they had both the techniques and skill sets to be successful in this part of the world, just as they should have been sending the Lions this winter to either South Africa or Australia to see how they handle the extra bounce. I fully accept that this may be unlikely to change the results of this series, but then at least you would have had a benchmark as to how certain players can play in these conditions, rather than tossing them into the heat of a Test match and hoping for the best. England have a huge reserve of cash, so where is the issue in offering incentives for other national team board’s to allow us to play us to play their A-teams in their countries over the winter (and we know money talks more now than ever), even Giles Clarke’s lunches surely can’t even eat that much into the £75 million pounds they have got stored away in the coffers.

This is not 1993 anymore, but 2016 and the reality is that there is simply no excuse to not nurture those who have the promise to go on and play for the national team. The fact that we are still suffering from the same old tired excuses around the fact that we’re inexperienced in these conditions shows that the ECB is still the same old one-eyed lot of incompetent fools it always has been, quite simply they are happy with average. As long as the money still comes in and we can still fill Lords on a Saturday with the right type of people, then consistently average is perfectly fine with them. However many of us are getting bored with our national team consistently being average, despite what the mainstream media like to tell us, and I fully hold Clarke, Harrison, Strauss and Flower to account on this, because with these self interested individuals in charge, then this team will never be anything other than an average one; however Andy Flower as you may have guessed puts it a slightly different way:

“How to measure [success] is a challenge. We’ve talked about measuring it against how successful they are initially when they move in, or how successful they are over a long period of time. To be quite frank with you, we haven’t found the answer yet. What we do want to do is to make sure that we are challenging ourselves to be as good as we can be, just like we ask the players to be. Part of that will be getting independent views of our system. Dave Parsons and I have discussed our plan to bring in a critical friend, someone with experience in these areas to assess what we do and to make observations and be really honest about what they see.”

With the ECB team struggling to measure success and Andy Flower bringing in an old mate mate to assess this, then I guess what hope is there for the rest of us?  Well i’ll give them a helping hand, how about we win some Test matches away from friendly green seamers, fill the gaping holes in our batting line up, find a spinner, accept that Alastair Cook isn’t the messiah and try and form a team to eventually become number one. It’s not that difficult to measure success surely?? Except if you’ve been promised a job for life because you’re one of us, not one of them, then I would guess success is perhaps a little more difficult to measure. Answers on a postcard…