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…

 

Advertisements