One book on England’s 3-1 victory in Australia last winter was titled ‘Australian Autopsy: How England Dissected Australia’. England’s victory, like their whitewash of India this summer which saw them become the number one test nation in the world, was not merely the product of having a number of fine players playing well. It was vindication for meticulous planning unmatched in the history of the game.
This may sound like hyperbole, but it’s a product of the times: more statistics, video footage and technological aides are available than at any other time in history, so they really should be better-prepared than ever.
TV deals with Sky have greatly increased funding but more important to England’s success is the culture of professionalism and self-improvement that must be attributed to Andrews Strauss and, perhaps even more so, Flower. When a side has so many support staff this can become counter-productive, leading to a lack of self-reliance and the ability to think for themselves. This was a common charge leveled against England circa 2006-2009. Now it is recognised that international cricketers do not constantly need telling what to do and the backroom support should primarily be utilised when the players themselves ask for it.
One noticable trend, mirrored by the recently great Australian side, is the number of players who have had spells out of the side. It is no coincidence that the world’s best Test captain (Strauss), batsman (Ian Bell – he averaged 89 in his last 18 Tests), wicket-keeper (Matt Prior), spinner (Graeme Swann) and second best fast bowler (James Anderson) have all been dropped over their careers. This experience – a very similar one to Australians such as Justin Langer, Damien Martyn, Matthew Hayden and Brett Lee – helped make them aware of their deficiencies, and served as a catalyst for their own self-improvement, most dramatically in Bell’s case. He responded to being dropped at the start of the tour of the West Indies in 2009 by waking up at 6am to go boxing with the fitness coach on the beach. Short-term setback often allows players to improve away from international cricket;
Further credit should be paid to the management for the evidence of succession planning. Strauss’s much-criticised decision to miss the tour of Bangladesh in 2010 allowed Alastair Cook the opportunity to fill in as Test captain. His display was not faultless – but you wouldn’t expect it to be. Certainly though, the experience will be valuable as and when Strauss exits stage right. That England have used five captains this summer (Strauss, Cook, Stuart Broad, Eoin Morgan and Swann) is indicative not of chaos but of a side full of self-assured players who think about the game.
The England set-up has also been sharp to identify weaknesses in their side, and spot specific players to fill those. England are well-aware of the importance of a quality back-up spinner for Swann, especially if they are to win on the sub-continent, which is why they have conducted several specialist spin clinics. Danny Briggs and Scott Borthwick, the former a left-armer and the latter a leg-spinner, may one day be formidable spin twins and have both featured in recent limited-overs squads. Similarly, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler have been identified as the power-hitters necessary to make England as formidable a one-day side as they are a Test one.
If constant evolution is the key to a side avoiding stagnation, England are doing alright.