By Derek Pringle
Ashes series, especially if the loser is whitewashed as England could again be this time, tends to end in regime change of one sort or another.
Usually it is the captain, or coach, or both, who end up going, along with a smattering of senior players and the odd bad selection. But that pre-supposes there are ready replacements lined up for the space created, something not that obvious this time.
In any case, Joe Root has only just taken charge of the side so needs to be given time and growing room. He could stop most of the speculation by winning one or both of the next two Tests, an achievement that would also give credence to the spin he and his team are putting out – that there isn’t much difference between them and Australia.
The likelihood, unless they can find another gear or two, is that his team will go the way of Alastair Cook’s side and Andrew Flintoff’s and get whitewashed 5-0. If so, it will be the third time in the last four tours that has happened to England in Australia, which suggests we are creating cricketers who travel worse than a punnet of strawberries.
It is instructive at this point to turn to recent history. After the whitewash of 2006/07, the England and Wales Cricket Board commissioned a report by Ken Schofield which made 19 recommendations, not all of them taken up. Many, though, were implemented, most notably the appointment of a managing director of England cricket to sit above the England captain and coach.
It is a role currently held by Andrew Strauss who made the somewhat knee-jerk reaction to impose a curfew on the England team after some high-spirited jinks in a Perth bar. It was a decision that humiliated England’s players and provided endless ammo for an Australian press never knowingly even-handed during Ashes series.
Some will argue Strauss had no choice, following the bad publicity engendered by Ben Stokes’ brawl outside a Bristol night club in September. Obviously, doing nothing about Jonny Bairstow’s head butt and later Ben Duckett’s drink-flinging over James Anderson risked attracting personal criticism and accusations of weakness. Yet, by taking the tough line he ceded the PR war to Australia, one they have won comfortably on England’s last two tours.
Another of Schofield’s recommendations was less first-class cricket, but that has not happened. It was reduced by a single match in the top division in 2007, from 16 to 15, but Essex won the Championship last season playing 16, so no change there then.
There has long been an argument that too much cricket is played at domestic level, and that the volume is detrimental to producing fast bowlers who, like athletes, must be conditioned to peak only so often. Indeed, Steven Finn was bemoaning the fact that county cricket had ground him down only the other day. Well, I reckon he bowled fewer than 290 first-class overs last year for Middlesex, which when compared to the 688 overs bowled for Hampshire by Malcolm Marshall (quicker than Finn), or the 720 John Lever managed for Essex, both in the 1985 season, is something of a holiday camp.
Where first-class cricket, and its cricketers, have suffered, though, is to have been pushed to the margins of the season in order to make way for T20 in mid-summer. A decision made by the ECB, but sanctioned by an ever-growing number of county chairmen.
With so many counties in debt, there is an economic rationalism to such a move. Yet, it does not help the development of spinners or fast bowlers for Test cricket when at least half the Championship games are played before mid-June on pitches that tend to be soft and grassy.
The lack of skilful fast bowers and mystery spinners has been aired before, almost annually when Nasser Hussain was England captain. No overseas defeat was complete without him asking why English cricket could not produce them. There was even ‘Find a fast bowler’ competitions as a consequence, most to little avail.
I would question the role of county coaches here in our failure to produce such cricketers. Their very natural desire to keep their jobs mean they are far more likely to prefer a reliable, already proven, middling, talent – a bill fitted by many of the Kolpak players that frequent county cricket – than the often awkward potential of a home grown cricketer requiring a few years of investment to come good.
Tymal Mills is a recent example. Essex spotted his extreme but wayward pace when he was a teenager, but did not have the patience to keep giving him first-team cricket needed to improve. A genetic condition now limits him to T20 workloads only for his new club, Sussex, but his treatment before that was diagnosed as typical of most counties’ short-term pragmatism. After all, due to their annual handout from the ECB, counties should put England’s needs first, the most pressing of which, on recent evidence, are for quick bowlers and savvy spinners.
There was no report produced after the Ashes whitewash of 2013/14. England’s captain, Cook, survived the fractious tour, but Andy Flower, the coach, went to another role within ECB while Kevin Pietersen was dropped, permanently. The director of cricket, Paul Downton, who made the big decisions, survived another year before he too was gone. Since then, England, like many international sides, have tended to win at home and lose abroad.
It is a problem with few obvious answers. For instance, the many Lions tours undertaken to give young English players a grounding in what skills are required overseas, does not seem to have borne fruit.
One solution might be to study teams that do travel well, like South Africa. Since 2010, they have played 10 overseas tours, won seven, drawn one and lost only two – to England last summer and to India a few years ago. Their secret appears to be accurate pace bowlers, obdurate, determined batsmen who occupy the crease for long periods and spinners who rise to the challenge to do a job.
As templates go it looks simple but as Root’s team are finding in Australia, keeping things simple can be elusive when you are taking a pasting.