Tag Archive | county cricket

Rewilding England’s bowling

We live in a shadowland, a dim, flattened relic of what there once was, of what there could be again.

Four-fifths of the way through the Ashes series and England’s bowlers have taken 51 wickets. At Brisbane, not only could they not defend a target of 170, but they couldn’t dislodge the Australian opening pair in a game where hitherto, bat and ball had been in balance, with a wicket falling on average every 28 runs.

At Perth, Australia amassed a record 662-9 on a pacy pitch that could reward bowlers – fast and slow – who are able to harness its extra bounce.

At Melbourne, Australia batted out 124 overs on days four and five for the loss of four wickets to secure a draw and nullify England’s strongest position of the series.

England’s bowling attack didn’t lack quality, nous or endeavour. Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, supported by Craig Overton, Chris Woakes and Tom Curran often made the Australian batsmen work hard for their runs. The attributes that England had lacked can be summarised as diversity, variety, dissimilarity, points of difference. This was never more apparent than when the team did encounter, under the lights at Adelaide, conditions for which it is supremely well adapted. Ten wickets fell in 58 overs of penetrating seam and swing bowling; contrasting with the 750 overs bowled for the other 41 wickets to fall – barely five wickets per full day’s bowling.

And so the fuel was provided for every England follower to bemoan the flaws of the game in England; to open up the arguments that had only perhaps been closed shut in the ECB’s business plan about formats, competitions, traditional structures and new enterprises.

The lack of meaningful diversity in England’s otherwise admirable bowling attack brought to my mind another source, far from cricket, distant from discussions of historic counties and franchise teams. What I had seen operating in England shirts, whether toiling at Perth or prancing at Adelaide, was the product of a monoculture.

The drive towards monoculture causes a dewilding, of both places and people. It strips the Earth of the diversity of life and natural structures to which human beings are drawn. It creates a dull world, a flat world, a world lacking in colour and variety, which enhances ecological boredom, narrows the scope of our lives, limits the range of our engagement with nature, pushes us towards a monoculture of the spirit.

George Monbiot’s Feral is the most thought provoking book that I read in 2017. What Monbiot saw when looking across the barren Welsh uplands – ‘dismal.. devoid of life’ – provided an analogy for the over after over of steady fast-medium bowling delivered by England’s bowlers. There’s also a tempting parallel between how he contrasts the countryside with his experience of London, and cricket’s own post-modern, metropolitan dynamo of T20:

The fragmented eco-systems in the city from which I had come were richer in life, richer in structure, richer in interest

So, it is through the frame of rewilding that I have attempted to understand what might restore colour and variety to England’s cricketers.

The working definition of this process, adopted by the organisation Rewilding Europe, is:

Rewilding ensures natural processes and wild species play a much more prominent role in the land – and seascapes, meaning that after initial support, nature is allowed to take more care of itself. Rewilding helps landscapes become wilder, whilst also providing opportunities for modern society to reconnect with such wilder places for the benefit of all life.

Monbiot describes some of the key steps that need to be taken – by motivated humans – to create the conditions for rewilding. Under my appropriation of his ideas, the England cricket authorities take the place of motivated humans.

Keystone species provide a starting point. A keystone species is:

..one that has a larger impact on its environment than its numbers alone would suggest. This impact creates the conditions which allow other species to live there.

The identification of the native keystone species and, if absent from that environment, their reintroduction is a critical intervention. For Britain, the archetypal and almost completely absent keystone species is the beaver.

Beavers radically change the behaviour of a river. They slow it down. They reduce scouring and erosion. They trap much of the load it carries, ensuring that the water runs more clearly. They make it more structurally diverse, providing homes for many other species.

As a by-product, beavers’ actions reduce damaging flooding downstream and prevent the spread of illness caused by the flow of bacteria through populated areas. All this is starting to be empirically demonstrated. I don’t have any scientific studies to identify English cricket’s keystone species, but have a strong hunch, nonetheless.

English cricket is not as far from salvation as England’s rivers, because its keystone species hasn’t been wiped out and doesn’t need reintroduction, although protection and encouragement is required.

The spinner – right and left arm, finger and wrist – fulfils the role of keystone species for cricket. The spinner, by using little energy to bowl long spells, enables other bowler types to rest and recuperate. When their time comes to bowl, they can commit more effort, confident that the spinner will return when they tire. This is particularly important to the out-and-out fast bowler, who should be used in short spells of high, shocking pace.

The spinner demands a greater diversity of skills of his fielding teammates. Close fielders need to be able to swoop on balls dying from bat-pad deflections and dodge full-blooded blows. Boundary riders come into play as wicket-takers, if able to judge, move nimbly underneath and handle lofted drives, pulls and sweeps. Adaptability is needed to fulfil roles required for specific batsmen in specific conditions: short gulley, leg slip, short mid-off ‘on the drive’. Wicket-keepers are tested standing up, where the skills of a transplanted goalkeeper are not sufficient. Even the slip and fielders on the single have different challenges from the shot played to the spun ball.

The spinner’s prey benefits, too. Batsmen must develop footwork to prosper or even survive against the spinner – down the wicket to nullify spin, back onto the stumps to play the ball late, along the crease to use turn to create angles for scoring strokes. The diversity of shot-making should increase, with almost any shot played to a seam bowler available, as well as sweeps – conventional, slog, paddle and reverse – and chassees. Observation skills improve to detect changes to the orientation of the bowling hand, of the ball’s flight or direction of rotation.

The playing surface is another beneficiary of the spinner, whose walking or trotting approach to delivery, causes much less damage to the wicket ends than the pounding ball-after-ball of a seam-heavy attack.

Another step in rewilding is the promotion of trophic cascades. This isn’t the momentum gained by a trophy-winning team, but the natural process that occurs when an environment has top predators present. Human activity, long before industrialisation, depleted many ecosystems of their major predators, with perhaps a counterintuitive effect of reducing the diversity of nature.

A trophic cascade occurs when the animals at the top of the food chain – the top predators – change the numbers not just of their prey, but also of species with which they have no direct connection. Their impacts cascade down the food chain, in some cases radically changing the ecosystem, the landscape and even the chemical composition of the soil and the atmosphere.

The most celebrated example is the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park. Under pressure from a predator, deer kept away from valleys; their absence allowed trees to grow beside rivers, providing cover for animals who proliferated in range and numbers, and reduced soil erosion, so supporting the growth of other plants. There is even evidence that other predators – bear – profited as well.

English domestic cricket, almost as much as its hills and valleys, has been shorn of its big beasts. The national team’s regulars now make only rare appearances in the county championship. Over the last three seasons, Joe Root has played four matches for Yorkshire, Ben Stokes six for Durham. When they do appear, it can often be tentatively, on the road to recovery from an injury, when tooth isn’t bared and claws quickly withdrawn. The absence of the country’s best players from its national competition has a damping effect on the standard of play. To be successful, players don’t need to prove themselves against the very strongest of their peers. Players who are just ‘good enough’ can thrive and, with bowlers, extremes of pace and spin – required to dismiss the best batsmen – are not so valued because of the risk they pose to the fielding team keeping control of the scoring rate.

Applying the analogy of rewilding, England must let its top players – the regular internationals – frequent the domestic game to sharpen the other players, create turnover where mediocrity might be enough for a player to cling onto their place and encourage the development of the diverse range of skills needed to dismiss the best batsmen and repel the best bowlers.

In Monbiot’s analysis, humans have a deadly ally in their dewilding of Britain’s uplands, which have been ‘sheepwrecked‘ by the “woolly ruminant from Mesopotamia.. Because they were never part of our native ecosystem, the vegetation of this country has evolved no defences against sheep.” Restoring diversity requires that the hegemony of this non-native species in the uplands (shown by Monbiot to be uneconomic anyway) is ended.

English cricket has featured many non-native participants. While, at times, their success has seemed as pervasive as the sheep flocks in the English countryside – Australian batsmen of the 1990/2000s; West Indian, South African and Pakistani players in the 1970s – they have played the role of the big predator, raising the standard of the game and stretching the native players. An exception might have been the few county teams recently packed with Kolpak qualified players, who may for a time have displaced local cricketers, without adding greatly to the standard or variety of the game.

The pointing to the ‘non-native’ as the culprit can see rewilding veer towards regressive and backward politics. Monbiot acknowledges this, showing how some of the most dramatic rewilding has happened following the forced removal of populations by oppressive and racist regimes. There is no positive lesson for English cricket here. Players from other countries and of different ethnicities add diversity, interest and culture to the game played in this country. Unlike English flora, whose evolution takes thousands of years, English cricketers have no excuse for not adapting to new challenges introduced to their domestic game.

Keystone species and trophic cascades provide, by analogy, some clues as to how to rewild English cricket. But the deeper we go into Monbiot’s thesis the harder to apply it becomes.

 

Rewilding, unlike conservation, has no fixed objective: it is driven not by human management but by natural processes. There is no point at which it can be said to have arrived. Rewilding.. does not seek to control the natural world, to re-create a particular ecosystem or landscape, but – having brought back some of the missing species – to allow it to find its own way.

There is a relevant warning that English cricket should not be backward-looking, trying to ‘re-create’ a particular Golden Era. Perhaps we should be open to the notion that there is not ‘a point at which it can be said to have arrived’, but most England followers have a strong sense that an Ashes victory or World Cup triumph would provide that fulfilment. The ECB website does appear to have shelved its objective of ‘winning a global ICC tournament’. It now expresses its priorities a little less inflexibly as being to ‘Develop clear strategic plans for sustained success in Tests, ODIs and international T20s’.

Cricket in England – and possibly anywhere – is too encased in formal structures to allow the game ‘to find its own way’. Diversity – rewilded players – may be good for the game for its own sake, but our longing for them is purposive: to compete and win against the best teams whatever the playing conditions. For many – certainly those in authority – there is probably a quiet dread of what might happen to cricket if it isn’t constantly stewarded. Others might argue for an end to the interventions and grooming of the game for the twenty-first century. But they can’t know where the game would go if it was allowed to find its own way and may end up carrying out their own conservation activity if what they value about cricket is threatened.

I sincerely hope that Monbiot’s vision of rewilding can be given the opportunity to work in the UK. While it provides some handy tools for understanding how diversity might be reintroduced to an activity where it is withering, the forces that want to tame and control cricket will continue to hold sway.

 

The curse of Cook

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Six opening partners tried and rejected in three years – a turnover of one opening batsman per Test match season. The inability to find a player to rise to the challenge of opening the innings alongside Alastair Cook is the most prominent of the selection problems besetting England. This post does not venture a solution (although I have provided a mathematical response), it looks at the impact on those six selected, then rejected batsmen.

The impact of playing with Cook and then being dropped is assessed in a narrow, statistical fashion. The first graph shows the ten innings batting average in first class matches before and after each player’s brief career as a Test opener. (NB Adam Lyth’s post-Cook average is based on the six first-class innings he has played to date)

Cook s curse 1-page-001

Across the group, there is a reduction in batting average of 40 runs per completed innings (56%). Joe Root has the sharpest reduction. He and Trott are the only members of the group who played Test cricket before opening with Cook; and Root is the only member of the group who played Test cricket after opening with Cook.

Three of the players (Compton, Root, Robson) may have harboured hopes that their Test opening careers would continue when they returned to first class cricket. Compton, for example, played four innings (including a century and a fifty) before his supplanting by Joe Root was made clear by the selection of an England side for a warm-up match. Selecting ten innings from his return to the Somerset side or from his official relegation from the England side makes little difference to this ten innings average (48.2 v 47.6).

We should not be surprised that players’ first class averages drop after a tough period as rookie Test match openers. They had been picked as form players – all six had short-term averages exceeding their career average when brought into the team – and their strong form had been interrupted by the stiffer challenge of Test cricket. In Trott’s case, his return to first-class cricket involved more than just re-finding form with the bat, but psychological health, too. The fall away in their performance, however, is noteworthy for its abruptness and consistency across the group.

To test whether it is a short-term effect, I have also compared their batting average for the last full season of first-class cricket before their selection as Cook’s partner and the first full season of first-class cricket following their demotion from the captain’s sidekick. In all cases except Root’s, the seasons assessed were England county seasons.

Cook s curse 2-page-001

In this analysis the average fall in batting performance is less severe and is less consistent across the group. Root, the only player to remain in the Test team, maintained his pre-selection season average and Carberry’s varied downwards by fewer than five runs per completed innings.

All of the six players struggled for most of the innings they opened alongside their captain in Tests matches. Once out of the team (or in Root’s case, batting lower in the order), they were unable to regain their earlier productivity.

Alex Hales is strongly favoured to be Cook’s next opening partner. His current 10 innings first-class batting average is 36.0 – lower than all of his predecessors (although Hales may have further innings in the County Championship and in the UAE to improve on this before the Tests against Pakistan). Hales will, of course, be aiming to repel the curse of Cook that leaves batsmen under-performing when dropping back into county cricket. The surest way of doing this is by scoring so many runs for England that he stays in the team, opening alongside the captain.

Quick single: Jonny Bairstow form and flaws

Picking players in form is one of the national selectors’ least important duties. Far more significant to identify the player with the talent and technique to thrive at international level, than to pluck the name from the top of the county (state, province, etc) averages. 

Sometimes, though, with a cricketer who might, just might, have the right stuff for the international game, the timing of their selection can have a long-lasting impact. Jonny Bairstow, in mid-summer 2015, is in the form of his life. He has a three-figure average in the County Championship with hundreds scored in three of his last fiur innings. In the last but one match, he was joined in the middle by Tim Bresnan, with the score 191-6. The pair added 366 together (the third highest partnership for the seventh wicket in first class history), with Bairstow 219* at the declaration. The week before, replacing Jos Butler in the England limited overs squad, his innings of 83* won the deciding match in the series against New Zealand. 

Bairstow isn’t in the England squad for the first Ashes Test and is playing again for Yorkshire this week at Edgbaston. 

The highlight of his 14 Test matches came at Lord’s in 2012 with two belligerent and brave innings against South Africa, which took England close to a victory against the team that replaced them as the number 1 ranked Test team. The stronger impression created by Bairstow’s Test batting career to date is of a player hampered by technical flaws. Initially, during his debut series against the West Indies, it was his ability to play the short-ball that concerned. Dismissals (bowled, lbw and caught off a leading edge) playing across the line of full, straight deliveries became the focus of doubts about Bairstow’s suitability for Test cricket. 28 was Bairstow’s highest score in his last 8 Test innings (preceded by 64), the most recent of which was in the final Test of the 2013/14 Ashes whitewash. 

How should the England selectors weigh up Jonny Bairstow’s current run of good form with the evidence of his early experiences of Test cricket? In one sense, the existence of clear flaws in his batting in 2012-14 clarifies the matter as the selectors should be looking for assurance that those issues have been resolved. That, however, assumes that problems exposed at Test level would be apparent in the county game, where the bowling subjects techniques to less strict examination. 

That Bairstow favoured the legside was well known when he made his England debut and is far from a unique preference – witness Cook, Trott, etc. But was he falling to straight deliveries in Test cricket because, starved of balls directed at his pads, Bairstow was forced to find runs somewhere? Playing for Yorkshire, Bairstow may have defended those balls safely, knowing that juicier morsels would arrive soon. 

It seems probable that, facing Australia’s strong and deep pace bowling attack, England’s middle order will need reinforcement with new players, by the second half of the Ashes series. If Jonny Bairstow remains in the form he has shown for the past six weeks, his case will be persuasive. It will come though with some unease about frailties that division one county championship attacks lack the expertise to probe. The selectors will, I believe, have to accept that we won’t know if Bairstow is ready for the rigours of Test cricket, without trying him out there again. Weighing on their minds may be a similar calculation, albeit featuring different variables, that was made when Jonathan Trott was reintroduced to Test cricket in April. 

Quick single: 12 game season

The ECB has, apparently, made the decision to restructure the English domestic season and reduce the County Championship to 12 games per team. The motivation is to make the most of the commercial potential of T20 and also to bolster the 50 over one day game ahead of England hosting that World Cup in 2019.

The County Championship, for much of its existence, was a 32 game tournament, with a potential 96 days of action for each team. A year (or two?) from now, it could comprise at most just half that number of days’ cricket: 48. It’s almost as strong an assault on the traditional county game as the removal of counties from the T20 tournament, in favour of city franchises. And perhaps, the ECB is holding back from that second reform as a means to achieve the former and creating the space for an expanded season of limited overs competitions.

The arguments against this change from those heavily invested in the County Championship will brand it a trivialisation of a grand tradition of the English game, with complaints about the damage that could be done to county clubs that have served communities for generations and the short-changing of many county members by cutting the number of days of first class cricket they could watch. These all seem legitimate concerns.

It will also be contended that it marks a retreat from the primacy of first class cricket, with consequences for England’s Test cricket. That, indeed, would seem to be the case looking at how a new balance is being struck. But I am less convinced by this aspect of the opposition to the reforms. I accept they may be anti-county, but I don’t equate that with them being anti-Test team. I don’t see why twelve games of quality first class cricket isn’t adequate exposure to the longer form of the game. I don’t have any scientific proof, merely the observation that other nations, whose Test teams either outperform England, or share with England a pattern of periodic up and down swings, play even fewer first class matches in their domestic seasons.

domestic 1st class matches-page-001

I concluded, in a recent piece about the prevalence of first class cricket, that my assumption that the longer form of the game was being played less and less was wrong – with the exception of in England. What we are seeing is a convergence of England with much of the rest of the Test-playing world. I don’t pretend, however, that the strongest devotees of the County Championship will find any solace in that.

Where have all the captains gone?

 

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Alastair Cook’s hold on the England captaincy ought to be precarious. He acknowledged after the defeat to India at Lord’s that he could be unseated by the end of the summer. His current security, assisted by the victory in the third Test, has a lot to do with the high politics of English cricket in the first half of 2014: when you’ve hailed a new era, you don’t want to be announcing a new, new era within months.

There’s another factor, too, I suspect. Not as compelling as the forthright decision at the end of the winter to reconfirm Cook as the centre-piece of England’s Test team, but it’s there, hanging around, a problem that can be overlooked if only Cook scratches out a hundred and stumbles to a Test series victory. It strengthens Cook’s tenure, while allowing him to dig an even deeper pit while in office. It’s the question, ‘if not Cook, then who?’

England captains are found fulfilling one of two roles prior to their appointment. They are either established members of the team (most usually batsmen) or they are able cricketers who have shown leadership prowess in county cricket. The establishment preference, if not explicitly stated, then empirically shown, is for the former: someone already in the team.

The current England team has three established players: Bell, Broad and Anderson. Of the newer team members, Joe Root is mentioned as a potential future captain. Without assessing each individual, I don’t think it’s controversial to state that none makes an outstanding case. With each of them having spent the majority of their professional careers as part of the England squad, none has experience of leading a county for more than a few matches.

There is another source to which the selectors could turn: the proven leaders in county cricket. Of the 18 appointed county captains for the 2014 season, five are not qualified to play for England, six are former Test cricketers (although not much more could be asked of both James Foster and Chris Read to earn a recall) and two of the others are 35 or older. Of the remaining five – Wayne Madsen, Jimmy Adams, Alex Wakely, Daryl Mitchell and Andrew Gale – I can only remember Adams and Gale ever being mentioned as possible international cricketers. The former is aged 33 and Gale has been overtaken by teammates Bairstow and Root, and probably has Lyth and Lees ahead in the Yorkshire queue for an England batting spot.

Go back 30 years to 1984, and there were ten England Test cricketers captaining counties, seven of whom were still playing (or in contention) for their country, including Botham, Gower, Gatting, Willis and Tavare. Botham led Somerset in around one-half of their Championship matches that season.

I have written before about the impact on Test selection of the separation of the England team from the county game. I concluded that there still remains a route into the England team for those performing very well in the domestic game, despite the ‘hunch’ selections (not justified by weight of runs) and fast-tracking of youngsters before they establish county reputations. The conundrum created by the, ‘if not Cook, then who?’ question suggests another ramification of centrally contracted England players: scant opportunities to develop captaincy experience and aptitude.

But which is the anomaly – 1984 or 2014? I have looked at three dates, one from each of the last three decades (1) when the England captaincy was taken or passed from one player and given to another, to see if the field from which the new captain was selected was as thin as it appears in 2014, or lush with talent as it now seems to have been thirty years ago.

1980 – Brearley’s successor

Mike Brearley, Test batting average in the 20s, stepped aside with ten Tests against the West Indies in 12 months looming. Established players in the Test team from that winter that had lost in Australia, but defeated India in a one-off match, were: Willis, Boycott and Botham. From the counties, Keith Fletcher, Brian Rose, David Lloyd, Roger Knight and Jack Hampshire offered a mix of leadership and Test match experience.

Botham, of course, received the nod. Willis was to become captain, as was Fletcher (and indeed Brearley, again), as England sought to replace Brearley’s leadership skills over the next few series. Brian Rose was also a viable, if outside, contender, having made it into the Test team and become the first Somerset captain to hold silverware – and with that the experience of captaining the likes of Botham, Richards and Garner.

1999 – Stewart is stood down

England failed to qualify for the super six stage of the World Cup they hosted and Stewart was stood down as captain. Nasser Hussain, vice captain, was appointed as successor. Beyond Stewart and his predecessor, Atherton, the team, habitually unsuccessful, lacked established players. But the counties provided captaincy experience to a number of those in and around the squad: Hussain, Cork, John Crawley, Mark Ramprakash, Jason Gallian, Adam Hollioake and Chris Adams.

When Hussain’s “poppadum fingers” took him out of his second Test in charge, he passed control to Thorpe, a novice captain. Unavailable for the next Test, Hussain’s role was taken by Mark Butcher, who had skippered Surrey for only a few weeks earlier in the season.

2008 – Vaughan’s gone

Michael Vaughan’s exit was unplanned: three Tests into a four match rubber with South Africa. Despite his own injury problems and unavailability to captain for much of the preceding three years, Vaughan left an exceptionally settled team that included three England captains: Flintoff, Strauss and Collingwood (ODI only). But appearances deceive: Flintoff (like his predecessor as iconic all-rounder, Botham) wasn’t to be trusted with leadership again; Collingwood was one batting failure from being dropped; and Strauss waited, although not for very long. Pietersen, of course, was invited to succeed not just Vaughan, but also Collingwood as ODI captain.

Central contracts had been instrumental to England’s success that began under Hussain and peaked under Vaughan in 2005. Team England were highly unlikely to look beyond their own group for a captain and the county game that year offered two proven ex-Test cricketers (Mark Butcher and Darren Gough), six Test discards, four one-day internationals, three overseas players and a handful of ‘county pros’.

These three examples, along with the situations in 1984 and 2014, suggest a thinning of the field of England captaincy contenders – related clearly to the introduction of central contracts and the withdrawal of Test players from championship cricket. It can be argued that the absence of many candidates does not really matter: England only needs one Test captain at a time. The injuries to captains Hussain and Vaughan illustrate that a viable alternative is necessary; something that Hussain, in particular, lacked in his first season in charge.

But just as substantial runs or wickets in county cricket are not guarantees, or even a prerequisite, of a successful Test career, how important is having experience of leading a county side? Michael Vaughan thrived without it. Nasser Hussain was made Essex captain only weeks before the England appointment. Michael Atherton leap-frogged the Lancashire job when made England captain age 25.

Perhaps the question is moot: England will continue to select captains from within the centrally contracted, county-deprived squad.

I have heard little of Andy Flower’s new role since his appointment in March 2014 as Technical Director of Elite Coaching, with a remit including the creation of “a leadership programme for young England cricketers,” which he clarified “is not simply about captaincy.” But he would explode the scepticism of many England followers if the graduates of his programme enabled England to appoint future captains with the confidence they could cope with the role like Vaughan and not look as ill-suited to it as Cook often has.

Footnote 1: These three dates (1980, 1999, 2008) provided useful examples to examine as well as being seasons for which I had Wisden easily to hand. Other dates and captaincy changes could be equally, or more illuminating.

The Root route or the Compton climb

England gave debuts to two batsmen in the series in India: Nick Compton and Joe Root. They provide an interesting contrast in how to catch the selectors’ eye.

Compton’s call-up generated many approving comments from those keen to assert the continued relevance of the county game from which England’s elite players are almost completely detached. Compton had scored 1,494 runs in the season for Somerset, including over 900 before the end of May 2012.

So separate have the international and first class game become in England that there is a suspicion that the Team England decision-makers no longer rate county championship runs as evidence of a potential test pedigree. And there, alongside Compton in the squad, is Joe Root, with barely two full county seasons behind him, a first-class batting average of 38 and, we understand, very highly rated by Graham Thorpe, ECB lead batting coach.

This situation crystallised a phenomenon that has intrigued me since Duncan Fletcher took over as coach in 1999. Fletcher, supported by the ECB, separated his elite squad from the county professionals. Central contracts were the instrument of division; Fletcher’s authority to determine which England stars would play county cricket where – but always sparingly – a sharp prod to the rest of the professional game. And two things made Fletcher’s operation of this authority compelling: 1) he selected players who weren’t established stars; and 2) those players (in truth, some of them) excelled.

Could it be that Test and county cricket are so different, that players who are not outstanding at the latter could have the ‘right stuff’ to be champions on the international stage – if only the coach and selectors have the perceptiveness to identify those qualities.

Nasser Hussain, the first England captain to work in partnership with Fletcher, recalled:

In Marcus’ [Trescothick] case Duncan was vindicated from the word go, and Michael Vaughan had already arrived as another inspired pick from county cricket. Both Tres and Vaughany had an aura about them from the start, the right personality to succeed at the highest level. They took to Test cricket like ducks to water… Neither was setting county cricket alight when they were picked for England – which makes you wonder just how many others like them there are out there.

In the thirteen years of centrally-contracted cricketers, 22 batsmen have made debuts for England. What has been the pattern of selection: the short-cut Root route for talent-spotted youngsters; the steady Compton climb culminating in a volume of first-class runs that cannot be ignored; or, like, Trescothick and Vaughan, under-achievers in the county game, invited to find their true metier at the highest level of the game? And of the 17 batsmen of this era about whom conclusions can be drawn, is there any relation between their profile at selection and their effectiveness as Test batsmen?

The length of apprenticeship served in the first-class game by these players is depicted in chart 1. The median length is seven years (i.e. duration from first class to Test match debut), meaning that a debut in the mid-20s is typical. The outliers are Alastair Cook, Joe Root (both 2.5 years) at one extreme, with Chris Adams (11), Owais Shah and Samit Patel (both 10) at the other.

Chart 1

Age at debut-page-001

Checking Wisden, of the 22, the selection of 16 appears to have been justified by the volume of runs scored in first class cricket. So, ‘hunch’ or ‘right-stuff’ selections account for less than one-third. Each has a story.

Chris Adams and Michael Vaughan were in a group of six new faces selected by Fletcher and Hussain for their first tour after England’s established stars had bottomed out against New Zealand in 1999. Trescothick’s trick was to play a fine innings in a championship match on a pacy pitch against Glamorgan, in Fletcher’s last season coaching the Welsh team. Similarly Usman Afzaal had taken a hundred off a Worcestershire attack led by Glenn McGrath and so was invited to join a home Ashes campaign the following year. Andrew Strauss also drew attention with a county hundred against a Test bowler, in this case Flintoff, before rising to the occasion in the 50 over international game. The nerveless limited overs performances of Eoin Morgan also encouraged the selectors to set aside his first-class record and give him Test match recognition.

While the pre-selection records of the majority of these 22 batsmen should provide succour to supporters of the county game, another factor features in the records of many: the ‘A’ team, or England Lions. Many of the players in this group tasted this form of international cricket before getting a Test debut. Ian Ward, Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott, Michael Carberry and James Taylor are examples of players who had their domestic first-class records validated by successful ‘A’ tours. Players with equally impressive county records have probably been ‘weeded out’ on these expeditions.

Eight of the players have had, or are pursuing, successful Test careers – batting average above 40 and repeated selection. Chart 2 plots their career Test batting average against the number of years first-class cricket they played prior to their Test debut. The sample is small, but none of the batsmen with averages above 40 waited longer than eight years – Trott had the longest wait. Four (45%) of those with averages below 40 had waited nine or more years.

Chart 2

Experience and average-page-001

The third chart looks at batting average and how the player came to be selected – weight of runs or hunch. Using this small sample of test batsmen there is no clear association. Three (50%) of the hunch selections have gone on to average over 40, as have five (45%) of the weight of first-class runs selections.

Chart 3

average and selection type-page-001

Neither weight of county runs, nor being identified by the selectors as being ‘made of the right stuff’ provides a guarantee of a successful Test career. Batsmen who have made the team by their mid-20s do, from this sample, have a greater chance of going on to thrive at Test level. The Root route does seem preferable to the Compton climb, but county cricket followers should be reassured that championship runs do count for something. With eight batsmen of the seventeen enjoying productive Test careers, my concluding thought is that the England selectors, with a 47% hit rate, have been earning their corn.

Long overdue

Lancashire won the County Championship this month in dramatic fashion, chasing over 200 in 30 overs whilst Warwickshire, their rivals, couldn’t dislodge a stubborn Hampshire, following-on and showing why the draw is such a noble outcome of a game of cricket.

My ECB app reported that Lancashire had won their first outright LV= County Championship since 1934.  The appropriation of the history of England’s first-class tournament by an insurance company jarred. What about Schweppes? Don’t they get any credit for the years of Lancashire’s barren patch?

Lancashire’s victory is a popular one. The reasons well rehearsed: team without stars, many local boys, young team led by Glenn Chapple, several close and exciting finishes. Chapple is one of those cricketers I have to do a mental check on when processing that he is playing. The check runs along the lines of, didn’t he play alongside [cricketer no longer playing]; is it really the same one? Peter Martin (retired 2004) is the reference point in Chapple’s case.

And the victory is a popular one because it ends an incongruous period without success. At least it is, and will be for some time, in the north west. But elsewhere? I’m not so sure.

Sport has a folklore of competitors denied (or incapable of) success for long periods. Cricket has offered:

  • Queensland not winning the Sheffield Shield, in a division of five (then six teams) from their introduction to the tournament in 1926/27 until 1994/95
  • England without an Ashes series win from 1986/87 until 2005

Other sports have seen the following famously starved of success:

  • Baseball: the cursed Boston Red Sox from 1918 to 2004
  • Tennis: no British male winner at Wimbledon since 1936 and still counting
  • Yachting: all comers to the US hosted Americas Cup from 1857 to 1983.

The celebrations in Brisbane, throughout England, Massachusetts and Perth, respectively, would have been sweet and emotional. Neutral fans may have raised a glass and cherished the moment that history was made, or corrected. But with the arrival of success, the end of the barren run, departs one story, one dimension of interest in the next season or competition. The sport is a little emptier.

So Lancashire’s victory in the (unembellished) County Championship robs cricket in 2012 of one of sport’s essential stories. But don’t fret, we still have Somerset’s misfortune and near-misses to lap up.