There’s much to be commended in going out and celebrating your team’s victory. Soak up the success; prolong the elevated mood by reconstructing the achievement, bouncing favourite moments off fellow fans.
At home, not quite alone, I am looking forward, as much as backwards. Like the anxious, partisan football fan, who sees his side take an early lead, I think, “No. Too soon. So much time for that other team to mount a come back.” There’s basic psychology at work: a lead means there is something to be lost. Being defeated, without ever being ahead, doesn’t have the discomfort of dashed hopes, the humiliation of squandering an advantage – particularly when, before the contest began, as is the case with England in this Ashes series, I held very slender hopes.
I wanted England to compete, to push the Australians. I hoped this summer that a new bowler of international class would emerge, and two of England’s fresh batsmen would solidify their places. I wanted Cook’s captaincy to be resolved (by which I mean, ended).
Now, though, a vista of opportunity has opened up. But the broader the vista, the deeper the holes into which we can fall. All because of this early lead.
What really complicates things for me is England’s new positive approach to, in particular, batting. Clinging to a one-nil lead throughout a five Test series is not feasible. It used to be. India achieved it in 1982/83 over a six match series: wrangling a first Test victory on a poor pitch and holding out for draws for the rest of the series on pitches where “conditions were so heavily weighted in favour of the bat” (Wisden, 1983). This series will have at least two more results.
I would like England to bat conscious of their lead. I want to see consolidation and conservation applied to their innings. I want context to be recognised and respected.
At the moment, the England middle-order (and one of the openers) seems to believe that attack is the answer to each and every challenge. It worked at Lord’s against New Zealand, and again in both innings at Cardiff.
And it did a thrilling job in the ODI series with New Zealand. But playing without fear isn’t a tactical choice, but a necessity, when it becomes obvious that scoring at seven runs per over is what’s needed to win the game. That’s not the case in Test cricket. While England have found success from playing audaciously on a few occasions, on others they will not.
So far, they have benefited from surprise. If it becomes the default response to the loss of a few early wickets, the Australians will be ready for it and England will show all the calculation of the gambler who doubles his stakes after every loss. England have also been lucky, notably at Cardiff. Root played and missed, edged and squirted the ball past the close catchers. Bell, excluded from the ODI jamboree, appeared determined to show he belonged. His innings featured his classy off-drives – none of which we would have appreciated had any one of his early shots that looped past fielders fallen to hand.
To win a five Test series, a team needs to master a variety of tempos. As a batting line-up, England seem enthralled by a pacey approach, that will soon speed them to defeat, if not used selectively. That’s what I believe – just as I believed in 2005 that Vaughan was reckless and should consolidate gains in that famous Ashes series. My approach to Test cricket was stuck in the past then and maybe similarly out of date now. There’s only one thing for it: can someone take me out to celebrate?
Jonathan Trott’s short and uncomfortable innings on the final day of the 2nd Test led to a discussion on Test Match Special about the difference between opening and batting in the middle order. Michael Vaughan took the declarative approach initially: “It’s just different”. But pressed by Ed Smith, Vaughan revealed how he didn’t like having to wait to bat when first playing for England as a middle order batsman, with a background for Yorkshire as an opener (my recollection is that he didn’t have to wait long to bat on his debut against South Africa). Then, thinking of Trott’s move in the other direction, Vaughan suggested that he might not like sharing the walk out to the middle, as an opener does, as distinct from the lone walk of any other batsman.
It all sounded pretty trite.
Ed Smith ventured an explanation based on technique. He likes, he said, to see openers keeping their heads still when on strike. Trott at the start of his innings in this series had not just engaged a trigger move but his head was in motion as the ball was delivered, Smith observed.
Smith sounded insightful.
I have previous in this area. I wrote a piece over two years ago, What is an opening batsman? I looked at the conventional definition (orthodox technique, etc) and the performance of openers in recent years. There appeared to be no correlation between effectiveness and a match to the conventional definition. I concluded that four things made a batsman suitable for opening in Test matches:
- Experience of the role
- Complement to the opening partner (the weakest factor)
- Not the best batsman in the team
- Wants the job.
Smith was making a useful technical observation, but one no less relevant to a middle order batsman than to an opener. Vaughan, struggling to articulate a reason and sounding trite, was I believe closer to the truth and an understanding of Trott’s lack of success specifically in the role as opener: he doesn’t have experience opening and would probably prefer to bat somewhere else.
Embed from Getty Images
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.
I have been helping my younger son with the times tables.
One times four is four
Two times four is eight
Three times four is twelve
Brearley and Yallop was ’78/79
Willis and Chappell was ’82/83
Gatting and Border was ’86/87
Gooch and Border was ’90/91
That same steady progression embedded in my mind. Each away Ashes series of my cricket conscious life separated by three winters. The elapse of four years sufficient for a distinctive cast to be in place and each series to have its own flavour.
Atherton and Taylor was ’94/95
Stewart and Taylor was ’98/99
And just as knowing, without thought, that six times four is twenty-four enables your mind to pivot around each number, performing related mental arithmetic, so the pattern to the dates of the Ashes series Down-Under are posts to which other cricket knowledge is stuck. Rodney Hogg took over 40 wickets in a losing cause in 1978/79. Norman Cowans was England’s suprise pick for the 1982/83 series, taking six wickets in an innings at Melbourne. Michael Vaughan soared to three centuries in 2002/03.
It’s the principle of the Art of Memory, the method of retaining information used in the centuries before the easy availability of books, which would come to be relied upon to hold knowledge for us. A structure would be imagined and information attached to or secreted around that structure. To recover the knowledge, the subject would head, in their own head, on a tour of the memory edifice.
Hussain and Waugh was 2002/03
Flintoff and Ponting was 2006/07
It’s not just cricketing feats that I can place confidently on this mental projection of time. My biography is fixed to it, too. 1986/87: first year of college and watching Channel 9 highlights (featuring Broad’s jutting backside at the wicket) in the room of my most enduring cricket friend, cautiously exposing to each other the depth of our obsession with the game. 1990/91: reading of Mark Waugh’s domineering debut ton in the international news store on campus in my first winter in Philadelphia. 1994/95: waking up in Edinburgh on a trip with red-haired girlfriend, me cheered by the news of Gatting’s battling hundred in the unlikely victory at Adelaide.
Strauss and Ponting was 2010/11
Cook and Clarke is 2013/14. 2013/14?
It’s like a fold in the times tables, disturbing the pattern, unsettling the mental framework. There are good reasons for bringing the Ashes in Australia forward one year. It prevents both teams entering a World Cup in the same southern summer that they have fought out a five match Test series. I don’t object to the timetable shift for cricket reasons. Nor do I have an issue with this tweak to a tradition – the four year cycle has been flexed before. My regret is a personal one.
In my forties, my memory is already duller than I want it to be. Regular, reliable formulae are valuable. In years ahead, I’ll stumble over this wrinkle in the predictable pattern of Ashes contests and cling to the progression I know. I can imagine people deciding awkwardly whether to correct me when I reminisce about Jimmy Anderson’s 30 wickets in 14/15 series. And Mrs DG will get frustrated when I insist I cooked Christmas dinner in 2014 – because we were still eating when Joe Root began his marathon innings on the first day of the Boxing Day Test.
I’ll acknowledge one upside to the timing of this winter’s series. Contrast it with a similar decision made almost 25 years ago by English cricket administrators. Then, English cricket was enjoying two years of financial feast (visits by Australia and West Indies), followed by two years of relative famine. To break this cycle and even out the cash-flow, it wasn’t the Ashes that was moved, but the Wisden Trophy. In 1991, the West Indies came to England ahead of schedule and on a run of seven consecutive series victories over England. It seemed unnatural punishment to bring forward this engagement. The perspective is very different today: England ought to believe that the sooner they play Australia, the stronger their chance of retaining the Ashes.
Cricket followers burn a lot of time and energy mocking, criticising and castigating the players our passion draws us to watch. We are particularly harsh on those who we believe are not fulfilling their potential in the sport. Steve Harmison, Mitchell Johnson are examples of players who have shown what they can achieve and then failed to live up to it. Another target of denigration are those who have reached a level in the game that their talent does not merit and struggle at that level. We’re also harsh on the superstars. Class is permanent but poor form is happening now and it’s not acceptable. Age dulls their talent, but not their self-regard. And their play may be impeccable but their conduct, dress sense, or off-field companions demonstrate they have less of a grip of other aspects of life.
The first group waste their talent, which we wouldn’t do if only we were so blessed (genetically predisposed). The second group waste our time. We don’t want to watch cricketers whose inability to score runs or take wickets is a result of a technical incompetence not seen since school net practice. The third group waste the emotions of hope, respect and even adoration that have risen through us watching them at their peak, only to be sullied by the inevitable demonstration of their humanity.
Then there are the small number of players with whom our relationship is less complicated. Australians may feel this way towards Mike Hussey. As an England supporter, I felt this about England’s new limited overs coach, now leading the England team in its one day series in India. He performed and behaved as well as I could have expected. I felt that Ashley Giles owed me nothing.
Giles was an orthodox left-arm spinner operating in a period when finger spin was thought impotent in international cricket unless the ball could be made to turn both ways. Giles’ inclusion in the England team felt grudging – if we really have to have slow bowler, he’s the least worst option. On debut against South Africa in 1998, Giles went for a ton taking a single wicket.
It was over two years until Giles played another Test – in Pakistan – and he moved quickly into credit with an analysis of 59-20-113-4, bowling 36% of the overs in Pakistan’s only innings. A five-for was earned in the next match and seven wickets in the series decider at Lahore. Giles had taken 17 wickets in the three match series, a record for an English bowler in Pakistan, and only one fewer than Saqlain Mushtaq.
For the next two years Giles played more, particularly in the Sub-Continent, than he missed. In India, he took his test best at Ahmedabad in another endurance display (5-63 in 43 overs) despite achilles and foot injuries that hindered his motion and earnt him the ‘wheelie-bin’ moniker. Giles was part of Michael Vaughan’s team that defeated South Africa at the Oval in 2003 having conceded 484 in the first innings. That summer, Giles took only 22 wickets in first class cricket. A single wicket in two tests in Bangladesh followed. But success in Asia came again before the year was out, with 18 wickets in the series in Sri Lanka.
Vaughan’s team found form and momentum, winning six consecutive test series before the Australians arrived for the 2005 Ashes. Giles was a near ever-present as the principal spinner, lower-order banker for a useful 30 and smart gulley fielder.
In the pre-series match-ups conducted on paper, Giles and keeper Geraint Jones, were the two England players deemed clearly inferior to their Australian opposite numbers – Warne and Gilchrist. What sort of player was Warne’s opponent? Giles is a big man. That and his splayed feet and high knees gave him an untidy, rolling run-up. But in delivery he pivoted hard on his right foot, arched his back, pulling his arm through classically high and strong, with head, often sporting blue reflective shades, tilted right. And he spun the ball. Too tall to give the ball very much air, but on helpful wickets, Giles was comfortable bowling in the low 50mphs, getting bite and bounce.
Giles, of course, didn’t come close to matching Warne in the 2005 series. But he managed to be both victorious and vindicated – taking wickets at Edgbaston after attracting a lot of criticism with a newspaper article, having his own ‘ball of the century’ moment piercing Damien Martyn’s confident defence at Old Trafford and scoring a half-century on the fifth afternoon at the Oval that took England to safety, a draw and history.
Worthy, committed and respected, but not a spotless career. Giles, under Hussain’s prickly leadership in India in 2001 was heavily criticised for bowling outside Tendulkar’s leg-stump from over the wicket. Wisden called it ‘unedifying’ and hoped the ICC cricket committee would stamp it out. Hussain recalled: “People went on and on about it being a negative tactic and against the spirit of the game.. and I think that affected Ashley’s career for a while..”
After the 2005 Ashes series, Giles was one of many of that team to experience injury or illness. He returned home from Pakistan with a hip injury in November 2005. It was 12 months before Giles played again – in the warm-up matches ahead of the Ashes series.
The player who owed us nothing was on the hardest tour of all, without any cricket for a year, with a ‘remodelled’ action designed, but little tested, to protect his frail limb. In his absence, Giles’ place had been taken by Monty Panesar, a loose-limbed natural left-arm spinner, who had had immediate success.
This is where my affection for and sympathy with Giles is at its strongest. Duncan Fletcher was loyal to his men and to his methods. Giles at number 8 gave the team balance, even though the team was no longer the same. And so came about a sequence of events that tipped the balance from Giles being a cricketer who owed me nothing, to one who deserved better of England. Imagine being called upon after a year away, unable to work, to do the most difficult thing your job involves. That’s what happened to Giles, who played at Brisbane and again in that defeat at Adelaide that still makes me shudder. He didn’t bowl poorly, but misjudged a chance to catch Ponting on his way to his second century of the series when England had declared at 551-6.
Giles was replaced for the third test by Panesar, who took five wickets on the first day. Family illness required Giles to return home soon after. And that was that.
Giles did not play again as injury forced him into retirement. The last year of Giles’ playing career may well anger me more than it does the player himself.
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.
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.
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.
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.