Under the early part of Alastair Cook’s captaincy career, England achieved a level of success that had eluded them since they were last World number 1 in 1979-1980. Understandably, yet somewhat myopically, administrators, fans and players alike were mistakenly led to believe that the sky was the limit for their national cricket team. Whilst those distanced from blind patriotism and Britain’s jingoistic fanaticism saw a glass ceiling imposed by a lack of talent, Andy Flower and the English Cricket Board elected to ride the wave of success and plead ignorance when it all came crashing on the Ashes tour of 2013/2014.
Undoubtedly, England are now in a state of rebuilding, hopefully having learned from the lessons of the past. Whilst most pundits view England’s current situation as dire, we’re taking a different approach. In a team without talent, the fall from grace witnessed over summer was an inevitability. It may be undesirable, but from an objective standpoint, it gives the ECB a chance to rebuild with players capable of performing to the lofty standards of their predecessors, but on a more consistent level.
As seemingly alone in our optimism for England’s chances of rebuilding successfully, we feel it significant to note the relative equity between current Tests playing sides that give Cook’s men a head start. India struggle mightily outside of the subcontinent, Australia have shown South Africa to be fallible, Graeme Smith’s men have returned the favour and Sri Lanka’s greatest claim to the mantle of ‘reputable Test nation’ is that they have recently defeated Bangladesh, albeit in convincing fashion. The journey to the top isn’t a significant one in 2014, nor does it appear likely to get longer with India’s bowling, Australia’s batting consistency, Sri Lanka’s ageing legends and the retirements of Jacques Kallis’ and Graeme Smith conferring prevalent concerns upon even the ICC’s most prosperous.
If you dismiss the current concerns of English cricket returning to the dark ages as an over-reaction, defeat in Australia this past season is as much an awakening as it was a temporary and rectifiable embarrassment. Individual players, not a cricketing nation will emerge as the primary casualties of the Ashes defeat, and whilst faith in administration has been lost, England are in a prime position to rebuild upon a more dynamic and promising foundation. A reformed coaching philosophy, imaginative captaincy and an assurance that talented players will be accommodated within the national set-up should provide the cornerstones for this resurgence. The ability is there, it is the direction that is lacking, and with a new coach scheduled to be appointed in April, the English Cricket Board have little time to accept that their archaic preference for conservatism is both expendable and detrimental to the creation of a cricketing dynasty in the modern game.
Having never been a fan of Andy Flower’s over-professionalisation of sport, witnessing his philosophy become catalyst for one of the greatest team implosions in memory, was gratifying; almost as gratifying as watching Mickey Arthur slowly lose the plot after his dismissal by Cricket Australia.
Cricket teams cannot succeed without the ability of individuals to perform at the highest level. Flower’s philosophy somehow failed to attach value to this widely accepted and inescapable reality, instead relying wholly on team unity and a non-negotiable professionalism to extract the best from his team. One of the most enduring sporting monikers is that ‘a champion team will always beat a team of champions’, however no matter how close-knit a particular unit, no matter how complementary its assets, a sense of rationality has to be applied. Teams require talent and the license to express their talents in the most supportive of environments – just ask David Warner and the Australian cricket team under Darren Lehmann.
At a glance, if we are to adopt the simplistic and often misleading markers of averaging over 50 with the bat and under 30 with the ball as indicators of a truly world-class player, England’s only avenue to greatness was now retired off-spinner Graeme Swann (29.96). By contrast, Australia boast 4 players in that category, with South Africa (6), India (4), New Zealand (1), Pakistan (4), Bangladesh (1) and Sri Lanka (3) also laying claim players in this arbitrary ‘world-class’ bracket.
Overlooked amidst the current media hysteria however, is that despite the above statistic, England possess the talent to re-realise their potential, it just needs to be deployed within a more conducive environment. Through rebuilding in an informed, not haphazard manner, the resources available to the England’s new coach will prove to be in abundance.
Joe Root is a Test double-centurion, Alastair Cook is one of the finest opening batsmen in the world and a fine anchor around which to build an innings. Ian Bell is flamboyant yet experienced, Eoin Morgan is capable of playing situational innings’ like few others and Jos Buttler is the archetypal modern-keeper – expressive, competent with the gloves and a personality. Stuart Broad is an aggressive leader and Ben Stokes would deservedly find himself in any nation’s Test XI following the retirement of Jacques Kallis. After all, his incredibly modest Test strike rate of 50.81 is the highest of England’s current specialist batsmen following the departure of Kevin Pietersen.
Does giving an opportunity to young and exciting players mean that the captaincy must also change hands?
Players of Alastair Cook’s nature are essential, reliable facets of a team. However to embrace his attritional style as a tactical foundation for a new side, under new management and theoretically a new philosophy would be a mistake. The ECB’s sacking of Pietersen proves that they are prone to shooting themselves in the foot, but to undermine a new regime with a relic of the previous era seems near unfathomable. Further, Cook is quite evidently either a defensively-minded leader without vision, creativity or initiative, or he is too weak to forge an identity from under the watchful eye of his coach, instead satisfied with his role as an on-field puppet.
Removing Cook from the captaincy and the continuing the exile of recent Pietersen-critic Matt Prior for the more dynamic, team-oriented and generally favourable Jos Buttler also makes way for Kevin Pietersen’s hypothetical return to the international cricket fold. Whilst this is as likely as England winnings the FIFA World Cup later this year, it would be the right decision and would demonstrate the ECB are both pragmatic and mature.
According to the ECB’s statement on Kevin Pietersen’s dismissal, England’s all-time leading run-scorer was ousted due to the implicit lack of trust in his relationship with Alastair Cook. On face value, this appears a cardinal sin within a team-sport environment, however if you look deeper, Pietersen’s only crime is that he shares the view of great friend and cricketing legend Shane Warne – and the majority of cricket fans – in believing Cook’s captaincy to be detrimental to English cricket. When the chiselled edges of your jaw-line are more likely to hurt opponents than your tactical nous, you have a serious issue. Press conference demeanour is one thing but tactical incompetence and an inability to command even a modicum of respect is enough to undermine even the most diplomatic and candid of leaders. When Shane Warne, a questionable personality yet an unequivocally incredible cricketing mind asserts an opinion with such conviction, no self-respecting armchair pundit should ignore it as baseless, let alone a cricketing board that is being held up alongside the BCCI and CA as one of the most informed, experienced and successful institutions in the sport.
Simply, to dismiss Kevin Pietersen, arguably the nation’s greatest batsman since Barrington, for echoing the very sentiment the ECB acted upon following the Ashes campaign – that Flower and his gutless follower in Cook were undeserving of the respect that England’s over-professionalised philosophy required – seems an injustice. Despite that, it appears set to remain so, even to the detriment of the side’s quality.
If this is the only concession made amongst what appear a raft of radical – at least for the ECB – changes to philosophy and personnel, English cricket will be well-placed to rebuild, having learned from the ill-fated culmination of Andy Flower’s term at the helm of the national side. Should a similarly-minded drill-master like Mickey Arthur miraculously find his way back into employment following his petulant exit from the Cricket Australia set-up however, the glass-ceiling installed under his predecessor will remain intact. The composition of England’s ODI XI currently taking on the West Indies is a good indicator that they are looking to deviate from the Flower/Arthur school of thought, however whether or not this is a temporary move aimed at resting those mentally wounded in the recent Ashes series is unclear.
The English Cricket Board have a chance to distance themselves from what is unambiguously the most humiliating Ashes defeat in history, however an irrationally stubborn reluctance to depart from the conservative traits that have served them so poorly in the past threatens to render their short stint atop the global cricketing hierarchy a mere anomaly.