In the last couple of weeks the ECB has drawn a firm line under a period which saw English cricket enjoy prosperity, the likes of which largely hadn’t been seen since the 1980s. As well as winning three out of four Ashes series between 2009 and 2014, England came away from India with a series win for the first time this century, and won their first major limited overs trophy at the 2010 World Twenty20. But in the wake of a winter of humiliation this golden age judged to have ended, and seismic changes have already taken place.
The main headlines have rightly focused on the abrupt sacking of Kevin Pietersen last week, England’s highest aggregate run scorer both in the latest Ashes series and in history. After much media wrangling the ECB finally re- leased a statement on Sunday explaining that it was important that Captain Alastair Cook could rely on all players “pulling in the same direction and able to trust each other.”
This might seem sensible given Pietersen’s track record of irritating every dressing room he’s ever played in, but the language of this explanation is troubling. Having everyone working together is all well and good as long as it doesn’t deteriorate into an authoritarian regime where no discussion of tactics or planning can take place among the senior group of players. As was evident from last winter, Cook still has a lot to learn as captain. An open environment which encourages the experienced players such as Bell, Broad, and Prior to take some responsibility and help make decisions is what the ECB needs in the wake of such embarrassment.
Whatever the spirit of the dressing room, it is surely more important to have the most talented players playing as many matches as possible. I’m all for team cohesion but it can’t take priority over talent, form or record. Gary Ballance in his early career has come across as a model team player but when a Dale Steyn or Mitchell Johnson has just ripped out your top order, threatening to spark yet another England collapse, I know I would rather see Pietersen swaggering to the middle.
Geoffrey Boycott, one of the most vociferous critics of Pietersen’s style and maturity, was a nightmare to play with because of his overwhelming egocentricity. His teammates still found a way to accommodate him because of the sheer weight of runs he promised.
The timing is particularly odd when you consider the short term plans of this England team. With the World Twenty20 in March, a format which Cook has not played since 2009, wouldn’t the best thing have been to select Pietersen, arguably one of the most accomplished T20 players in history, and drop him for future test matches?
Another area which needs more explanation from the ECB is the departure of Andy Flower. In one sense this move, if really instigated by Flower rather than his employers, is understandable. Building a successful cricket team takes commitment; ideally a coach prepared to manage in all formats, and a lot of effort.
Flower has already been through this process once, leading England to number one in the world, and may feel that he doesn’t have anything prove by doing it all over again. The assumption on which this very reasonable decision rests is questionable because it depends on whether the 2013-14 winter really saw the end of Flower’s glorious era.
True, England have under-performed in recent months. They played dour but functional cricket in the summer Ashes, and capitulated completely in the return fixtures. But before this there were few signs of ill-health. New Zealand put up a good fight at the start of last year, verging on beating England on several occasions, but anyone who looks at their recent successes against India will see a team in resurgence who no one can roll over anymore.
The classic English trait of taking defeat as the end of the world seems to apply to the whole reaction to our recent losses. Many of the central issues accounting for Australia’s sud- den dominance can be explained simply by fatigue. Jonathon Trott’s stress, Graeme Swann’s increasing injury count, Cook’s jaded tactics, and a general loss of form could all have come about because of the hectic cricket calendar. Perhaps instead of sacking our best player and implicitly persuading a successful coach to leave office, the ECB should have been looking at changing their schedules, largely defined it seems by commercial arrangements.
This would allow the England players to properly recover from a demanding series like the last Ashes, and the peaks and troughs of recent results would become less pronounced.
This might be an international issue, but solving it would certainly help the English.