Tuesday, 18 August 2015

No way back for shattered England

Losing the Ashes Test means that England are now 2-8 down in the Ashes Series with 6 points up for grabs from the remaining T20s. They would have to win all three of the T20s against the current T20 World Champions to retain the Ashes. They will not do so. This is a team that looks devoid of confidence in their own abilities. Almost without exception they are batting like rabbits caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck. They appear to be so terrified of making a mistake that they are literally paralysed into inaction.

It is true to say that in the last Ashes Series played in England in 2013, England did win all three of the T20s they played against the Aussies, and England are unbeaten at "Fortress Chelmsford" where they are playing the first T20 on Wednesday week (26th August). But that is all history and England have spent the past five years looking back at past glories as an indicator of future performance. It has not panned out.

Those of us who have watched England closely (and the England players in their county colours) over the last few years have frequently lamented the lack of depth to the England batting line-up. Charlotte Edwards and, to a lesser extent, Sarah Taylor, have been the props holding the batting up. England have doggedly stuck to the same players time after time after time. There have been fleeting glances of form - Lauren Winfield's 74 against the South Africans last summer at Edgbaston; Nat Sciver's 65* against the Kiwis at Lincoln in February, but there have been far more failures than successes.

Last year's Test against India should have rung some alarm bells. 12 of the 20 England wickets that fell were to lbw appeals, on a slow, low track that offered little or nothing to the seamers or spinners. The problem was players playing across the line. Professional England, as they had become, were bowled out for 99 and 202 against a team of amateurs and lost by six wickets. It was not a blip, but it was indicative of the fragility of England's batting.

In New Zealand the England middle-order simply failed to turn up for the first three ODI games, which meant England lost the ICC WC series 1-2. They are currently languishing in fourth place in the ICC WC table, seven points behind leaders Australia, having won just four out of the nine games they have played.

England have adopted a head in the sand attitude. England's demise in the Test was all too predictable and they have no-one to turn to to try and get them out of the hole they are in, bar the 18 contracted players on whom they have concentrated all their efforts over the past two years. There are no T20 batting superstars waiting in the wings, so the same batting line-up is likely to be asked to do what they can. With confidence at rock bottom they are likely to get blown away.

Short-term there is little that England can do, bar try and inspire, enthuse and re-invigorate the current crop of players. That inspiration and leadership needs to come from the top.

Longer-term England need to take a hard look at the current contract system. The 18 players contracts are due to be reviewed in September and new contracts awarded in October. By that time the same 18 players will already have been contracted for 18 months. Should the cash be shared more fairly amongst those who have potential? Everyone below the 18 contracted players are unpaid amateurs. Even those additional players named in last year's ECB Winter Training Squad - Jodie Dibble, Beth Langston, Sonia Odedra, and Fran Wilson. For the past 9 months they have been doing exactly the same as the 18 paid players, for nothing. None of them were offered a car by KIA. Also what will happen to contracted players whose contracts may be terminated? There is no cushion of going back into county cricket and earning a reasonable salary while trying to get your place back. Chances are they will be lost to cricket for good.

England also need to look beyond the Loughborough Bubble. At the present time it seems like it is almost the only route for progression into the England set-up. The other MCCU universities do little or nothing to enhance women cricket players. In fact the second best university for women cricketers is non-MCCU Exeter University - current holders of the BUCs Indoor Title and runners-up to Loughborough for the last two years in the BUCS Final at Lords. This year Exeter just had to contend with seven full internationals, two Academy players and one U19 EWDP player in the Loughborough team that defeated them.

Clare Connor herself espoused the importance of cricket players getting an education and qualifications as well as playing the game. Even if girls reach the top the salaries are not high. Life at the top can be precarious, subject to form, favour and fitness. And even the longest careers are likely to only stretch into the 30s. That leaves a long time after cricket. Getting that education at Loughborough should not be a prerequisite to success on the cricket field. The ECB need to expand their horizons.

Alongside, or in conjunction with, the new WCSL (Women's Cricket Super League), the ECB needs to expand the centres of excellence available for women cricketers, so that young players can continue their education away from Loughborough if they chose and avoid excessive travel time to train regularly. It will also allow other coaches to feed into the development of players.

I am a fan of the concept of the WCSL, and what it is trying to achieve. There are simply not enough good players to go around the current 38 county system. But it is going to be difficult to implement if the non-contracted players are not paid. The ECB have no objection to the franchises paying their players, but they are not going to fund it, and what happens if one franchise does and another does not?

In the short-term it seems odd that none of the England batsmen involved in the Test were released to their counties this weekend to play in the final round of the NatWest County T20 competition. Surely it would have been ideal preparation? Instead they will have a couple of practice games this week against young male opponents. Australia meanwhile are in Ireland playing three T20Is against the Ireland Women's team that has beaten both Sussex and Yorkshire in Division One T20 games in the past couple of weeks.

England tour South Africa in February for more ICC WC games and in March the T20 World Cup is being staged in India. The WCSL will not come quickly enough to have any effect on England's performances in these tournaments. Indeed it will not really be up and running properly before England host the World Cup in 2017. The next few years could be tough for England on the international circuit.



  1. So IF even the Australians were to inflict further pain on the England team the ECB will not be in a position to revolutionise the team and the best we could hope for is evolution.
    But this is not something that any England side is comfortable with, when there is a major tournament approaching. The timing would also mean the majority of this squad / academy may have their contracts renewed!
    I would give them contracts to the end of the World Cup that may be the best motivation and also as a shop window for the WSL. Otherwise why would any franchise employ a player who was not good enough in T20?

  2. There are many threads to being 8-2 down but we can get to 8-8 although the team does look broken from a batting point of view - a long running problem that simply has not been tackled. Where does a team go when even the supposed best batsmen are failing ? Edwards, Taylor and Knight have failed to deliver (esp Taylor and Knight). Greenway is on a career slide, others (Sciver, Winfield for example) show promise but England need runs not promise. Jones (2 100s this year) is dumped by the selectors just as Wyatt has been previously (not suggesting either are the silver bullet). Wilson gets asked to carry the drinks. Same story, different year. Unless the batting is completely overhauled then world cups are off the radar and supporters will have to accept the golden age has passed.
    The ECB need to get real and stop trotting out media managed rhetoric that must make supporters vomit. I can take players doing their best and failing. I can't accept brainless selections or the drivel from the ECB (usually from heavily media managed players or managers). Izzy Westbury was a breath of fresh air on commentary and some honest tough love analysis from better people than me is far more valuable than pretending all is okay.

  3. Well there is one great thing - to have a blog written by someone so well informed. I completely agree with your analysis Martin. These are worrying times for England - the team and the setup are in a mess - and things aren't likely to pick up for a good few years.

    The frustrating thing is most of these problems are not beyond the wit of humankind to solve. I still think it could be possible for the ECB to solve the situation if they really wanted. It would involve more investment and going back on some of their previous ideas though, so I doubt it will happen as they don't like spending money, or losing face.

    You'd think that one advantage of the educational and qualificational side of the current arrangement would be that it would soften the blow for players who did not have their contracts renewed. It must have previously occurred to people that unless the number of contracted players increased rapidly, then the only way of getting young or better players into the contract system would necessarily involve "sacking" some of the current players i.e. terminating their contracts. BUT I don't see why this means they should never play for us again.

    The ECB must be able to think of other ways to support the "sacked" players in the meantime such as giving them different roles in the ECB structure or sponsoring them in other ways, on the proviso they keep working on their game and play county/ WCSL cricket in the meantime. This is unless of course people had the idea of contracted players staying contracted until they retired from International Cricket. If this was the case - the (pretty obvious) eventuality that has actually occurred - that some players lose form for a long time, or simply aren't as good as we thought they were when they were younger - was completely overlooked.

    The current situation with Westbury and others like Holly Colvin for example, who are very good players as far as I'm concerned, is patently ridiculous. They should be able to play for us (if they even want to, of course) AND be paid for it despite their contractual status.

    In other words, the current contracts system looks like it has backfired to me. More like jobs for the old guard rather than support the best of our players and get who we need most playing for us. The whole system needs an urgent and complete review. I deliberately avoid use of the term "top-down" as I think that's part of the problem. The review should be done independent of the ECB individuals who implemented the system in the first place ideally, but there's probably not much chance of that.

    Not to point to anyone specifically, but Heather Knight for example can't be immune to losing her contract (for her very moderate performances lately) simply because she's supposed to be our vice captain. Call it getting "sacked" if you want to, but if she was dropped, in reality there's nothing to stop her coming back into the fold at a later date. The barriers are largely imaginary and could be easily overcome with a bit of bright thinking. Hell, I'd pay some sponsorship money myself if I knew the ECB would use it for an "ongoing player support fund" or some such thing.

    We need to innovate and think outside the box. We should be out scouting in West Indies, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa for any promising young players with parentage that would permit them to play for us. England's men's team have done pretty well over the past 10 years on the backs of players who could have played for South Africa. It's unlikely there are no girls in the same boat.

    Instead though I suspect England will stick with largely the same bunch, and try to make the best of this bad situation. But they will struggle against Southern Stars in the T20 I fear, with the poorly chosen warm up games on top of all the other problems of form and confidence. It would be great to win at least one more game and maybe there is a slight chance of that, we can only hope.

  4. Agreed the batting looked technically inept not because they are incapable as we have all seen them bat well, but presumably because of a lack of confidence (excepting Brunt of course). The key question is of course why? My opinion is that they simply play too little competitive cricket. The Counties only play 8 games and a smattering of T20s often without their England players anyhow. Premier women’s club cricket is a hit and miss affair with regards to quality and not taken seriously by most of the England and Academy players. Playing at an appropriate level in men’s leagues seems to be frowned upon. Just playing a lot of cricket hardens a player to the pressure of being in the middle and having to perform and enables them to conquer their demons in order to produce their best. No amount of nets, tactical meetings, strength and fitness etc. etc. can replace PLAYING.
    ECB seem to have taken the model used for the men and applied it to the professional women. It is based upon the assumption that they are fully accomplished players whose skills can be improved by hot housing them at Loughborough. Mistake! Mostly the men are hardened professionals with extensive first class competitive cricket under their belt unfortunately the women lack that experience. So any solution should include greater emphasis on playing meaningful competitive cricket. Where performance is looked at and critically assessed by selectors and used as the basis of selection for the honour of playing for England. The England and Academy players should have to fight for their places at the top of the tree by pitting their skills against the best of the rest knowing all the time that they are being watched and evaluated so that when they finally do go in to bat against Australia they are tough, resolute and know how to control their demons.

    1. I have to agree with the basic tenets of your argument but I only wish the England players did play 8 county games (50-over) each season. I would carry your argument further and say the schedule should allow - indeed enforce - the contracted players to play at county (and perhaps at club as well as is common in Australia) throughout the season. Frequently England 'stars' are either training or being 'rested' when these fixtures occur. The lack of EWA players is also becoming apparent in county sides, making the grass roots situation, the basis of the pyramid for finding new players, even worse. Now they are often 'resting' having, in some cases at least, played less cricket than their predecessors.

      I wrote on my blog many years ago when the Loughborough scenario went into full swing that there was the risk of 11 fit players who couldn't play cricket. Judging from the number of injuries I was wrong on at least one point - and that, of course, is that they are not as fit for cricket as they should be. How do we get them fit for cricket? I'm with you - get them playing more cricket and spending less time in the gym! This will not just improve their cricketing skills - it'll will get them fitter! The only way to Carnegie Hall is to keep playing! And this is especially true for batsmen which is the department in some disarray in the current England set-up.

      Your use of UPPER CASE for PLAYING is indeed at the core of England's problems. There is nothing that can replace it.

  5. Many a good point made by CricketDad...