Atherton backs in new skipper in ‘reboot’ of English cricket
Former great Michael Atherton has urged his beloved England to instill Ben Stokes as captain, as part of a detailed plan to ‘reboot’ the currently floundering Test team.
Writing in The Times, Atherton has called for a drastic shake-up to both England Cricket’s personnel and its list of priorities, in a savage response to the team’s unassailable 3-0 series deficit in the ongoing Ashes.
“The administrators [have] taken their eye off the red-ball, first-class game,” Atherton wrote.
“This gruesome Ashes series — the worst I have covered as a journalist — has come at a bad time, the sport having gone through a gruelling 12 months, with division and rancour seemingly everywhere.
“Changes are afoot within the game’s governing body and debate rages over the structure of the professional game. Below that water line, the weeds become more tangled, and the question of whether the game is attracting talent from a broad enough base is a chapter, rather than a column, in itself.”
Chief among Atherton’s recommended remedies is the replacement of Joe Root as captain, whose leadership has come under fire this series despite being the leading run-scorer on either side.
“Root has been a good England captain, and has always carried himself superbly and is an incredible ambassador for the sport, but having done the job for five years and having had three cracks at the Ashes, including two awful campaigns in Australia, it is time for someone else to have a go,” Atherton opined.
“For all the discussion around systemic change, this could have been a much closer series had Root got things right on the field.
“These errors have made a good Australian side look much better than they are.”
Atherton’s top choice for the new skipper is Ben Stokes, who stood in for Root during the Adelaide Test when he was recovering from a blow to the groin before play, and captained England in a Test against the West Indies in 2020 with Root unavailable.
According to Atherton, Stokes’ waning powers with the ball, and his questionable place in England’s T20I team moving forward, relieves the pressure on him enough to allow him to lead.
“His [Stokes’] bowling is starting to wind down, and, as he may not get into England’s best T20 side now, he can be given a breather during those matches,” Atherton wrote.
Atherton also believes there is ‘no way’ coach Chris Silverwood can survive the series. He has called for England to look abroad for his replacement, the better to bring fresh ideas into the nation’s cricket program; while also splitting the role between red- and white-ball cricket.
“Splitting the job… should allow England to choose from a greater talent pool, and should allow for coaches, in a very condensed and busy schedule, to rest and recharge in between engagements and plan more effectively for them,” Atherton wrote.
“Names? There are many, no doubt, with good credentials: Gary Kirsten, Andy Flower (again), Andrew McDonald, Greg Shipperd, Graham Ford, Jason Gillespie, Mahela Jayawardene, Paul Collingwood, Stephen Fleming, and Justin Langer may become available soon.
“The list could go on and on, but a pair of proven coaches with broad-based experience would be sought.
“A tip? The best coaches often come with a teaching link somewhere in their background. To listen to Eddie Jones, England rugby union head coach, recently in a newspaper interview, and having interviewed him in the winter, was to witness curiosity, sparkle, energy and drive. All sadly lacking right now.”
Atherton also urged England to take a leaf out of Australia’s book, and use their rivals’ Kookaburra ball at lower levels. Australia have used the English Duke ball across occasional Sheffield Shield rounds in recent years.
“There is no doubt that specific attention must be given to winning in Australia. Lions Tests there are vital,” Atherton wrote.
“If there is a push to use the Kookaburra ball in England, then it should be limited to the North v South, Best v Rest, Lions games that should be used as a bridge between the county and Test game.”
Australia urged to think outside the box for Head replacement
Australia’s having already wrapped up the Ashes with two Tests to spare should encourage selectors to be ‘brave’ in picking Travis Head’s replacement for the New Year’s Test, according to former Test wicketkeeper Brad Haddin.
Head’s unavailability for Sydney after testing positive to COVID-19 will force the Aussies to make at least one change for the match, with backup batter Usman Khawaja appearing the frontrunner.
However, while Haddin admits the Queenslander is the ‘obvious’ choice to step in, he has urged selectors to get creative and try some new combinations, with the urn off the table.
Top of his list is all-rounder Mitchell Marsh, who has been added to the Test squad as a precautionary measure, alongside Nic Maddinson and Josh Inglis, in case more COVID cases emerge.
“You’d then have two-allrounders, two fast bowlers and two spinners,” Haddin said on Fox Cricket of picking Marsh and adding to his 32 Tests.
Marsh scored two centuries in just three Tests on England’s last tour of Australia in 2017-18, including a ton on the SCG itself. However, a Test average of just 25.20 would make him a seriously risky choice to replace the red-hot Head at number five in the batting order, especially with Cameron Green and Alex Carey yet to truly find their feet at numbers six and seven.
However, Haddin believes the move would finally allow Australia to hand leg-spinner Mitchell Swepson a Test debut, ahead of three subcontinental tours in 2022 where he will almost certainly be needed.
The regained form of Nathan Lyon this series would enable Swepson to make a pressure-free entry into Test cricket, rather than being thrown right into the firing line against Pakistan, Sri Lanka or India later this year.
“Nathan Lyon can take all the pressure overs,” Haddin said.
“Swepson can come in and knock the tail over and (do) what a leg-spinner is needed to do.”
According to fellow leg-spinner turned popular commentator, Kerry O’Keeffe, seeing what Swepson is capable of at the highest level is a must.
“We’ve got to find out about Mitch Swepson,” O’Keeffe said.
“He’s been on the pine for how many years? We’ve got to know whether he’s the number two because there’s new challengers, like Matt Kuhnemann – left-arm orthodox.
“We’re going to the subcontinent. Who do you take? Do you take the ‘wristy’ who needs bounce, or the left-arm ‘ortho’ who’s precise, like Steve O’Keefe, who has success there?”
Ashes mauling could ‘kick-start’ England young guns: batting coach
England batting coach and former player Graham Thorpe believes their humbling series loss to Australia could be the start of something special for their embattled crop of batters.
Derided as one of the worst ever English teams to tour Australia, the visitors’ batting woes plumbed new depths in Melbourne, where they were bowled out in the second innings for 68 to lose by an innings, despite their bowlers restricting the hosts to 267.
Thorpe, who takes the reins as senior coach in Sydney with Chris Silverwood forced to isolate in Melbourne after being named a close contact, believes the embarrassment could serve as a ‘wake-up call’ to batters about the work rate required to stand up at the highest level.
“We are trying to still educate some of the younger guys into… the rhythm of Test match batting, playing situations in the game, doing it for long periods of time,” Thorpe said.
“Some of them haven’t been able to do it yet. Some people’s journeys are in different places.
“With some players it’s a wake-up call and could actually kick-start their careers because they’ve started training in a very, very different way. They don’t waste time fluffing, hitting half-volleys.
“They’ve come up against some very good bowling attacks, who have been able to have a little watch of them and see where some of their Achilles heels are – and they’re having to face that reality.”
Thorpe pointed to the careers of Steve Smith and David Warner, who he worked with a decade ago as part of NSW’s coaching set-up, as proof of how much evolution and learning is required on an individual level to succeed in Test cricket.
“People like Davey and Steve, seeing them when they were younger, they were not cut out the way they are now and and some of our players need to understand that,” he said.
“Players have to work out where they want to get to and the hard work needed.”