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Let’s face it: England are simply not good at cricket

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Roar Guru
4th January, 2022
45

Much has rightly been said of England’s almost treasonous capitulation on the morning of day 3 in Melbourne.

It seems to finally have been the violent jolt the English needed for some serious introspection as to why the cricket team is so poor right now, and what – if anything – can be done in the short, medium and long term to bring a glimmer of hope back to the fans.

We’ve seen that one short-term solution will be the inevitable (and wholly deserved) sacking of the coach, Chris Silverwood. England would have lost the Tests under a different coach, but Silverwood ensured they were humiliated.

His ability to read a pitch is poorer than my ability to read War and Peace in Russian. Giving him sole selection powers may have been one of the worst decisions made by any cricket board. Ever.

Some medium-term solutions seem to lie with backing in some players in the Test format in the hope that they will have the confidence to succeed long term. Ollie Robinson is an example of such thinking.

Ollie Robinson of England bowls

Ollie Robinson (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

And we’ve heard multiple suggestions about what to do in the long term. Reform the County cricket comp, scrap The Hundred, deprioritise white-ball cricket at both the domestic and international levels, become vastly more egalitarian and start casting the net beyond the private schools and the academies etc.

All are good suggestions, and all should be implemented, but I’m afraid we aren’t going to see the fruits of that labor for two to three decade, at least.

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Why? Because there is a bigger problem.

The problem is that England are not good at cricket, and – importantly – don’t particularly care. That’s not meant to offend or be provocative. It’s simply a statement of fact. England are not good at cricket, and they haven’t been for a very long time, probably not since the interwar period.

And this shouldn’t be a surprise.

There have been blips of success for England, however, when you look at their wider record, these are more anomalies, or blessings of exceptional luck and circumstance, rather than any record of long-term high performance.

Take the famed 2010-2011 Ashes heist in Australia. They came with one of the best English XIs (or South African, depending on your view) assembled. But it was luck – not any system – that won them the Ashes. Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, and Matt Prior were all in career best form.

Trott, in hindsight, timed his run perfectly. He never played anywhere near that well again. For the first time, in a long time, England were able to put runs, lots and lots of runs, on the board. On the bowling front, Steven Finn and Chris Tremlett provided excellent change options and took wickets. Graeme Swann was competent.

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They also caught Australia in a low. Ricky Ponting was horribly out of form, the hunt was still on for a Shane Warne replacement, and an Adam Gilchrist replacement, and at least one opener and a fast bowler.

It was luck that all these very good players (and Kevin Pietersen) all played together at the same time against a sub-par Australia. And as we saw only a few years later, that all it took was for one or two to retire, be injured or get into dreadful form, and be confronted with an Australia back on the rise, and England fell apart.

Kevin Pietersen of England hits out

Kevin Pietersen (Photo by Tom Shaw/Getty Images)

4-1, 5-0, 5-0, 4-0 are the results of the Australian Ashes series on either side of the 2010-11 series. Those results are the true reflection of modern English cricket.

You can say the same in the ’80s. England were better than average because they had Ian Botham, who was a freak outlier, playing for them. And Graham Gooch. And Bob Willis. Take these players away, and then England in the ’80s would be England in the ’90s: the actual reflection of English cricket. Poor and ordinary.

To be fair, this is not to exclusively crack at England. All teams in all sports have those little anomalous blips where they become extremely good (or, at least, a lot better than normal) because of a couple of diamonds in the rough.

Pakistan in the ’80s and ’90s are a classic example. The West Indies, too… once the last of the great bowlers left the game, they dropped precipitously quick and basically returned to what they were: a team not particularly good at cricket but with a proud history of producing the odd gem.

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If I was a New Zealand fan, I’d be getting pretty worried about what happens when Kane Williamson, Trent Boult, Tim Southee, Neil Wagner and Ross Taylor all depart the game in the next three to five years. The system didn’t produce them. They – particularly Williamson – are freak anomalies for NZ. Like Richard Hadlee, or Crowe.

Away from cricket, take a look at football in Australia. The Australian football team reached their peak in the mid 2000s because you had the freak alignment of the greatest to play the game for Australia all playing at the same time.

Mark Viduka, Lucas Neill, Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill, Brett Emerton, Mark Schwarzer (I’m sure I’ve forgotten a couple) all playing at the same time.

Mark Viduka attends a press conference

(Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Sure, we weren’t going to be winning any World Cups, but we won World Cup matches, and for 94 minutes held Italy to 0-0. We were competitive and gave the powerhouses a good match. But once these players went, Australia went south, fast.

We’ve still got high participation rates, a cogent national league, the odd talent still making their way to top-flight Euro leagues, but genuinely struggling to qualify for World Cups, let alone win matches in them now. We’re just not good at football.

Basically, Australia to football is England to cricket. High participation rates, national leagues, but no results.

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A country can love a sport, and can have high participation rates, but it doesn’t make them good.

China is football-mad. And basketball-mad, too. I have spent considerable time living in China in a variety of capacities (gap year, uni student, professional employee). I’m frequently amazed by their love for these two sports. They devour the stuff.

The NBA and all the European football leagues chased the Chinese coin hard. Kids by the millions are playing football and basketball in the streets, the schools, the universities etc. Yet, they can’t find 11 players to look vaguely competent on a football field in the national kit.

The only World Cup they ever made was when Japan and Korea hosted, and thus opened up more spots for Asian teams in that one event. They haven’t come close since.

You can say the same for any other SE Asian nation. Football-mad. But hopeless. No academy, no league, no zillion dollar marquee Euro has-been signing, is going to change that any time soon. They just aren’t good at football.

English cricket basically slots into these examples. While it’s not the national sport, it is still loved and followed by many. Test cricket sells seats there. But they aren’t much good at it.

Ben Stokes and Joe Root.

Are England just no good at cricket? (Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

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Their successful periods have been due to freak alignments of talent coming together at the same time, not because of any entrenched pipeline that continually churns out good cricketers. For that pipeline to work, the country needed to have set that up decades ago, and needed to have had a good base of stock to start it.

England, unfortunately had neither. As Test cricket expanded across the world, they grossly underestimate the playing capabilities of other nations, and have struggled to catch up. India, for all their love of cricket, and the billions of players at their disposal, have only now become a team that will be competitive most anywhere.

But beyond pathways, academies, quality domestic leagues… there is still something thing needed to make a team good: national desire.

England (and other countries in the same boat) will also need the desire to want to be good. While the country does enjoy cricket, they don’t seem to be too fussed either way whether or not they ever get good at cricket again, certainly not like the emotional investment held in the football team.

For a country to be good at a sport, the country has to emotionally care. They absolutely do with football, but they just don’t with the cricket.

Look at New Zealand with rugby. It means everything to the national psyche for the All Blacks to not just be good, but to also be competitive even when losing. The New Zealand public does not tolerate a mediocre All Blacks side. The All Blacks consequently never get belted.

Beauden Barrett of New Zealand celebrates scoring his sides sixth try during the Autumn International match between Wales and New Zealand at Principality Stadium on October 30, 2021 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

(Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

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It is unacceptable for England to lose badly in football. Coaches get sacked, national reviews take place (look at the reaction when they lost to Iceland in the 2016 Euros). It’s not the same for English cricket. It takes years and years of underperformance to even consider a change is needed. The public is far more tolerant of English cricket mediocrity than football mediocrity.

The islands of the West Indies have long stopped caring about whether the team is any good… so the team just trolleys along as mediocre with the odd win here or there. Losing by an innings was a Caribbean catastrophe in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Now, it’s a shrug of the shoulders and move on.

It’s why China, despite the love for the game, is useless at football. The public yet don’t see it as important to the national identity for the national team to be good. Therefore, there isn’t yet the incentive for anyone there to do any better than pick up the pay cheque.

It’s a different story in for Australian cricket. We have to be good. We’ve had patches of sustained long-term dominance brought about by the alignment of freak talent. The parents of Warne, Glenn McGrath, Gilchrist and Ponting should be Abbott-knighted for having the good sense to breed at around the same time.

Shane Warne is seen ahead of the Big Bash League match between the Melbourne Renegades and the Melbourne Stars at Marvel Stadium on January 10, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

But when they all left the team, or the powers started to fade (in Ponting’s case), Australia slipped from the dominant perch it held. However, the difference was that, while Australia started losing, they remained (except for that Ashes anomaly in 2010-11) competitive. The public still invests a lot of emotion in expecting the team to do well. It must never, ever be a pushover, particularly at home.

Even what appear to be drubbings on paper in India are actually extremely competitive matches when you delve a bit deeper into the scorecards. If Ponting could have kept a better eye on the over rate in 2008, Australia would have squared that series. Australian teams have scored 400-plus innings scores in India more than any other touring team in the past 20 years.

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So, therefore, even when confronted with a less-than-good Australian teams, oppositions still have to play out their skin to beat Australia. It took the best South African XI ever assembled to do it here. Everything had to go right for India, too. It took extremely great once in a generation teams like Pakistan and the West Indies to beat them.

And Australia are still, at the very least, competitive abroad. England may have won the Ashes a few times in England on the trot, but they didn’t get 4-0 or 5-0 scorelines – 2-1, 2-1, 3-2 etc. Even their 3-0 scoreline is deceptive. One big win, but two tight wins. Australia made them earn it.

India may beat Australia frequently in India, but rarely do they flog Australia. Only when the pitch turns square on day one do they trample the Aussies.

Australia are a good cricket team. Always have been. The country expects them to be, and has expected them to be long before Australia became a federation.

Australian troughs last a couple of years, at most. Good teams in any sport don’t stay down for long.

However, poor teams are the inverse. Short peaks of triumph, with long periods of mediocrity either side is the defining characteristic of a team that is consistently poor at something. And the English fit this mould neatly.

For sure, a good domestic set up, academies, better (and open) talent identification will help a team rise from occasional moment of glory to being a generationally sustained better team, but the ultimate ingredient – in my opinion – is the national desire for the team to be good.

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It exists in NZ with rugby. That little country is disproportionately good at rugby because it means everything to the country to be good at it. It’s the case for Australia with the cricket. Pick any major European country with football and it’s the same. The German public expects nothing less than semi-final appearances in World Cups, otherwise it’s cause for an immediate review.

England are a poor cricket team, and they’ve been a poor cricket team for 70-80 years. They started becoming poor in the ’50s, and that slide has continued to this day, with the occasional blip of short-term high performance: series wins in India, a World Cup, a heist in Australia. In between all that is some spectacular mediocrity.

While all the changes being mooted by him and her do need to be implemented, England need to have a collective national shift in how they view their team and the standards expected of them. Otherwise, I think they’re going to remain a poor team for many more generations.

Of course, they’ll probably win the fourth Test just to prove me wrong!

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