July 25, 2013

What can Australia learn from English cricket?

Australians are worrying about the state of cricket in their country. We in England know the drill

The ECB deserves credit for developing Joe Root's career, but so do the coaches in his club, his age-group sides, and his county © Getty Images

For England fans who suffered the many humiliations that were heaped upon their team during the 1990s there's an uncomfortable familiarity to be found in the current state of Australian cricket. It's not just the sight of supporters enduring defeats, dashed hopes and sleepless nights as they watch yet another batting collapse on the other side of the world; unhappy memories are also revived by the spectacle of a nation's media and cricket administration looping round to chew over the same systematic failures one more time.

For much of its recent history English cricket has endured its own multiple post-mortems, two decades or more of navel-gazing, finger-pointing, and knee-jerking. We see your Cricket Australia Argus Review and we raise you the ECB Schofield Report. We see your debates over grass-roots participation and we trump them with endless post-series self-flagellation. When it comes to worrying about the state of your national game, England has Australia beaten once again.

For English cricket, contemplating change is a never-ending process. Whatever success the national side might achieve, there will still be attempts to tweak the domestic structure just one more time. Even the potential for back-to-back Ashes series wins is unlikely to stop the annual collective supporter face-palm that occurs as yet another set of proposed changes emerges from the ECB.

Yet many of the systematic problems that bedevilled English cricket were resolved at the start of the millennium. The introduction of a two-tier County Championship eliminated much of the meaningless domestic cricket played towards the end of the summer by lower-table teams with nothing to compete for but pride. Central contracts were brought in to give the national set-up control over the amount of cricket the top players were exposed to, and developmental squads introduced to provide extra coaching and overseas experience to those identified with the potential for an international career.

The most obvious current example of how those changes have benefited the English game is Joe Root. He's certainly become an unwitting stick to beat Australian cricket with. The runs he has scored this summer are held up as an example of the patience, temperament and technique said to be missing from his young Australian counterparts. His every success was waved in Australian faces as confirmation of how the England set-up has got things right. It's that odd mix of outward arrogance that ours is the road to follow and perpetual inner self-doubt that we might actually be in terminal decline that marks out much of British sport. And much of British life, if we're honest.

It's certainly true that the ECB deserves credit for developing Root's career. He was identified at an early age, coached and monitored ever since, and the experience gained since he entered the full England set-up has seen his game improve at a remarkable rate. In Root's case the system appears to be working well.

Read some media coverage of the Ashes and you could be forgiven for thinking that the national set-up was solely responsible for that success, that the ECB found Root under a gooseberry bush and raised him from infancy for greatness. But that would be disrespectful to the work done by coaches at his club, Sheffield Collegiate; the Yorkshire Cricket Board, which run the region's various age-group sides; and his county team, Yorkshire CCC.

For all the specialised coaching the ECB occasionally provides, it's the week-in week-out work of people lower down in the system that set a player up for success. Root is an example of central coaching working as a complement to that provided by those toiling far away from the headlines. It was work that lasted many years before he was deemed ready to take part in England's competitive two-tier County Championship, work that has allowed Root to take advantage of the changes made by English cricket back at the start of the millennium.

Those changes might not be the ones needed by Australia; different countries with different cultures and different demographics are unlikely to find a one-size solution that fits all. If Australia can learn anything from English cricket it's not from the specific changes that were made, more the general principle that not only do all the various layers of a cricket structure have to be strong, they have to be working in the same direction.

As Australian cricket goes through its own process of navel-gazing and self-flagellation, the solution to their problems is unlikely to be found in better team selection or tweaks to individual batting technique. It's more likely to come from providing a system that better exploits the hard work already being done by those toiling far away from the headlines in grade cricket and the Sheffield Shield.

Dave Hawksworth has never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses