February 2, 2014

Do support staff really make a difference?

If it ultimately comes down to the athlete's skill, then maybe it's time to dispense with the big crews that accompany teams these days

Was Boyd Rankin prepared for his Test debut from both a fitness and bowling perspective? © Getty Images

Following up on my most recent piece, questioning whether there is a correlation between central contracts, large support staff and less durable cricketers, I am prepared to go one step further and allege that professional cricket teams (and many male professional team sports) are caught in a trap of their own making with regards to the size, cost, and lack of performance dividends, of their support crew.

Watching the Australian Open tennis, played with cool tempers amid scorching heat, I now lean towards the belief that cricketers are nowhere near as fit or robust as tennis athletes. Or perhaps it would be truer to say they are not allowed to showcase their robustness. That is the curse of the professional team environment, dogged by an army of support staff who need to justify their own existence, as opposed to an individual athlete answering only to himself and therefore less inclined to cotton-wool himself.

These enforced periods of rest may not necessarily be at the bowler's request. It may well be at the behest of all those support staff and a top-heavy bureaucracy that needs to justify its existence. And what is the return on investment on this staff?

Consider England's ridiculous travelling circus, replete with menus, their own net bowlers and their own bowling machines. How exactly did they "prepare" Boyd Rankin for his debut Test, from a fitness perspective (cramps after a few overs) or in a bowling sense (unable to bowl with any great pace or to even bowl a consistent line and length)? What is their explanation for Steven Finn being in their care for three months and eventually being sent home with more problems than when the tour began, despite having nothing else to do for ten weeks other than to work on his bowling?

Some will argue that both Finn and Rankin's abject bowling performances are squarely down to the bowlers themselves and not the fault of the coaches, conditioners, physiotherapists, nutritionists and bag carriers. Fair enough too. That is an entirely valid argument, but if you subscribe to that logic, then the question must surely be posed: what use are all these other people anyway? If it ultimately comes down to the athlete having the skill (or not), then why not dispense with all the extra accessories? Clearly these staff, well-intentioned though they may be, cannot prepare a bowler to bowl properly in a real match, despite that being their sole role for nigh on three months. It's not like they have to fit it in around their jobs - this is their job!

They may argue, of course, that you can do all the net practice you like but it's not the same as bowling in a match. Again, fair enough. But if that is a known fact, then why bother with all the training sessions, centre-wicket practices, video analysis, massages and special diets? Clearly that adds very little to the mix, judging by the fact that Rankin was badly underprepared for his Test debut and Finn actually regressed to the point where he was "not selectable", having been in the care of these highly qualified professionals.

If players (and staff) who have nothing else to do but prepare themselves for on-field action with no expenses spared, turn up to play underprepared, where does the blame lie?

Why not just dispense with all the frills and have half a dozen bowlers playing club cricket in Australia and, when needed, select from that pool? They may only be training under no expert supervision in a suburban park under lights, with mosquitoes biting as they eat kebabs for dinner, but if that prepares them more adequately than the cosseting of the cloistered world they live in, then that surely is a better return on investment than being in the Team England camp.

On the flip side, James Faulkner's stunning batting at the Gabba suggests that in some cases it is possible to prepare someone to be match-ready despite time on the sidelines. Being the 12th man for much of the summer, with the odd Big Bash knock in between, seemed to have done him no harm. Until the inevitable injury after a few days at "work"!

Is the Australian set-up more efficient or was that just a coincidence? Darren Lehmann's refreshingly simple approach has an old-fashioned charm to it that rings authentic. Steve Rixon, the assistant coach, has just been deemed surplus to requirements. Lehmann at least appears to favour the "less is more" philosophy, and more power to him, I say.

Shaun Marsh's chronic injury concerns, almost Watson-eque in their frequency, appear to suggest that it is a global phenomenon. Marsh barely gets through a series without succumbing to some sort of soft-tissue injury (hamstring or calf), which indicates an ongoing problem that the medicos simply cannot get on top of. It can't be workload-related because he hasn't batted that much in first-class cricket this season judging by his position at 34th in the first-class run chart, so clearly the faith that John Inverarity keeps placing on him has very little to do with huge runs, superior fitness or an unblemished off-field record.

The excuse now is that he is now apparently in a "good space". That sort of message will do wonders for every other batsman's faith in the post-Argus Review era - the poor chaps were labouring under the misapprehension that scoring runs, staying fit and staying out of trouble were the criteria. No one told them that a poor fitness record, an equally poor disciplinary history and a paucity of runs are enough to put you in a good space in the eyes of selectors.

But I digress. If I was CEO of an international cricket body (or funding it), these are the questions I would be asking during the post-mortem of a disastrous campaign like England's Ashes tour. What is the point in having all these extra staff, equipment and plans if their preparation of Rankin, Finn and Chris Tremlett are any indication of the efficacy of this investment? If players (and staff) who have nothing else to do but prepare themselves for on-field action with no expenses spared, turn up to play so underprepared, where does the blame lie?

Perhaps if the ancillary staff were on performance contracts based on keeping players on the park, we might see a dramatic shift in their advice to keep resting players for no good reason. Stuart Broad proved that point - his return to the ODI side after a long rest was disappointing but as he bowled more overs and played more often, he bowled himself back into form.

Unless a player is actually injured, I remain unconvinced that forced rest aimed at preventing injury (when none exists) is producing a higher performing athlete, let alone a more durable one. So what's the upside apart from jobs for the boys?

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and is a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane