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The team environment is, in victory or defeat, now more relaxed and, as a consequence, the players are more likely to produce their best form
August 18, 2014
'Moeen Ali's bowling a huge positive'
There was an interesting insight into the mood of the England squad during a press conference at The Ageas Bowl.
Perhaps because it was a final question, perhaps because it was almost dismissed as an after-thought, Peter Moores, the England coach, provided an answer that, on reflection, may well have had greater significance than it appeared at the time.
Asked if England had hit rock bottom after defeat to India in the second Investec Test at Lord's, Moores replied: "Who knows what rock bottom is? But it is probably not losing a cricket match."
Contrast that with a question put to Andy Flower towards the end of the Ashes series in Australia. Asked whether the England camp was "happy", Flower looked quizzical and replied something along the lines of "I'm not sure that is relevant. But there is a positive working environment, yes."
While it might be unwise to draw too many conclusions from such scant evidence, it does support the sense of recent weeks that, after many months of building pressure and impending doom under Flower's leadership, the arrival of Moores has acted like a breath of fresh air. Defeat is no longer a disaster. Victory is no longer the ultimate. The England team environment is, in victory or defeat, now more relaxed and, as a consequence, the players are more likely to produce their best form.
Such an interpretation is harsh on Flower. No coach, with the possible exception of Duncan Fletcher, has ever provided so much to an England team and his role in taking England to No. 1 in all formats, to the regular Ashes wins and a first global trophy, should never be underestimated. England owe him a great deal and Moores would be the first to credit him.
But, along with many others in and around the squad, something changed in Flower towards the end of the Ashes. Bent out of shape by disappointment and worry and weariness, the smile was replaced with a grimace, the light touch was replaced by an iron grip and joy in the squad was replaced with anxiety and fear. The desire to win, or at least not lose, was stifling. The desire to control limited any expression or movement.
New players felt paralysed in the environment. Old ones felt exhausted. The sight of the team forced into a punishing - and yes, that is the right word - fitness session in the heat of Sydney two days before the final Test, said it all. Flower had nothing left to offer but hard work and fierce determination. They are not, by any means, bad qualities. But they are not enough. All the subtly had been lost. England were all stick and no carrot.
It is not that Moores will work the squad any less hard. They will still be obliged to improve their fitness and their skills. They will still be challenged. And they will continue to miss Flower's advice and insight.
But, over the course of seven Tests this summer, we have seen a new spirit emerge in the England team. We have seen a team in which inexperienced international players - the likes of Chris Jordan, Liam Plunkett, Gary Ballance and Moeen Ali - are made to feel comfortable - compare it with the experience of Boyd Rankin or Simon Kerrigan - a team where the spirit of the new players had lifted the spirit of the older, more jaded players, where players have been allowed to settle in and, over time, start to perform to somewhere near the best of their ability. All that reflects well on the environment around the squad.
More than that, though, we have seen Alastair Cook begin to grow as a leader. We saw a man who started to trust his less experienced bowlers and spare his more experienced ones. And, more importantly, we saw a man who dealt with extreme pressure with a great deal of determination, a phlegmatic attitude and more than a little dignity.
Yes, he slipped up occasionally. But many would have snapped back far more forcibly at the likes of Shane Warne and Piers Morgan. And, in the moment of victory, he was graceful and generous to his beaten opponents and successful team. His batting might still be a concern, but he was, in leadership terms, increasingly impressive.
Perhaps the influence of Moores was important here, too. With Moores gently encouraging but allowing the players to develop in their own way, Cook has been able to find his voice as captain. Flower was wonderful. But he cast a large shadow. And not much grows in the shadows.
Flower, of course, is not the only man to leave the England dressing room in recent times. Kevin Pietersen has been another high profile departure and some might argue that it is his absence, more than Flower's which has contributed to the partial revival.
Either way, it was interesting to hear Moores play down his own part in England series win and mention Cook's "humility" as a key ingredient in his development as captain.
"Alastair has the No. 1 quality that anyone needs to get better quickly," Moores said. "And that is humility. When he's been successful, he still wants to get better and learn. Now as long as he is in that position - and I can't see it ever changing - he is going to grow quickly.
"One person doesn't change an environment, so credit goes to everyone involved. That includes the coaches, like assistant Paul Farbrace and fast-bowling coach David Saker, but it's mainly about the players.
"They come under pressure during the Tests. But led by Alastair Cook, how they have handled themselves has a huge effect on each other. We've seen all through the summer young and less experienced players coming in and doing well at different times, which is great. In the second half we've seen the merging of a team where the senior and the less experienced players have come together to find a way of playing and create some pressure on the opposition.
"It's too early to say that this is going to be our Ashes XI. But we are very pleased with their development as a team. With the XI we have at the moment, we have forged a very tight bond and a way of playing.
"I don't expect anyone to write us up as the best in the world. We're still at the start of the journey."
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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