August 1, 2012

How did England go from great to godawful?

It's a disease that afflicts all teams these days - of too much cricket and too much travel

In their last 800 minutes in the field, England have taken one international wicket - Graeme Smith for 131. (Smith's form, by the way, is eerily reminiscent of 2003 - if you'd been asleep for nine years, you might think Smith had taken up permanent residence in an English batting crease). England begin the second Test in Leeds tomorrow wondering what it must feel like to see two South African batsmen get out in the same day.

How quickly things change. Three weeks ago England reduced Australia to 96 for 6 in the ODI at Chester-le-Street, another blow in a crushing 4-0 demolition. England's problem in those happier times was not taking wickets, it was working out which of their battery of fast bowlers to leave out. England have gone from an embarrassment of riches to a crisis of confidence - all in under a month.

How can any team suffer such a rapid reversal of form and fortunes? The usual explanations will be offered - selection, tactics, over-confidence, under-confidence, and so on. But there is a fundamental underlying explanation for such huge fluctuations in the form and momentum of international teams, and it applies to every team in the modern era. Everyone plays too much cricket.

Today's players go on more tours, check into more hotels, catch more flights and play more cricket matches than any players in history. The IPL and new pop-up T20 leagues mean that top players often exploit commercial opportunities during gaps in the international calendar. Every international team, to a greater or lesser extent, is jaded and exhausted.

Here is the crucial point: systemic tiredness, spread across all international teams, leads to innate volatility. Imagine a cricket match as an arm-wrestle. Two perfectly fresh and well-prepared teams will compete somewhere near equilibrium point for a much longer period before one side gradually forces its opponent into submission. A contest between two tired teams, though they are trying just as hard, will end much more quickly and decisively.

When I played county cricket, I learnt that matches taking place at the end of the season were different. It wasn't that players didn't try as hard or care as much. The difference was more subtle. What really changed at the end of the season was the degree of resilience within teams. Suffering from the long-term tiredness that is inevitable at the end of a season, teams found it harder to mount a sustained comeback if they fell behind in the match. As a result, if you could gain a dominant lead in the match early on, your position quickly became impregnable. As a batsman, I learnt that there were opportunities for big scores at the end of the season: if you could get in, then the opposition quickly melted away. It wasn't that they stopped trying. They simply had depleted physical and psychological resources to draw upon.

The gruelling, drawn-out nature of a county season has repercussions for coaching and leadership. The most important skill for a successful county coach is not technical expertise or even tactical nous. It is knowing how to manage a team's workload. "I'm not really a coach at all," one county coach put it to me. "There is no time to coach in the English county season. I'm a manager."

It was once hoped that county cricket would evolve to be more like Test cricket - with long periods of rest and recuperation, sufficient preparation and then intense battle on the pitch. Instead, international cricket has evolved to be more like county cricket - a never-ending round of travelling, patching up injuries on the road and calling up replacements.

The "county treadmill" is defined by motorways and suburban hotels; modern international cricket is defined by airports and five-star luxury. But the underlying truth is the same. There is too much cricket, too much travel, insufficient time and space to "gather" - physically and psychologically - for the game ahead. In terms of atmosphere and physical exhaustion, modern Test cricket is played in an almost perpetual end of season.

Nor can teams simply take more time off. There is a base level of preparation that is essential to compete well. Australia were hampered in England by a wet spring and too little cricket. They were undercooked. But if they had extended their tour to guard against such pitfalls - given all the other commitments their players face - they would have become jaded.

When you play too much cricket, those are the recurrent facts of life: a constant search for a happy medium between underprepared and over-tired.

There is too much cricket, too much travel, insufficient time and space to "gather" for the game ahead. In terms of atmosphere and physical exhaustion, modern Test cricket is played in an almost perpetual end of season

The result is wild lurches in form: England smashed by Pakistan in the Tests in UAE, Australia dismantled in England in the ODIs, England humiliated at The Oval.

Say what you like about today's Test cricket but it certainly isn't predictable.


What is Kevin Pietersen going to do next?

I have followed Pietersen's career closely. We were almost exact contemporaries, and I was a member of the 2003-04 England A team in which Pietersen played his first representative cricket. I'd just been dropped by England. He was on the way up, about to break into the Test team.

I've rarely seen anyone bat with such total self-belief and ambition. His own mind was clear. There was only one possible destination: greatness. Everything else was mere detail.

When I got back to England, English journalists were eager to find fault with his technique and his personality. "You'd surely agree," one leading cricket writer said to me, "that he won't be able to make Test runs with that leg-side technique?" I remember seeing it very differently and replied: "People who are waiting for Pietersen to fail will have a long wait ahead of them."

And they have certainly waited patiently. But Pietersen's departure from the England T20 team was interpreted as misjudged and ill-timed. And now, even though he is far from being in bad form with the bat, there is a general sense that he owes England something special.

He has been here before. Before the last Test of the 2005 Ashes, there was a sense that Pietersen had to back up his evident self-confidence with some on-field performances. He made 158 and secured the Ashes. In Sri Lanka last winter, when he needed a big score to salvage the tour, he won the second Test almost single-handed.

Pietersen has always lived perilously close to hubris. But where other players would think, "Ah, here comes the moment when I trip up", Pietersen covets boxing himself into a corner. Many players find the pressure of "having" to perform a terrible burden. But Pietersen often produces his very best when the options narrow to "score runs or else…"

Just as well. Because England need him now.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is out now. His Twitter feed is here