February 1, 2014

Flower power and the demise of the machines

Criticisms of an over-reliance on data will sting Andy Flower, who must discover the more human side of analysis if he is to successfully develop the leadership potential of England's next generation

It was in the news this week that an English neuroscientist and computer boffin had become a multi-millionaire after selling his company, Deep Mind, to Google. Demis Hassabis has been researching how to make computers behave like humans. The cruellest perception of Andy Flower as he reached the end of his reign as England's director of cricket was that he was approaching the problem the other way round.

The charge, although essentially unfair, is not as glib as it sounds. Michael Vaughan, an Ashes-winning captain, feels he has seen enough on England's Ashes tour to level it, suggesting that England's players were too weighed down by instructions to be able to play instinctive, proactive cricket, even wondering whether they had become "scared" of Flower. He also called them "robotic". In his view, it seems, this was the age of the machines.

Flower deserves the accolades he has received. Three Ashes victories, a World Twenty20 title, a win record over five years of Tests of 45% and brief spells ranked No. 1 in all formats of the game together justify the widespread assertion that he has been the most successful England coach in history.

It has also been a good thing to have such a deeply principled man in charge of England's cricket. The positive effect of his integrity on those around him is hard to measure (although you would not put it past the ECB to appoint an Integrity Measuring Assistant and give it a go) but it should not be underplayed.

The dedication and professionalism he had shown as a player was just as evident as a coach. When results turned against him, he worked ever harder. There was a lot of talk about how exhausted and joyless his team became. He probably became quite exhausted and joyless himself. But he would not relent. Even at the end, when he was accused of being too intense, his response was to suggest that he had not been intense enough.

As he considers whether he can have a fulfilling future within the ECB - he is right to ponder it because he is too driven to spend the rest of his working life as an apparatchik in an insubstantial role - the allegation that he became so obsessed with the minutiae of coaching that he lost the human touch will rankle with him.

For all that, history may well reflect that the big theme of Flower's reign was the growing tension between the strict coaching disciplines he adhered to and the need for free expression. Flower remains adamant that England's large support staff - the biggest in cricket history - was designed to enhance individual performance, not stifle it, but the experiment remains unproven.

One of the great advocates of the need in competitive sport for daily disciplines and marginal gains has been Dave Brailsford, performance director of the British cycling team. Anybody who watched Great Britain's rush of gold medals at the 2012 Olympics was liable to be converted to the philosophy. Flower was a disciple. He did little without purpose. If you wished him "good morning" you might imagine that he was already analysing how good a morning it was, and what elements would have to be introduced for it to remain so.

Praise of England's professional planning and search for the "extra one percent-ers" turned into criticism that an ability to think for themselves had become suffocated under a pile of data

But cricket is a more complex sport than cycling, with more imponderables, and the tension between a systematic approach and the somewhat conflicting need for freedom was thrown into even sharper focus the moment Australia appointed Darren Lehmann as coach. Lehmann's Australia responded to England's ordered, attritional game by encouraging attacking, aggressive cricket at every turn, keeping Australian spirits high with a basic philosophy of mateship, encouraging the entire nation to be brash in their desire to unsettle the tourists, and finding every opportunity to take England out of their comfort zone.

This achieved, there was a striking frailty about the way Flower's England, a team that had delivered a golden era, fell apart so quickly in Australia. When the pressure was on, and the data was turning redder by the week, their ability to think on their feet seemed to be lacking. Marginal gains gave way to considerable diminishment.

"Flower Power" originated in the 1960s in California as a peaceful protest against the Vietnam War. It became a general term for the hippie movement, an alternative lifestyle promoting the human condition in its loosest form: artistic and cultural experimentation, freedom of expression, as well as a suspicion of authority and prescriptive approaches to life. "Flower Power", English cricket style, seemed to be ruled by an opposite creed.

That creed was never more successful than when England trounced Australia on their own patch in 2010-11. It was to be the peak of Flower's England. They played energetic, skilful cricket, their mental strength was considerable, their fitness and fielding exemplary, their plans were thorough and well-executed. A subsequent Test series win in India was also reliant upon an appetite for well structured, grafting cricket.

Under his guidance, a very good England side reached its peak. Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen, Andrew Strauss and Ian Bell are in the top nine England Test century-makers of all time. Matt Prior became one of England's most successful batsman-keepers. James Anderson and Graeme Swann have been bowlers of world class.

Flower will no doubt reflect that accepted strengths in victory were routinely perceived as weaknesses during the defeats that followed. Praise of England's professional planning and search for the "extra one percent-ers" turned into criticism that an ability to think for themselves had become suffocated under a pile of data. He found such a charge illogical.

His regime has been praised as the most intellectually stimulating environment English cricket has ever known and it must have been educational to be involved in many of those discussions. But in the Australia dressing room, Lehmann was not overly concerned with intellectualism and, not for the first time, there was no denying the impact of his methods.

Lehmann refreshed Australia, whereas Flower had been slow to recognise the level to which England needed to be refreshed. While his knowledge of the set-up was detailed, while his appetite for self-improvement at coaching seminars and from coaching books was admirable, he was the second successive England coach of Southern African stock - Duncan Fletcher being the first - to be too divorced from the next generation of players seeking to make their way in the county game.

Flower's envisaged future role is to develop leadership skills in the next crop of England cricketers. Strauss had such skills in abundance and they served England well. As a partnership of equals, Flower's demanding nature and Strauss' softer emphasis on individual responsibility was ideal. When Cook succeeded Strauss, Flower's role naturally became more dominant. He was more intimidating than he realised. His determination to mould Cook, a cricketer of high integrity, into a great leader remained unfulfilled.

As Flower and the incoming managing director, Paul Downton, concluded that England were best served by one coach in charge of all three formats, and Flower concluded once more that he could no longer contemplate such a lifestyle, it would be his failure to oversee Cook's development into a captain of substance that would have most disturbed him. Unsurprisingly, Cook received his longest and most heartfelt explanation of why he felt he needed to stand down.

It would be no surprise if both Flower's recognition of Cook's qualities as a man, but also his limitations as a leader, is behind his hankering to improve such qualities in young English professionals largely cossetted from the outside world. But if Flower is to take up his role at the ECB as a leadership mentor for young English professionals, it is to be hoped that he opts not to do this purely in the sterile world of a Loughborough meeting room but also out on the cricket circuit, interacting with them in real situations.

Google, after all, want their data to feel more human. Flower could learn a little from their new "cybernetic friend".

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo

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