April 13, 2014

A five-point programme for English cricket

Neil Burns
A coach and former first-class cricketer outlines his vision for how to turn the game around in the UK

The Ashes debacle could prove to be a seminal moment in the history of English cricket's player development. And if the riches anticipated from the new ICC deal are invested wisely in developing quality English players from England to be brilliant human beings as well as top-class cricketers, the game will be in rude health for many years to come.

The new foundations being built must be stronger than before if sustained success is to be enjoyed.

Put simply, our game has been dominated by the influence of cricketers from Africa because our own decision-makers saw them as superior to English-born and raised cricketers.

The debate around the ECB and KP, while regrettable for both parties, is an unwelcome sideshow to the real issue emerging from England's humiliation in Australia. England were outfought, outwitted and outskilled in Australia, exposing the shortcomings of the English game. Worryingly, there seemed to be a lack of will as much as a lack of skill at certain points during the tour.

The prospective newfound wealth that will flow into the England board's coffers as a consequence of the recently announced ICC restructuring brokered by ECB chairman Giles Clarke offers a welcome resource. But money on its own isn't the answer. The stories of most sporting champions often reveal lives lived in humble surroundings, with limited facilities, but a peer learning group that fuels the ambition of the ones with the most hunger for success.

Learning creative skills and how best to optimise limited resources is better than being transported to a "perfect" training facility and a coaching session led by a qualified coach. The "teach yourself about yourself" philosophy still speaks loudly to all who aspire to become top performers

The answers are inside each person, and need to be accessed by the individuals themselves. Quality guidance helps shine a light on the way forward to enhance the learning concept of guided discovery, but ultimately the best individuals always find their own way to the top and learn to trust their own way of performing.

As I see it, there are three major issues affecting optimal player development in English cricket:

1. The Southern-Africanisation of county cricket.

2. The lack of British-Asian cricketers playing Test cricket successfully for England over a sustained period of time.

3. Young cricketers dropping out of the game once they come to think that their dreams of becoming a professional cricketer are unlikely to be fulfilled.

The England team has benefited from the excellence of Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott, and if the next outstanding young batsman is Gary Ballance, from Zimbabwe, or if Andrew Strauss' eventual replacement at the top of the batting order is his Middlesex replacement Sam Robson from Sydney, then it raises the question: where are the outstanding batsmen originating in England?

Joe Root looks an outstanding prospect and one hopes that his experience of a year of top-level cricket will have given him a deeper wisdom about his game at a tender age, but I wonder if his recent experiences may have a detrimental effect on his long-term development. It would be a great sadness if Root's career followed a path similar to those of two outstanding players of my era, Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash, both of whom promised greatness at entry level but ultimately failed to live up to expectations in Test cricket.

Put starkly, why aren't more batsmen from England (born and raised) playing with consistent success for England, and in county cricket?

I would like to advocate five key themes for serious consideration:

Keep the base of the pyramid wider for longer
More young cricketers must be given hope that they are not being excluded from having access to quality opportunity too early in their lives. If players believe there is an unwinnable game being played, and that by not having the best opportunities available at a young age they do not have (in their minds) a fair chance to make progress, then a sense of resentment about the sport can grow, and cricket's reputation for being elitist may grow stronger roots too.

If there is a focus on talent identification at younger and younger ages to predict the emerging potential of young cricketers, then the process may be out of step with the natural development of physical and emotional maturity.

Greater opportunity must be created for the majority, the less well-off, who do not benefit from an early start as cricketers via the prep school route, and instead learn the game through local clubs, having first tried football as their main sport.

Late developers must have better quality opportunity in cricket, and must feel there is a genuine prospect of their being able to break into the system, whether at domestic or international level.

More art, less science
This recent blog on ESPNcricinfo by a parent of a young cricketer attending a county trial was both distressing and illuminating. Other parents have shared their frustration with me about the dominant emphasis on physical fitness at county age-group cricket sessions. The influence of science and medicine on modern sport is in danger of overshadowing the art of the game.

Physical fitness enhances performance but the term "fit for purpose" is worth understanding. Fitness helps support the performance process, but it is not the determining factor in producing consistent top performance. Superior skill, applied with diligence, is the key ingredient in successful performance over time.

Avoid over-specialising at too young an age
Growing up in a different era, I attained my fitness base from playing a range of sports to a good level from a young age. The benefits I gained from a multi-sport approach early in life went beyond achieving better physical fitness, greater physical balance and better spatial awareness. Different social groups formed in different contexts, playing different sports, added an extra dimension to my life.

The gifted school-age player is better off learning to deal with being in the pack or an outsider in another sporting discipline; that experience provides many benefits when it comes to understanding the emotions of others. It is likely that greater empathy will be developed if a star player hasn't had it all his or her own way all the time.

Revisit the role of the coach, and pay youth coaches exceptionally well
Cricket coaches are in danger of morphing into football managers. If a team wins, they are seen as coaching geniuses, and if a team loses, they must face the sack. Madness! This trend breeds interference on the part of the coach, and the captain is increasingly in danger of becoming a "line manager" who is remote-controlled by off-field influences.

Such erosion of one of the key aspects of cricket is doing the game, and its players, an injustice.

It is happening at youth level too. Developing more resourceful captains, and a better core of senior players, is a long process, and it requires skilful, patient practitioners to oversee the transformation from sheep to shepherd, but it is the solution to the problem of many modern cricket teams. The short-term fix is to employ more people to use the remote controls from the dressing room, but it feeds the monster of the long-term problem.

Any team's leadership (captain and coach) at international level can only do so much for individual players, as they are focused on the here and now of winning sessions, matches, and series. Therefore, if the quality of the developmental work is so important, why doesn't sport reward youth coaches exceptionally well? If the pay is commensurate with a person's ability to influence, educate and inspire, and also reflects an individual's experience, then more former players would serve the game through coaching.

Instead, sport loses top people to the media, when it needs the best minds and the most interesting personalities to inspire the next generation. Inspirational teachers and coaches are the lifeblood of any human system.

Make all-round well-being a priority
Quite simply, there is now too long a list of cricketers who have suffered from some form of mental-health issue.

I believe that too much player development seeks to develop toughness and competitiveness, without attending sufficiently to the development of the whole person. The latter approach could enable them to develop a better understanding of themselves and the inner fitness needed to reduce stress and to learn how to manage it successfully.

I appeal to sporting directors, coaches, and leaders of development programmes to attend much more to the development of inner fitness alongside athletic fitness. Inner fitness addresses a young person's purpose in life, their values, the way they think and understand their emotions, and how they acquire the relationship skills needed to achieve a well-rounded life, both inside and outside their sport.

It is is that young men and women bring all of themselves to the game. To address all-round fitness properly, cricketers must pay more attention to the development of self and bring more joy to their game. If they do, I believe it will help us all in dealing with the increasing shadow that is looming large in the lives of young people in sport - mental-health problems.

The significant returns will go way beyond the game of cricket. Striving for excellence should not be defined exclusively by performance on the pitch, track, course, or court, but by the way sportspeople lead their lives.

As a former sportsman, I remain an evangelist for sport, and cricket in particular. The role it can play in developing people to ensure a better future society is invaluable.

This is an edited extract from "A Golden Opportunity for English Cricket" (full version here), a critique on how to tap into the potential of cricketers in England. Burns is a former first-class cricketer and runs London County Cricket Club as a professional mentoring organisation, and coaches first-class and school-age cricketers.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Adam on April 15, 2014, 10:39 GMT

    @landfl I don't think you understood my point at all. It doesn't matter what format you're playing, an aesthetically perfect textbook forward defence played down the wrong line is still going to miss the ball. Root has serious technical issues that were exposed in Australia. the cause of these issues is poor coaching that has taught him to focus on looking good rather than being effective. The ability to make late adjustments is a hugely important part of batting technique at any level of the game. If we focusing on idealised technique to the point where we are coaching kids not to make late adjustments against the moving ball, we are going to have some seriously flawed batsmen coming through.

  • John on April 14, 2014, 22:07 GMT

    @py0alb: I think you're missing Joe Root's point. Cricket (proper cricket, not village green stuff or T20) is a long game and as such batsmen need to be equipped to handle lengthy innings in which they face many deliveries. It therefore becomes a game of percentages: what technique does a batsman need to give him the best chance of being able to stay in for long periods? 'Just hit it', for all but a very small handful of players, isn't good enough. Correct technique will keep you in for longer, on average, than simply trusting to your hand/eye coordination. If you just hit at every ball, you might get a few hits but you'll be out quicker and for less most of the time.

    Now and again a Sehwag comes along who defies the odds, but most batsmen need to work on footwork, head position, bat angle and so on to improve their returns. In that context, missing the odd ball because the bowler delivers a beauty is less important than playing the correct shot to each ball.

  • Inderdeep on April 14, 2014, 20:48 GMT

    There is a huge talent void in english cricket and also there are no more street smart cricketers, the likes of k.p, collingwood and to an extent swann. Why do only english players suffer 4m mental breakdown. Dont know about the grass root structure of english cricket but genuine cricketing talent like tendukar, ponting, lara, kallis, and still no one in the same rheatoric 4m the england has been absent. A gud test team is a gud one day team not vice versa but england despite being a gud test team has never been a formidable one day team. Look beyond ashes and as said by author inculcate more art, instincts then sceince otherwise guys like butler, stokes and morgan will also go as mediocres despite having rich talent in them otherwise export talent 4m asia where genuine cricketing talents fall prey to parental guidance

  • Neil on April 14, 2014, 20:21 GMT

    Plenty of good work goes on in English Cricket. Exploring how England managed to accomplish so much in the past decade needs to be understood. Mickey Stewart is an unsung hero and deserves credit for much of his early work by putting in place a development programme which helped the likes of Vaughan, Trescothick, Flintoff, Bell, Swann, Harmison to be part of a quality programme and emerge as future Ashes winners. My hypothesis is 'better' can always be done. Good results at the top end of the game can mask a multitude of things lower down. Club Cricket needs proper backing and a greater emphasis on youth coaching to be more 'hands-off' to allow for greater self-discovery is wise. Ensuring funds enable quality experienced people to inter-act with youngsters will pay dividends. Progress will be driven by planting seeds in fertile places, and nurturing the growth. Balancing the need for sunlight and shade, being watered (but not drowned) is key to reaping a rich harvest over time.

  • C on April 14, 2014, 14:37 GMT

    I agree with Speng and would go further. It's not apparent how ANY of the three major issues the author identifies are addressed by the five recommendations he makes. Perhaps it's hidden away somewhere, but he needs to be more explicit about causality.

  • Clifford on April 14, 2014, 13:19 GMT

    How does this 5 point plan address item 2? Interestingly it seems as though the author has written off the Afro-Caribbean origin population as a source of future players for England. The simple fact is that very few youngsters in England get a reasonable chance to play any sort of even semi-organized cricket. At the same time the references to "sporting directors, coaches, and leaders of development programmes" points to an over bureaucratization of the sport and probably an over-emphasis at a young age on serious competition. What kids in England probably need is the ability to play some cricket on a decent pitch 1 or two time a week during the summer along with 2 or 3 training sessions, have some fun and get the chance to learn the roles that they like. Up until about 13 or 14 that's what it needs to be rather than the implied to push to be the next County star. Obviously the South Africans know how to develop (diverse) young crickets who don't have mental breakdowns...

  • Jamie on April 14, 2014, 13:14 GMT

    Cloudmess - I agree with you. I think it's healthy for the competition to be as hard fought as possible and the foreign players in the cc help that. But the author is not saying that the foreign players coming in are the problem, nor is he blaming them for England's winter, more that not enough English-born players are at high enough levels to match them and that this is indicative of a flawed development system in this country. I completely agree that this last ashes tour is not a cause for panic, but I would be very surprised if Burns has not had these very sensible and intelligent ideas about the development of talent in England for a long while now and the present situation is simply allowing his voice to be heard more easily. I just think these are absolutely essential ideas for the long-term health of English cricket and that suggesting that these ideas are indicative of a team that is amateur, old-fashioned, insular and mediocre is unfair on a man who is talking a lot of sense

  • Adam on April 14, 2014, 11:51 GMT

    @greenandgold. "technical perfection" is an unrealistic idealised concept that doesn't stand up to reality. Sometimes the ball moves off the pitch late in the air and you have to adjust in order to connect with the middle of the bat. If this means you have to play with the bat 6 inches away from your pad, so be it. Its better to connect with an ugly shot that than hold your pretty pose and nick the ball to first slip. In this country we put too much coaching emphasis on what is attractive rather than what is effective. The result is that JR has a very pretty technique but its useless when the ball moves around on or outside off stump because he doesn't make the necessary ugly adjustments, as was shown in Australia over and over again.

  • David on April 14, 2014, 11:50 GMT

    Jimmyfloyd - Is it such a bad thing if English-born players have to work that bit harder to get into a county side and then to stay there? Whatever cricketing skills they learn should be ultimately geared towards winning matches for their team - so let them learn by doing, within a genuinely competitive environment, rather than creating these soft, artificial frameworks. When we used to have 1 overseas player per county team (sometimes none at all) in 80s/90s, we had several players who looked a million dollars on the domestic circuit, but technically and temperamentally all at sea at test level. That has happened much, much less in the last 10 years, with greater numbers of foreign players in cc (until quite recently, England had a top 7 who had all scored at least 50 on debut). Is it a coincidence? Clearly there should be a balance - but I used the word xenophobic because foreign players in cc are always, without fail, the first to be mentioned whenever Eng do badly.

  • Justin on April 14, 2014, 11:27 GMT

    @py0alb - i see your point regarding what Root said and it does look silly when you take that one play and miss into consideration. Reading between the lines and looking at the bigger picture you will see that being technically correct is better in the long run. I do agree though that there should be a balance between a players natural game and being technical. I always think that if you have a sound technical base to fall back on then you can afford to just play the ball. Maybe Root misses less balls with good technique?

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