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.