July 24, 2014

Time to pension off the seniors?

If England are going to win nothing, history suggests it might be worth their while to win nothing with kids

Who's next? England's senior players have been killed off one by one over the last year © Getty Images

The HBO prison drama Oz had an almost unprecedented turnover of characters. Over 100 were killed off in six series, usually in gruesome style. Nobody was safe; major, established characters were murdered without sentiment, warning or ceremony. When it comes to professional life, the England team know about the perils of a trip to Oz. It has been pretty shocking to watch a hugely successful England team killed off one by one in the last year.

The team that won the Ashes in Durham last August was the most experienced in England's history, with 650 Test caps between them. We thought that the South Africa tour of 2015-16 would be the natural endpoint for that team. Instead Jonathan Trott, Graeme Swann, Kevin Pietersen and Tim Bresnan were killed off with Hitchcockian suddenness (even if many people didn't notice poor Bresnan's departure), while Matt Prior has suffered a painfully slow death.

Prior's departure means that the Senior Five are now a Senior Four - Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, Stuart Broad and James Anderson. The core of senior players was supposed to smooth the transition, yet England are in the highly unusual position where, particularly in their batting, the young players are carrying seniors, who look like they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

As such, these are confusing times. The team is suffering its longest winless run for 20 years, yet the performances of the younger players is such that there is significant optimism for the future, which goes beyond the usual giddiness we experience at the sight of young players.

There has been always something irresistibly seductive about the idea of a completely fresh start. "Bring in the kids!" is a regular cry. Nothing in sport stimulates the imagination quite like young players, nor is anything as infectious as the success of a youthful team. Even the failures are often savoured, such is the persuasive ideal of a group of kids who go off on a Boys' Own adventure, taking the knocks together and eventually coming of age as a world-class side.

The advantages of selecting young players are obvious. Their potential, their fearlessness - David would never have believed he could beat Goliath if he was 10 years older

The selection of young players is the most reliable political move in sport. Yet for now the discourse surrounding the England team is dominated by the senior players, which means that - however harsh it may be on good men who have been exceptional players for England - there is a degree of ill will towards the team.

Few of sound mind are suggesting that England should bin all four of Cook, Bell, Anderson and Broad, yet it is legitimate to wonder how many senior players they need. The football pundit Alan Hansen infamously said that "you can't win anything with kids" in 1995, but England aren't winning anything with kids and senior players either.

In cricket, there is one clear precedent: the Australia side of the late 1980s, that was built by Allan Border and Bob Simpson. They identified players of talent and character - no "weak Victorians" - and stuck with them through thin and thinner. Picking young players buys you time, and Australia needed every minute of it. There were three years between Border taking over and the victory at the 1987 World Cup, and another 12 months before their breakthrough Test victory against West Indies in Sydney. In that time Australia won six out of 37 Tests under Border, including a run of 14 games without a win. But like homeowners starting from scratch, they were slowly adding pieces of furniture they could rely on for the foreseeable future: Dean Jones, David Boon, Craig McDermott, Merv Hughes, Geoff Marsh, Steve Waugh, Ian Healy and Mark Taylor.

Border was the only intermediate player in that side, never mind senior - just as Simpson, the coach of Border's side, was with the Packer-ravaged team of the late 1970s. But Border was indecently tough, and his initial form never dipped: he averaged over 50 in his first nine full series as captain. There were doubts over his captaincy, even from Wisden, but never his batting.

The Australia precedent was regularly cited when Mike Atherton decided to pursue a youth policy for his first tour as England captain, to the West Indies in 1993-94. The memory is poignant now, because we know that Ray Illingworth arrived the following summer insisting it was pronounced "To-may-to", not "to-mat-to". One of Illingworth's first acts was to replace one Graham (Thorpe, aged 24) with another (Gooch, aged 40). Within two years of bringing in the kids, Atherton was captaining a pair of spin twins, Mike Watkinson and John Emburey, with a combined age of 75.

"We have to identify young players with two things, talent and temperament, and then show faith in them," Atherton said in 1993. "We need to make a clean break with the past." At the time, it was impossibly exciting. The 17-man squad that went to the Caribbean had an average age of 26, with nobody over 30 and nobody with 50 caps, and an average of 15 caps apiece. There was enormous goodwill towards the squad, as there tends to be when youngsters are selected. And not just from the team's fans. The reputation of German football was changed completely by the 2006 World Cup, when an intrepid young side reached the semi-finals, as was that of Leeds, briefly, because of David O'Leary's "young soide" of the late 1990s. Young players are a shot of serotonin in the wearying world of professional sport.

The advantages of selecting them are obvious. Their potential, their fearlessness - David would never have believed he could beat Goliath if he was 10 years older - and, perhaps even more importantly, their scarlessness. Just as bruises heal quicker on the young, so do mental scars. There is always a point at which it becomes too much, but the suspicion remains that young players - if they are made of the right stuff - can take a lot more suffering than we realise.

Border's Australia were beaten up constantly for years, yet developed into one of the toughest teams Australia has produced. The England players of the 1990s, by contrast, did not quite fulfil their collective potential. Some will say that was because they were simply not as good as the Australians; others will argue they were mistreated too often by the selectors. It was not just Darrell Hair who was messing with Mark Ramprakash's career.

There is a suspicion that mistrust hurts young players much more than defeat, because the latter can be legitimately rationalised as part of an education and, before the word was ruined by reality TV, journey. Joe Root's response to his Ashes trauma supports that perception. With older players, by contrast, the education and journey are almost complete, so the defeats are harder to explain or forget.

The young New Zealand of the mid 1990s took even more punishment than Australia a decade earlier - no wins and nine defeats in 11 series or one-off Tests - yet developed together into a fine side who won in England in 1999 and drew in Australia in 2001-02.

There are no exact rules for the development of young teams. If there were, everyone would copy them. Some sides excel with a core of players between 26 and 29, like England's 2005 Ashes winners. Others have nobody between 26 and 29: the Ajax side that won the Champions League under Louis van Gaal in 1995 used 13 players in the final. Eleven were 25 or under, the other two were 32 and 33.

As romantic as it is, England surely cannot afford to dispense with all their senior players. But they are in a unique situation, given the extent of the mental disintegration caused by Mitchell Johnson and the form of the young players, and there is a burgeoning sense they may not need as many senior players as they first thought. Five has already become four. Even now, the thought of an England team without Cook, Bell, Anderson or Broad is hard to imagine. But after what happened in Oz, all bets are off and nobody is safe.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Unni on July 26, 2014, 12:50 GMT

    Last tour the reverse was happening Indian tailenders were contributing nothing and England were scoring from six down for nothing.

  • Vinod on July 26, 2014, 12:12 GMT

    Am no expert on the workings of English cricket....but surely that compton guy is better than Robson.....donot see why he was dropped....donot see why he is not picked....:)

  • Rajan on July 26, 2014, 2:30 GMT

    Very perceptive and forward looking piece. A fresh young team could, after it settles down, provide England with a dominant phase once again, as it's heady period would coincide with the downward swing of the teams that are on top today, like Australia and South Africa.

  • amit on July 25, 2014, 14:59 GMT

    @UltraMagnus - Why is it an anomaly taht India won? I am also getting a bit fed up of the constant ifs and buts from my fellow Eng fans. It works both ways. IF Kohli and Pujara, their 2 best batsman had scored more, they would have beaten us even more easily, IF they had finished off our tail at Trent Bridge, we could have been 2-0 down etc etc.

    The fact is we got a tailor made pitch, won the toss, stuck them in and still got beat easily. No ifs no buts, we were outplayed simple as that. I would say that if their big guns start firing in the remainder of the series then it will be them that take this series easily. It's about time we realised that we are a pretty average side at best and a lot of the current players need to go.

  • Peter on July 25, 2014, 14:07 GMT

    England should be removing the non-performers - not necessarily the old guys. Anderson just happens to be both long in the tooth and he has been a non performer for some time.

    He should have gone long ago

  • vas on July 25, 2014, 13:44 GMT

    Samit Patel is a good all-round cricketer. He should come in for Stokes. It will solve the spin problem and will also strengthen the batting. Stokes may need bit more time to mature as a batsman.

  • Dal on July 25, 2014, 12:57 GMT

    If the Germans had a cricket team they would have got rid of the seniors after the Ashes thumping and got kids in to get them up to speed as soon as possible.

    England only ever seem to concern themselves with the Ashes as they seem to think its the only game of cricket so by the time the next ashes series had come around the kids would've been a little wiser.

    I fear for England against the Aussies next year who have been through there seniors as have India who are currently here

  • David on July 25, 2014, 11:06 GMT

    Bad move to pension off all the old boys. Look at Australia - Rogers, Haddin, Clarke, Harris, Johnson - the heart of the number 1 team in the world are all past it in terms of age. As long as the desire is there. It doesn't look like a lack of ambition, but the wrong bloke in charge. Can't believe that Anderson, Broad, Bell and Prior no longer want it at this level. Same for Trott. Maybe not all of them will survive, but it's a big mistake to jettison the lot.

  • Philip on July 25, 2014, 9:31 GMT

    "There is a suspicion that mistrust hurts young players much more than defeat" - I'd say there is no such suspicion - it is just a blatant fact. If you want to kill off a potentially good young player let him think you'll give him a run and then don't do it and, even better, go on to tell him that he dreamt it all up in the first place. One youngster I'm starting to feel sorry for, and I never would've expected to, is Taylor. I never thought he was great. Wasn't nterested in him at all. However, he has to now be better than some. There's one thing with selectors - you get to know who's in favour. And who isn't. Funny thing though, the more grace and favour flavours selections the less likely you are to see a win. Oh, and while we're about it where's Compton? Again, I didn't think he was great but..... he's got to better than some.

  • ian on July 25, 2014, 9:23 GMT

    More and more there is the perception that Eng's selectors choose their team (actually, it's our team as much as theirs) on a basis of who ticks the 'Good Chaps' box. It's often been that way. Easy-to-manage should not be the deciding quality in selecting a player. There will be a sameness in other areas besides management - the sort of sameness that leads to a collapse that runs from the 4th wicket to the10th. Neither are selectors much interested in picking the best man for any given job. If that were true, Buttler would not have been chosen as w/k for the Ageas Bowl. The selectors seldom see things clearly and seem not to have any strategy, either long term of short. This is the weakness of collective responsibility; no one takes the rap when the team fails. Will SB be rested on Sunday? He needs to be; we can all see that. What happened to the Kerrigan punt? What sort of message does it send to SK himself? Do we have to witness more poor captaincy & Cook's other agonies? It goes on.

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