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.