July 28, 2015

Selection: the most underrated force in a team's fortunes

Once the players are out on the pitch, they are on their own - which makes it important to get the right ones out there in the first place

Smith and Rogers: the right decision taken two years ago © Getty Images

It is very difficult to influence a cricket match from the sidelines. That is a recurrent theme of this column. Cricket is not football. Even if the cricket coach was all-powerful (and he isn't), the game is only open to a coaching "strategy" up to a point. Once the players cross the boundary, a cricket match consists of a series of self-contained duels between bat and ball. The bowler sets the ball into the air, and once it is in flight only the batsman, not the coach, can affect play.

So cricket's openness to an off-field strategic mastermind is limited. He can help his bowlers develop lines of attack; he can line up his men in the right order to foster natural partnerships; he can nurture a good team culture; he can gradually improve players' techniques (though this is usually the preserve of specialist coaches or private mentors).

There is no such thing as "formation" in cricket, the explicit tactical shape that a football manager tweaks and adjusts before each game: 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 or 4-4-1-1 or 4-1-4-1. On such decisions a football manager's career hinges. What is the right formation for this particular opponent? And if it isn't working at half-time, he'd better change pretty quick. The football coach stands above his team as though it were a Subbuteo board. The manager, like an absolute monarch, toys with his subjects and their positions as is his pleasure.

In contrast, though the blend is always in flux - attack versus defence, left- versus right-handers - the formation of a batting order hasn't changed in the history of the game. Openers open together, the rest trot out to the middle alone, one by one.

Consider these two sporting conundrums. A football team has recurrent crises down the left flank. Solution: play the attacking midfielder deeper to help out the team's left back. A batting order is being routinely bombed out by outright pace. Solutions? Pick an extra batsman? (But he can't intervene in the balls bowled at his team-mates or alter their existing problems with pace.) Long-term technical development? (Takes months or years and the next game starts on Thursday.) Prayer? Getting warmer now. There is a reason why almost every cricket coach now claims to be a master of light-touch non-intervention. It's called waking up to reality.

All of which leads to a counter-intuitive pecking order of strategic priorities. Given the difficulty of altering the shape of a cricket match once it has begun, it is all the more important to get the right players on the pitch at the outset. Considering the sport's strategic constraints, personnel take on extra significance. The most underrated force on a cricket team is selection. Once the players are out the pitch, they are essentially on their own. All the more reason to get the right ones out there in the first place.

Spare a thought for England's selectors. After the baffling and crushing defeat at Lord's, they faced a series of scenarios, all unappealing in different ways. With three of the top four batsmen out of form (to varying degrees), the selectors had the following options:

1. Change all three (Adam Lyth, Gary Ballance and Ian Bell). It was highly unlikely they would do this as it cuts against all the modern principles of trust, consistency and stability.

2. Change nothing. The problems are so widespread that it's hard to make a scapegoat of one and not the others. Good luck with that.

3. Drop one player. But which one? Ballance ended up making way for Jonny Bairstow, which has the advantage of bringing form and confidence into the team. But it does little to solve the underlying issue, the underperformance of the top four. England have brought in a new No. 5 (which was working well before), shuffled the pack in the top four (which wasn't working) and promoted the central problem (the contribution of their senior batsman, Bell). It is an understandable change, but one that doesn't change what needed to be changed.

Good selectors try to make changes in advance rather than as a consequence of problems. Clinging on to a declining asset rarely works

4. More radical would have been to make two changes: Bairstow in for Bell, but also a genuine replacement for Ballance. My criteria would have been to find a No. 3 who can also open the batting, has an aptitude against pace, and carries some existing Test experience. Nick Compton, among others, would have been a candidate.

Anyone who thinks picking a Test team is easy should consider the careers of the men who set up Australia's mammoth win at Lord's: Chris Rogers and Steven Smith. Two and a half years ago, neither was considered to be a real "Test player" (whatever that phrase means). Both had experienced a taste at the top and had been discarded.

Many questioned Smith's unusual technique. Rogers, meanwhile, was the victim of a problem well known to speculators and gamblers as well as selectors. Having already missed out on a significant chunk of the potential upside, the selectors were reluctant to buy Rogers stock so late in the day. Hitched to their own investment strategy, they only turned to Rogers when they faced outright bankruptcy at the start of the troubled 2013 Ashes series.

Put more simply, if Australian selection meetings had gone differently in 2013, neither Rogers nor Smith would have been on the field last week at Lord's, mercilessly plundering England's bowlers. If we ask where the match was won, the answer partly resides in a series of decisions taken over two years ago.

What, then, can selectors do to increase their odds of making a difference?

1. Timing: Like a captain changing the bowling, good selectors try to make changes in advance rather than as a consequence of problems. They seek to be a match (or series) ahead, just as a shrewd captain is always an over (or even a session) ahead. Clinging on to a declining asset rarely works.

2. Invest opportunity wisely: Selection during England's tour to the West Indies is looking worse by the day. They neglected to give opportunity to Lyth, Adil Rashid and Mark Wood. Had they done, Lyth would be further into his career, Rashid would have begun his, and Wood would know more about bowling on dull, slow pitches.

If the likes of Lyth and Wood had been given chances on the West Indies tour, they would likely have been closer to the finished article in time for the Ashes © Getty Images

3. "Consistency?" "Consistency in selection" has become a mantra too often nodded through as a statement of revealed truth. Not so. Perfect consistency is always impossible because opportunity, like all spheres of human experience, cannot be broken up into perfectly equal mathematical pieces. There is always a degree of injustice in the way a selector plays his hand.

4. Renewal: Consistency is counterbalanced by the benefits of freshness. Australia looked jaded in Cardiff. Mitchell Marsh replacing Shane Watson at Lord's partly resolved that deficit. Marsh brought energy to the game where Watson had taken energy away. The second Australian change at Lord's - Peter Nevill for Brad Haddin - was an enforced swap. Australia were lucky in their misfortune. Nevill was part of a new mood on the field. England's selectors should carefully consider how those two changes influenced the collective intent, hopefulness and dynamism of the Australian team.

5. Character: On the same theme, all teams (including cricket teams, despite their high degree of individuality) have a character and identity beyond the collective abilities of their component parts. Last week the English political commentator Matthew Parris admonished Britain's crestfallen Labour Party for acting as though a political party is merely a soulless shop floor that sells faceless products to a credulous public. Not so, Parris argued: "A political party is not a shop. It is an animal. It has a nature. It has habits. It has a history and a memory. It has instincts, loves, dislikes and fears."

So too does a cricket team. In the early stages of the 2015 season - against New Zealand, and against Australia in Cardiff - something exciting was happening to English cricket. The animal that had seemed caged and fearful for so long was discovering new naturalness and freedom.

The Lord's catastrophe didn't disprove the facts of that renaissance. Instead it showed that England should be bolder still in identifying consistent underperformers, with their old scars that will never fully heal, and promptly move on, without apology or regret.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. @edsmithwriter