Where's the human touch?

There was something about England's cricket team, even when it was winning, that did not entirely connect with the public mood
David Hopps January 1, 2014

By the end of the year Alastair Cook had turned into an increasingly hollow-eyed captain © Getty Images

This was the year that the English public fell out of love with its cricket team. It was not the case for everybody and there was reason to presume, as always, that it was only a temporary estrangement. But there was no doubt as 2013 came to an end that the powerful bond forged during England's tempestuous 2005 Ashes victory was broken. It's been emotional, said the English cricket public. But, at least for now, let's cool it.

As England completed the year 4-0 down in Australia, the Ashes relinquished, and facing the threat of a whitewash if they lost the final Test in Sydney, consternation had long given way to condemnation. England had endured beatings in Australia before but most had been against sides touched by greatness. This Australian side had its heroes, how could it not, but it was a long way from greatness. It made England's feeble display all the harder to bear.

But the source of public disaffection ran deeper than simply whether England were winning or not. Even their 3-0 defeat of Australia in the English summer - a Test series played out to packed houses - had been met with grudging praise. There was something about England's cricket team, even when winning, even as many of its most celebrated players reached maturity, that did not entirely connect with the public mood and, as the New Year came, and the talk was of new beginnings, an examination of that disaffection was necessary.

For Paul Downton, a former England wicketkeeper and the new MD of England cricket, it will be quite an introduction to the job. Andy Flower went into meetings with him as the year turned, indicating that he wished to play a central role in a new era - a new era that in his view demanded the retention of Alastair Cook as captain, a man hugely respected for his batsmanship and general good-eggedness rather than his tactical acumen, and no dismantling of his gargantuan backroom staff. Essentially, the message was that they should be entrusted with the rebuilding of a new side.

Had England's planning now become so stifling that players felt disempowered, even demotivated?

But England's commitment to micro-management - and nobody believed in it more than Flower - was itself under scrutiny as the year turned sour. Cook, an increasingly hollow-eyed captain, had some justification in suggesting that the same careful planning and large support structure that had been hailed as a prime reason for a Test series win in India a year earlier was now being held up as the problem as a tour of Australia went belly up, but the comment of an England player in early summer that he sometimes felt as if he was being marked when he went to the toilet kept springing to mind.

Had England's planning now become so stifling that players felt disempowered, even demotivated? Had England, with their data-driven tactics, psychological counselling on tap, and a commitment to nutrition so detailed that it resulted in the publication of a much-ridiculed cookbook, built a support structure so all-consuming that it was now having a negative effect? And, if the thrill had gone, and fatigue taken hold, had the public begun to spot it before the players themselves?

That debate was thrown into focus in 2013 by the presence of an Australia coach, Darren Lehmann, drawn from the old school. Lehmann used data - he would be a fool not to, and Australia clearly had good plans, but he liked to give the impression that the knowledge gleaned would be disseminated over a couple of beers. Australia's cricket - even when they were losing the big moments in the English summer - was approached with verve and aggression. They had the human touch, in their vices as well as virtues. It was hard to see that freshness in England. England, whatever their protestations, lacked joy.

That two players failed to reach the end of the Ashes series in Australia encapsulated the year. Jonathan Trott, it emerged, had been controlling a stress-related condition for much of his England career. When he left the tour abruptly after England's defeat in the first Test in Brisbane, a perfectionist no longer able to cope, it was another reminder of the pressures of top-level sport when expectations are so high and an excuse culture is not to be tolerated. Mitchell Johnson's ferocious pace was the catalyst, but it was misguided to represent it as the cause, and those who equated Trott's departure with a lack of courage could hardly have been more inane. As Flower said, Trott had been England's rock at No. 3 and they suffered in his absence.

Graeme Swann's premature international retirement after three Tests was an expression of individual freedom at best, self-indulgent at worst. That such a popular player, in the timing of his departure, revealed a disconnect between this England team and its public was dispiriting. Swann deserved to be hailed as one of the most popular England players of his generation, an offspinner second only to Jim Laker in most eyes, and someone who was rightly cherished for playing and discussing the game with such evident delight.

Former players queued up to defend Swann's right to retire from international cricket when he wished. Others regarded him too fondly to criticise him. But polls suggested that a substantial majority were deeply dismayed by his failure to see the tour through, even if his debilitating elbow condition meant that he might finish it dropped and carrying the drinks. Revealingly, he would not have retired if the series had not already been lost. Those sitting through the night to follow England on TV, or fumbling for their radios or mobile phones at 6am to discover more bad news, wanted a display of solidarity, however meaningless, and that they did not receive it until the bitter end strengthened their conviction that something was awry.

Graeme Swann at a press conference announcing his retirement from international cricket, Melbourne, December 22 2013
Graeme Swann's premature retirement: an expression of individual freedom at best, self-indulgent at worst © Getty Images

England's decline was also seen, less controversially, in the form of Matt Prior. He began the year by saving the Auckland Test in March, won the England Player of the Year award, and was made Test vice-captain. By the end of the year, he was dropped, his international career in the balance. James Anderson was second only to Ian Botham on England's list of Test wicket-takers by the end of the year, but led the attack at times with a weary air. Of the coming men, whose progress was suddenly more urgent, Joe Root brought hope - even if his place at No. 3 in Australia proved to be overly ambitious - as did Ben Stokes, whose powerfully struck hundred in Perth left England dreaming of a quality allrounder in the making and a return to a five-strong attack.

For a decade and more, England's improvement had essentially been supervised by two Zimbabwean coaches, Duncan Fletcher and Andy Flower. Even the interregnum - the unsuccessful appointment of an English coach, Peter Moores, with a strong work ethic - did not change the overall mood. The much-needed commitment to instil greater professionalism into English cricket, and use the ECB's millions to fund it, was hugely successful.

The sound planning was still evident. England's defeat of Australia in an unusually dry home summer had been plotted on slow, attritional surfaces, which played to England's strengths - the reverse swing of Anderson, the offspin of Swann, the technical excellence of Ian Bell, and their general contentment playing a methodical, patient game - but it did not make for exciting cricket. And Mitchell Johnson reminded England, just as Saaed Ajmal had the previous year, that when they were faced by real pace or spin, all the planning in the world could not spare them.

Five wins, five draws (three in a stalemate in New Zealand) and four defeats told of a middling Test side. In 50-over cricket, under the guidance of Ashley Giles (who was promoted to limited-overs coach to give Flower more time with his family), they reached the final of the Champions Trophy in a chilly early summer in England, but any talk of progress was stilled by a heavy defeat in a bilateral series against Australia and by the end of the year they had lost as many matches, ten, as they had won. In T20, the story was much the same and, until England's best players gained more exposure in IPL, it is unlikely to change.

England played more than was healthy, they had too many international grounds to finance, the standard of their domestic cricket had dipped and their own relaunched T20 tournament would have to continue to make do without England players. By the end of the year, their rise to No. 1 in all three forms of the game was a memory. Talk of legacies had long been abandoned. Attention had turned to how England would negotiate their way through a difficult period.

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Posted by Dummy4 on (January 5, 2014, 13:37 GMT)

Very balanced, fair assessment. Sporting supremacy always comes in cycles; this has just been just very sudden.

The manner of it has been most concerning, though. I don't recall anyone except our own Geoff Boycott quitting mid-tour before. As they say: "When the going gets tough, Swannie gets going. Home that is. And to his literary agent no doubt." Contemptible, quite frankly. Chipper and brave but only when it's going his way.

There are others who need to have a good honest look in the mirror, not to apply more hair gel but to reflect on what they see.I exempt Trott and Cook from this. The image of the haunted Trott leaving the field on his final innings is the saddest sporting pic of the year. Cook has soldiered on with dignity.

No. They were about half as good as we thought but only a quarter as good as they thought themselves.

Posted by Leslie on (January 4, 2014, 13:18 GMT)

Bloody honest assessment Hoppsy. I think you have got to grips with the magnitude of England's problems more than any other CI columnist.

Posted by Dummy4 on (January 3, 2014, 0:06 GMT)

God you English are a touch crowd! They had a bad series, sure it was pretty woeful but almost exact same things were being said about the Aussies just a few months ago.

Yes they are a bit mechanical but it has worked. Kind of like the way Sampras used to get criticised for being too robotic. Who cares it worked.

As for the sledging, I really don't know what the heck you are talking about. I watched almost every ball of the last 3 ashes series and I didn't see anything over the top from the English. As an Aussie I hate to admit this, but the behavious of Johnson, Warner and co. is just embarrassing. It's just downright abuse and makes them very difficult to like.

Posted by Dummy4 on (January 2, 2014, 12:38 GMT)

I have to agree with the disconnect. I am finding myself become more indifferent to international cricket, and more in tune with the more human interaction of country cricket. It seems, and the sledging row has exacerbated this, that international cricketers are beginning to emulate their premiership football equivalents.

Posted by Dummy4 on (January 2, 2014, 11:48 GMT)

Absolutely or essentially bang-on, is this article. Very articulate. It has been very depressing watching this series, and there has been a little of that 'deadness' / lack of the human-touch in the England team, ever since Flintoff left, perhaps since Strauss left too... I don't blame Cook, he is senstivie you can tell,-although he lacks charisma. At thsi juncture, it does not seem like England are going to win this last, final Test, but I, most of all, wanna see Pieterson bat and Bat and Bat -for hours hopefully, indeed for a whole day. He is so great and beautifully-eccentric to watch!

Posted by Dummy4 on (January 2, 2014, 8:59 GMT)

@antiblogger, yes, it's just one of those things. Haddin and Johnson especially are having an absolutely incredible series, but it's not really down to Lehmann. Neither of them will be this good over their careers overall, and if Aussies other young quickies had been fit (seems to be an issue ?) Johnson may well not have been picked, and Haddin might not have been anyway. Good luck to them , and kudos on their efforts this time, but it won't last, just like Bell's summer. Sometimes the Gods are with you - and sometimes - Johnson on the last Ashes tour of Oz, they aren't.

I tend to agree with Benaud who is quoted as saying Captaincy is 10% skill and 90% luck, but don't try it without the 10%. Same applies to being a manager. Results, approaches are measured with the benefit of hindsight and it's a lot easier to captain a winning team than pull up a struggling one (Cook's problem).

Posted by Pankaj on (January 2, 2014, 7:21 GMT)

Good work David. Maybe the disaffectation was because of the knighthoods dished out after the 2005 Ashes. While 2005 remains a good series, it was just that - a good series. The English team had not really done anything in the direction of eradication of poverty, malnutrition, AIDS or even an attempt to create a cheaper automotive fuel. All that takes 100 or 200 man-years, and even then no guarantee of knighthood. It could also be that the English public in stages has seen through the massive talk-up given by the media. But it takes some courage to write on it, that too with perspective. Legacies forsooth.

Posted by $$ milind on (January 2, 2014, 4:11 GMT)

This English team under Cook really are robots in a sense, they don't really apply their brains instantaneously. They need some gutsy cricketers like Flintoff, Gough or few like their opponents Warner, Mitch, Hadds. Hope they get into some worthy form and start winning matches, Also, their ODI team with Cook, Bell, Trott in the top 3 fail to provide any impetus. Hard time ahead, best of luck England for 2014.

Posted by David on (January 1, 2014, 23:01 GMT) - Staff member

@Nicholas Horne. I can see your point, Nicholas. But I didn't say Australia were "weak". I said not great, and certainly not to be compared to those of recent vintage which beat England heavily. Big difference.

@shillingsworth. I've seen and heard more than enough evidence to believe the level of disaffection in the summer towards an Aashes-winning England side was strange and real. You might well think the opinion is nonsense, but it sure as hell ain't "lazy journalism."

Posted by Dummy4 on (January 1, 2014, 22:16 GMT)

As ever Hopps is sound (and he always writes well). But, whether or not he's right about a disconnect with the public mood is relevant neither to the current performances, nor to Swann's (or Trott's) premature departure. Where I think he (and many other worthy commentators) go wrong is in dismissing the current Australian side as a poor one because, compared with (say) 2006/7, it has two relatively weak batsmen (Smith and Bailey) and one relatively weak bowler (Lyon). I reckon this a good Aussie team. (Curiously, re this series compared with 2006/7 when we were last thrashed by Australia, three of England's main batsmen THEN are currently main batsmen NOW, but Clarke alone is an Australian batsman who features in each series. And, NONE of the regular Australian bowlers in 2006/7 feature also in 2013/4, whilst two of ours (Panesar and Anderson) do. A statistician looking at this might conclude that it is the AUSTRALIANS who have strength in depth, not us with our county cricket.

Posted by ian on (January 1, 2014, 21:28 GMT)

Poor Alistair Cook! It was never meant to be like this & despite the man trying his socks off & attempting to drag his team with him, it's pretty obvious that Eng is running on empty. Key players have left through being clapped out one way or another (Trott & Swann), or been dropped as form and confidence have deserted them (Prior).For the rest, KP has been muted this series & probably hasn't long to go as an England international. Bell has returned to earth after the sublime series he had in England; Carberry is stop-gap and has looked a vital notch short of genuine Test class;Jimmy is not the bowler in Aus that he is in Eng (conditions & Kookaburra ball); Bresnan has been pitched in straight after a long-term injury & looks to be less nippy than he was; Root is still learning his trade and only Broad is at the top of his game. This side is only a ghost of what was three years ago. England needs to rebuild, carefully & patiently and learn to let go of players before their use-by date.

Posted by Cricinfouser on (January 1, 2014, 20:31 GMT)

@antiblogger - Johnson rather illustrates the point. McDermott is the current Australian bowling coach. He's also done the job in the past. I'd suggest that the quality of individuals is indeed what ultimately counts - great coaches don't make great players, it's the other way round. The statements on 'public mood' are certainly sweeping and extremely lazy. Thanks for the advice but I actually rather like well written thematic pieces. This one is not but that only becomes evident from reading it through.

Posted by John on (January 1, 2014, 16:48 GMT)

I fell out of love with the England team last summer when I saw and read about how arrogant they had become, most easily seen in the sledging and attitudes of certain players. When the Australians get arrogant, they put on their jackboots and take great delight in trampling all over their opponents, as has been seen in the last few weeks. When England get arrogant, they get complacent.

Posted by David on (January 1, 2014, 16:28 GMT) - Staff member

@Boxbender. Your point is sound about the different tendencies of Australia and England sports coverage in that Australian commentary (and some journalism at the tabloid end) behaves as supportively as the most committed fan and UK coverage seeks objectivity to the point, sometimes, of being hyper-critical because things are not perfect. (The best players, of course, take all this in their stride). But as ever, there are lots of honourable exceptions to this rule, excellent cricket writers in both countries striving to do good, honest things. Personally I could not abide the thought of a Channel 9 commentary style in England: when Australia win, half the commentators are mentally cracking open the tinnies.

Posted by Dummy4 on (January 1, 2014, 16:05 GMT)

Players wear out - selectors must understand that and not carry on selecting those past their best. That would be bad enough but some of the picks for this tour were baffling. There were players with no form and others who no real record worth talking about. Proven wicket takers such as Finn were left on the sidelines because of worries about their economy rate! Test cricket is not limited overs so better the guy who takes 5 for 100 in 20 overs than the man who takes 0 for 40 in 20 overs.

I see no point in scapegoating Cook because he is not as tough as Ponting or Graeme Smith. It is the coaching and management staff and the selectors who are at fault. Of course, it is always possible that we simply don't have the talent to pick.

Posted by David on (January 1, 2014, 16:02 GMT)

@shillingsworth It's often ironic that those who accuse writers of "lazy journalism" are often guilty of lazily reading the piece in the first place. Are you really suggesting that outside influences have zero effect and it is TOTALLY about the quality of individuals? So why did Mitchell Johnson suddenly rediscover form? Just on of those things? I don't see that this piece makes sweeping statements, and it doesn't blame the coaches, but it does present some of the questions which were being posed as the year ended. You might not agree but to call it lazy is just... lazy. Some readers just dislike thematic pieces. In which case why not stick to match reports?

Posted by Ash on (January 1, 2014, 15:51 GMT)

Andy Flower is a good man. However, his inflexibility and lack of humour combined with the sour-faced resignation of Graham Gooch seems to have sucked all the joy and flair out of the team. Imagine turning up for work with these two hovering over you watching your every move. Careworn and Weary. Add the fact that by all accounts Cook has not an inkling of how to lead a side tactically, and the dismal picture is complete. Carberry 6 off 80-odd balls says it all. The side is fatally infected. (Boxbender, your post is first-class.)

Posted by Varnendra on (January 1, 2014, 15:43 GMT)

This is the price to pay for the success gained through Strauss, Cook, Trott, Bresnen and Flower. Method, Skill and Entertainment are also important; not just results. Anyway the whole world knows it is not English cricket but England itself is lopsided compared to other developed cultures like Germany. Like India England too always miss the point but at a higher level.

Posted by Dummy4 on (January 1, 2014, 13:42 GMT)

great prose and reasearch and analysis by David hopps..LOVED IT..he could not have hit the nail on the head any more perfectly..as rightly observed the cracks appeared in the tour to NZ when they hold out to a tiring drawn series..staleness probably crept in and because of brit weather,notwithstanding gallant aus. fighbacks , they won 3-0,not quite reflecting the score line in the end..aside ofcourse their heroes from india-prior/cook/kp/swann/bell/trott/anderson all comllectively came apart..superflous to say Aus were vety well served by a certain Mitch Johnson!tenacious auusies..looked like they needed that long lost URN BADLY..sense of desperation!

Posted by Cricinfouser on (January 1, 2014, 13:18 GMT)

More lazy analysis where success or failure is attributed to back room staff and the players are reduced to pawns. True to form in such a piece, the fact that the opposition batted bowled and fielded better is explained away by a few off field anecdotes. The stuff about the 'public mood' is utterly baffling. If a 'powerful bond' had indeed been formed in 2005, it's absurd to suggest that it survived the 2006-07 whitewash, then series losses to South Africa (twice), Pakistan (twice) as well as India, Sri Lanka and West Indies and was only broken because beating Australia 3-0 at home was apparently so tedious. The journalistic mood is clear - when the team is winning it's 'attention to detail', when it's losing, it's 'micromanagement'.

Posted by Android on (January 1, 2014, 12:58 GMT)

This is absolute over reaction. .suddenly Cook became a pariah? ?England collectively failed in their batting on this tour..They will bounce back...

Posted by Charlie on (January 1, 2014, 12:08 GMT)

Well said. Not for the first time cricinfo has provided a welcome, and much needed, alternative to the witless, superior inanities of Selvey and the other broadsheet writers.

Posted by Dummy4 on (January 1, 2014, 12:04 GMT)

Thanks David for a great article. England`s players thought they were a great team, but everyone else saw the truth. They were a good, well managed team, nothing more. Great teams have flair, provide entertainment, have character (good and bad ) and play with passion. An attritional game plan may get results, but leaves the players and spectators eventually feeling empty.The saddest part is that many have been calling this England`s Golden Era. Pitiful.

Posted by Kinshuk on (January 1, 2014, 11:29 GMT)

The feeling while watching the English Cricket Team play is that they are just too mechanical. It almost seems like they are trying to recollect some rule from some manual on playing a delivery or taking a catch that the backroom staff has provided them with.

There is no doubt desire to win matches. But the passion seems to be to stifled and lost in being 'professionals'. It comes across as them being old englsh snobs from the yesteryear.

The connection between the players and the public seems to be lost in the 'methodology' to play cricket. Spectators dont mind seeing their team lose but they like to see their players react as humans when they do lose.

Compare the fan support that english premiere league teams enjoy and maybe one can understand where the english cricket team is going wrong

Posted by Dummy4 on (January 1, 2014, 11:26 GMT)

It's too much to write off England team as few months back when they won the Ashes by 3-0 they were hailed as great cricketers. And before that they won a series in India 2-1 after 28 years. In all those periods they were seen as Heroes. Now because they lost the ASHES you can't run them down like this. They were very much connected with English cricket fans. Even when they were losing, the Barmy Army was cheering everywhere. All teams are better off in their own back yard as we have seen so many years. And in away series they do face problems. This is happening everywhere. So, pls don't read too much into England's Ashes loss as they can always fight back and win the confidence of its fans.

Posted by Gregory on (January 1, 2014, 10:24 GMT)

What we have seen over the last 6 months has epitomised the historic strengths and weaknesses of Aus and Eng cricket. Aus have been great front runners over the years - crushing the opposition when well ahead in a match or series; but highly fallible in close, tense situations like Trent Bridge (it's about 90 years since Aus beat Eng in a test by 1 or 2 wickets or fewer than 30 runs - really!). Eng, for their part, have generally found it difficult to maintain dominance for more than a couple of years, at most (they have rarely held the Ashes for more than about 5 years). The very different responses by the respective media to "their" team's failure is at least partially indicative. If Aus fails, the criticism is along the lines of "Come on, mate - you can do better than that!" If Eng fails, on the other hand, the message coming from the press is more like "We always knew you were rubbish!" On the one hand, it's agressive but fragile confidence; on the other, pessimism and resignation.

Posted by rob on (January 1, 2014, 7:55 GMT)

One of the first things to come out of Lehmann's mouth after his appointment as coach was "it's just a sport". He wants to keep it in perspective. Our players have realised that the coach isn't going to care all that much if they get out trying to hit the spinner into the next suburb. Hell, that's how he used to approach it and he still thinks that's how you should play spin. .. He wants his players to express their particular talents to the fullest and everyone else can go to hell. If your game is to belt the ball hard and often, then that's how he wants you to play it. Conversely, for a bloke like Chris Rogers, he just wants him to go out there and play the game his own way. .. No over by over micro management. .. Just get out there and play boys. ... Or so it seems to me.

Posted by Neil on (January 1, 2014, 6:05 GMT)

The results speak volumes - it's been a steady decline over the last 2 years, but with a substantial drop off over the last few months.

Above all Flower must go, and possibly Cook needs to resign as captain if the negative on field strategy is mainly the coach's design.

Posted by Hitesh on (January 1, 2014, 5:54 GMT)

Micromanagement is not an issue but I would say the complacency as the actual issue. England beat Australia in an away ashes in 2011, England beat India in the away series in 2012...and these two achievements are really big but that made them think that this english side is one of the greatest..But those wins were actually against poor teams...and it would have been benefited if England would have looked for improvement continuously...

Posted by James on (January 1, 2014, 5:31 GMT)

The cool and simply logic would be that if you hide so many parts of the game in back rooms the public will feel put out. I hope a book will be written about what seems to have been the expert accidental demolition of Finn. But what needs to be done to keep the interest in a team of players on a field is let players create their own games and be open about, for one thing, how their plans did for such-and-such an opposition player. The Australian frankness about this is vital to the team's popularity. That the English recipe book was leaked instead of hyped is highly significant.

Posted by Vincent on (January 1, 2014, 3:41 GMT)

The truth is England have been all too human right through the series. One enduring difference between England and Australia is how their respective commentariats view them. Australia's are like proud parents, basking in their achievements, criticisms are no more than fond coaching from afar, failures are referred to only obliquely if at all. For England it is the long suffering spouse, anxious that others might miss the flaws, amplifying the dark side in victory and catastrophising setbacks. The mealy mouthed English approach achieves it most appalling manifestation when placed in direct contrast with the Australian, which sees the English pundits aid and abet Australian boosterism to a degree that frequently induces physical illness in this right thinking Englishmen. Micromanagement! What about McDermott on the boundary glad handing his bowlers, and happy go lucky Lehmann.

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