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 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.

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 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 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 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 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 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 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, 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 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.

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