'County cricket alone won't produce international cricketers' - ECB performance director Mo Bobat

Key ECB figure on the challenge of replicating standards across first-class cricket

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Jonny Bairstow didn't score a first-class run between being dropped from and re-selected for England's Test team  •  Getty Images

Jonny Bairstow didn't score a first-class run between being dropped from and re-selected for England's Test team  •  Getty Images

There was a time not too long ago when the to-do list of a batsman hoping for an England recall contained just one task: score County Championship runs, and lots of them.
But as England prepare for the first Test of their tour to South Africa this year, there has been something of a shift. The batsman added to their previous squad did not score a single first-class run between his omission for the New Zealand tour and his selection for this trip.
Instead, Jonny Bairstow was in South Africa already, finding his way back to form on a training camp in Potchefstroom, alongside James Anderson and Mark Wood, specifically designed with England's immediate interests at heart.
Those names are three of the 11 names in the initial 17-man touring party that have played 12 or fewer of a possible 28 County Championship games in the last two seasons, a figure that reflects not only the shift in availability in the central-contract era but also a slight change in thinking from those running the English game, which will see the ECB's pathway programme brought closer to the England team than it currently is in the coming years.
"County cricket itself isn't necessarily reflective of international cricket," explains Mo Bobat, the man recently appointed as England's new performance director and one of the figures masterminding the strategy that will underpin the game in years to come. "If you look at the evidence, we've got enough to know that the difference between pace bowling and spin bowling in international cricket and domestic cricket is stark."
Of course, the cases of two Surrey batsmen and their contrasting fortunes in this summer's Ashes series seem to present clear evidence that hard-fought Championship cricket retains its place as a breeding ground. Rory Burns, who averaged 44.61 across eight seasons in the Championship going into the series, ended as England's second-highest run-scorer; Jason Roy, for whom the comparable figure was just 38.82, and who had played just seven first-class matches in the previous two seasons, made 110 runs in four innings and was dropped for the fifth Test.
But the figures underlining Bobat's point are clear: spinners bowl more than 40 percent of overs in Test cricket, compared to less than 20 percent in the County Championship. The same is true of bowling in excess of 83mph, which comprises less than 20 percent of balls bowled by seamers in domestic cricket but around 61 percent in Tests, according to his figures.
"When you then compare that to say Ashes cricket," he says, "those levels and intensities go up again. And then on top of that you have the pressure, the scrutiny, the expectations - in many cases, it's a different game.
"Take something like county batting average. We know that a county batting average does not significantly predict an international batting average, so a lot of the conventional things that are looked at as being indicators of success - they don't really stand true in a predictive sense.
"I'm not saying county averages aren't useful: they tell you who's doing well in county cricket, and that's fine, but it's not a predictive element."
Those comments may seem to go against the way in which England have seemed to go about their selection of Test batsmen in recent years. After all, the incumbent opening pair, Burns and Dom Sibley, both broke into the side on the back of prolific Championship form, and the list of discarded openers since Andrew Strauss's retirement is filled with men who have had a single standout season in domestic cricket.
But even if Burns' call-up took years of hard graft - he was only handed his first Lions call-up during a sixth successive season of more than 900 Championship runs - it should be noted that like the majority of national-team debutants, Sibley has been on England's radar since his teenage years as a former Under-19 and Lions player.
In 2018, 73 percent of England's debutants had played for both those teams, a figure that Bobat considers to be "a really healthy number" in that it allows late developers like Burns to break into the side while representing a good return on investment in young players.
Bobat feels, therefore, that the introduction of sophisticated ball-tracking data into county cricket is an important step. "That would give us a bit of an indication of who is delivering or facing and coping with deliveries that are international-standard," he says. "My caveat or fear with that is we might simply prove that there aren't that many deliveries or incidents that are reflective of international cricket [in the domestic game]."
None of that, Bobat is keen to note, is to suggest that county cricket isn't important - "it's absolutely integral to what we do," he says. "It's just that the reality is that county cricket presents a player identification challenge.
"We could not do what we need to do internationally without county cricket - that is very clear. But on the other side, county cricket alone won't produce international cricketers. We need to work closely with counties [because] we've got shared assets in the players."
While Bobat - who joined the ECB in 2011 after working as a teacher and a lecturer, and has spent most of the last three years focusing on player identification or 'talent ID' - has a role that primarily demands he works "within the system" to support the England team and the pathway programme, he is another voice in the perennial debate about the structure of county cricket, and how it might be adapted to be better suited to the task of preparing players for Test cricket.
"We have those sorts of conversations. That domestic structure stuff is probably more Ashley Giles' domain than mine - my job is mainly about working within the system we've got to do as good a job as we can. Clearly, I have a view and have some influence on those things; if the gap [between domestic and international cricket] continues to get bigger, we might have to do that with a little bit more urgency."
The earliest outward sign of change since Bobat's promotion in October has been the introduction of more bespoke camps: he travelled to Mumbai last month alongside five batsmen and three spinners to further their exposure to subcontinental conditions, as well as pushing for the individualised training that took place in Potchefstroom. He claims that picking Lions squad is the "trickiest selection that we do", and the inclusion of Sibley, Zak Crawley and Keaton Jennings in the red-ball squad for the Australia tour next year seems to hint at long-term planning ahead of the next Ashes series.
Bobat has also been present at selection meetings at all levels of England cricket since 2016, and suggests that the scouting network they have built up in that time period means "the rigour and identification that underpins [England] selection is as good as - if not better than - any of our cricketing competitors".
He speaks glowingly of Ed Smith, who was appointed as national selector ahead of the 2018 summer - "incredibly smart… very analytical but can balance that and understand the holistic element of a player and their human needs" - and suggests that "the public and the media probably know less than 50 percent of what's factored into a decision-making process".
The jury is still out on Smith's record in the role in Tests, with his success in bringing Jos Buttler back into the red-ball set-up and shifting the balance of the side significantly in Sri Lanka counterbalanced by Roy's struggles in the Ashes, and the failure to find a team suitably well-equipped to win in the Caribbean and in New Zealand.
"Selecting teams is always tricky," Bobat suggests, "because in sport it's one of the most transparent things you do. Take coaching as an example: nobody sees what a football coach does all week with their squad. They don't see what happens in the gym, or a lot of what goes on, but everyone sees selection.
"My job has been trying to make sure we've got real rigour to our process. It's the same with any decision-making process: you can still make a call that with hindsight you think you could have done differently."
He also points out that while the ECB have publicly focused on the 2021-22 Ashes series as their main priority in the coming years since the conclusion of this summer's World Cup, there are multi-format performance targets which include winning "at least one" of the two T20 World Cups in the next 24 months.
"[We want to] do as well as we can in the World Test Championship. Given the way India have set off, we've got a bit of work to do, but ultimately we want to be in the final; if you ignore the noise of other people's results, we can still do that. It's important to stress that we've got aspirational targets across all formats."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98