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Analysis

England are the most innovative team in the world - no joke

"Not a team to set your watch by but almost always worth watching for glorious or abysmal cricket"

Jarrod Kimber
Jarrod Kimber
15-Dec-2021
England are the most innovative team in the world. That's not a joke.
Depending on your age, you're now processing this in vastly different ways. Some of you will be nodding, others laughing hysterically. If you are under 35, you most likely grew up with the 2005 Ashes, England's 2010-14 reign as the No. 1 Test side, or the bit where England dominated white-ball cricket. This England are dynamic, fearless and always innovating.
If you're over 35, you grew up in an era when English cricket was a punchline. There is an entire industry around English cricket's good ol' bad days in the '80s and '90s. Quiz questions about how many captains they had, jokes about waistlines, and David' Bumble' Lloyd's "we flippin' murdered 'em". That England was stale, broken and sad.
You could see the dynamic of the two kinds of English fans playing out during the Gabba Test. Those from the older generation saw doom and gloom in every critical moment as a sign of the Apocalypse. And a newer generation that couldn't help but notice that Australia had a good run with a flawed side and England batted out nearly an entire day for only two wickets.
Most of us aren't English fans; this is less about emotion and how the cricket world sees England. They were once Mother Cricket, and then the doddering old aunt who's been collecting ceramic owls for a long time. Now they're that fun older sister, showing you all the stuff adults won't.
England cricket has become brilliant and bonkers.
But by the start of the 2000s, this was a broken cricket culture.
The first professional structure in cricket - however half-hearted it was - was already looking decades behind Australia. The Asian boom had occurred with Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka all producing champions and winning World Cups. The West Indies had been more dominant than England in a tougher era, and would then work out T20 quicker than anyone else. South Africa played a more disciplined and conservative cricket, and with better results.
The most important cricket nation was suddenly just another team. England looked ancient in a way that Australia did not. The county game still produced some interesting trends: home to Franklyn Stephenson's slower ball, and off the field it gave us the T20. But in the '90s, cricket was becoming a colourful global game, and England were still wearing whites.
And there was no real reason for this. England were still a rich cricket nation. The professionalism may have only been for six months every year for county cricketers, but at least they paid their first-class players, which is something New Zealand were not doing at that point. But there were also divisions within cricket, like the county dressing rooms in which players from the same side sat in different walled-off spaces within the room based on their seniority within the side. This was happening until the mid-90s and it showed that English cricket was stuck in another era.
English cricket tried to give us something new on the field from time to time, but even when they had success with it, cricket wasn't always paying attention. They were perhaps the first team to really pick batters who could keep, over keeper-batters in the '80s. In fact, it started with Jim Parks in the 1960s. But by the '80s players like Ian 'Gunner' Gould were being manufactured into wicketkeepers because of their batting. Other teams had tried it as a one-off to see if it worked, but England had it as a selection mantra in ODIs before finally committing with Alec Stewart.
In the 1992 World Cup England are now remembered as a team who got Wasim Akram-ed in the final. But this was an early prototype for all-round white-ball cricket. They had Derek Pringle - list A average of nearly 26 - batting at No. 9 and Ian Botham as a slogging opener; multiple bowling options and a long batting line-up. South Africa would be renowned for this, but only years later. That same decade, England appointed Adam Hollioake as their ODI captain; the following decade they were opening with Mal Loye who was sweeping super-fast bowlers for six.
These were still rare one-offs, and none of them worked enough to change the direction of the game. England's control on cricket was fading from an administrative perspective, but their effect on how the game was played had fallen off completely.
And then, little by little from Duncan Fletcher through to Eoin Morgan the most straight-laced, beige team in cricket became - to use a Warneism - funky. If you follow trends in cricket, then England is currently the style icon, for most probably the first time since the '60s.
No matter what the format, they are doing something interesting and trying to change the game. They've had success in every format, but also failed a lot; interesting rather than successful, but almost always fun.
In T20s they unlocked their young batting talent by letting them go out and hit a bunch of boundaries. It differed from the West Indies' dot-or-six method. It was freer, and often lasted longer. Their T20 batting line-ups were as deep as cricket has seen, so it allowed their top to swing away consistently.
These methods took them within a Carlos Brathwaite mishit of winning the World Cup in 2016, and this year they looked like the best team in the competition even with a weakened first XI. By the time they got to the semi-finals they were missing five players, and still it took some luck for Jimmy Neesham and incredible hitting from the Kiwis to get over the line.
Considering how good England has looked in both the 2016 and 2021 tournaments, missing one or two editions in the middle has probably cost them a fair chance of winning the title.
There are other T20 trends they are associated with. Morgan and his chief analyst Nathan Leamon have a dugout code they exchange when England are fielding, to ensure that Morgan is making data-led decisions - successfully transplanted to Multan Sultans in the PSL.
In T20s outside the international level, Worcestershire have played without a wicketkeeper in order to have an extra fielder. County cricket has also provided two extraordinary bowlers: Benny Howell would ordinarily be considered a medium-pacer and Pat Brown fast-medium. But when you look at what both of them do, they are like spinners at varying speeds. They're beyond just change-up bowlers with cutters. Even Harry Gurney was, in a way, one of a kind - a slow left-am change-up death bowler is not exactly what teams even knew they wanted until it existed.
In ODI cricket England completely smashed the boring middle overs, turning themselves from an idiosyncratic team into enforcers. They took lessons from their T20 side, and were also willing to lose early wickets. They unleashed their openers in a way that would make 1996 Sri Lanka blush.
They became the quickest-scoring team in ODI history, the first to score run-a-ball for a four-year period. But it wasn't their openers who made the biggest impact. It was in the middle with Joe Root, Morgan and Jos Buttler where they turned the boring middle overs into 180 runs a match without losing wickets. It was like the difference between hand milking a cow and using a machine. And you could, if you wanted, trace this approach back to the ECB's decision in 2010 to switch to a 40-over domestic tournament when everyone was playing 50-over tournaments; automatically the format made the middle overs a more attacking phase.
They also had a bowler like Liam Plunkett, whose key skill was taking a collection of the ugliest wickets you've ever seen. England helped turn him from a standard fast bowler into a cross-seam spoiler. And that worked because Plunkett and many other bowlers could bat or hit big. So opposition batters would push the game, and try and score off Plunkett, which usually ended up with mishits to a legside sweeper.
Yet, when they lost the 2017 Champions Trophy semi-final, people doubted them. No team had ever been that good at ODIs and yet less respected coming into a World Cup, as England were in 2019. And in that World Cup, they gave us the greatest final, and they won in the weirdest way possible, after Trent Boult stepped on the ropes while taking a catch, after an umpiring error and after a tied Super Over.
Even if they had lost, they had still changed one-day cricket.
And then there are Tests. If they've been dominant in the other two formats, they've been mixed in Tests. Over the last five years they have 27 wins and 24 losses. They are the worst of the best teams. They can be incredible, but they can be truly awful.
The 2019 Ashes might be the best example. They lost the first game. They were on their way to losing the second until Ben Stokes played the second-best innings that year. Then they lost and won one more Test to end the series 2-2, but with Australia keeping the Ashes. They are not a team you can set your watch by, but they're almost always worth watching for glorious or abysmal cricket.
Their results have been like that for a while; they strolled into India this year and won the first Test, and then barely made a run to finish the series. They lost a Test in Bangladesh, and allowed West Indies to chase over 300 at Headingley.
But even in being unsuccessful in Tests, they've been trying stuff. First they copied their own limited-overs formula, relying on their allrounders and deploying incredible batting depth. My favourite might be the Bridgetown Test where Adil Rashid batted at No. 10 and Sam Curran was at No. 9.
Rashid has ten first-class hundreds. And Curran has batted at seven in Tests - and won Tests. They've had Stokes, Chris Woakes, Moeen Ali, and even Craig Overton. This doesn't even include their wicketkeeping allrounders in Ben Foakes, Jonny Bairstow, Buttler, and Ollie Pope. This is an abnormally flexible team. There were signs of this in the Flintoff/Swann/Broad (before Varun Aaron hit him in the head) era, but this is a whole new level.
Having a team of this many allrounders means they either look fantastic or like boiled sick.
It hasn't worked, mostly because they haven't had strong batters up the order to make sure that Stokes, Moeen, Buttler, Woakes and Curran could come in when there were fun runs to be scored. Most of these players have been forced higher than you would want; Woakes has even been discussed as a potential top-order stopgap.
They've been quite interesting with their top order as well. Jason Roy and Alex Hales have opened for England, even though neither were successful openers at first-class level. And that is because they were both good white-ball players. Buttler's return to England was also on the back of white-ball form, England backing him even though there's rarely been a long-term consistent Test player who is a gun white-ball player but hasn't made runs in first-class cricket.
And when England stopped trying their best T20 hitters as openers, they went completely the other way and found the most turgid. England players hate when you talk about the 100-ball innings, or as it became known, the Dentury. But the story goes that when England's team management realised they didn't have good enough top-order players, they just asked them to try and bat 100 balls each innings. Joe Denly has said this didn't happen, but it is possible that England just enforced the 100-ball thinking simply by not dropping anyone.
Players were clearly rewarded for batting time rather than making runs for a long period. Dom Sibley averaged 29 with the bat, but he was out in the middle for 12 balls longer than the average for an opener during his career. At this point, England were also talking about weighted averages - anything not to mention that their top-order just couldn't score runs. Blunting the new ball isn't reinventing anything; but doing it with three players from whom you're not expecting masses of runs is something else.
Also noticeable about England's top-orders is their techniques. For a long time England players - Graham Gooch aside - batted in a very staid English way. Now the MCC manual has been burnt and snorted, and you get Rory Burns' over-the-shoulder gaze and Sibley's one-sided play. It's not just the defensive batters. Buttler's just as much an outlier in the other direction. England batters were encouraged for generations to follow their natural techniques and while the jury is still out on how that has gone, there are some fascinating methods out there in county cricket.
With the ball James Anderson has perhaps been the main reason the wobble ball has become the most important delivery in the world. While it might be Mohammad Asif's creation, Anderson's wrist has elevated it to a global trend. And England are also all-in on platooning fast bowlers, which is not quite cricket's horses-for-courses selection policy. Essentially England's plan - which injuries have thwarted - is to have three or four genuinely fast bowlers drop in for a Test at a time, bowl as fast as possible, then rest up for their next chance. It is similar to how baseball pitchers are used.
And how do England make these decisions on selection? Without a selector as such but with a head coach and captain backed up by James Taylor as head scout. In fact, England employs plenty of scouts to go out and look at players based on their speciality - so wicketkeepers are scouting wicketkeepers, spinners are on spinners and so on. They've taken crack old selection committees into the future.
It's worth noting again that innovation doesn't always lead to good results - and it hasn't. No one is saying that this English team is the best in the world. It's just the most interesting.
On their own, some of these just sound quirky, but England has leaned in on the weird and extreme like never before. This is England, the team that really hasn't been part of the conversation in pioneering cricket since perhaps the 1970s. Almost all the major teams have been more important to how the game has been played on the field since. India's spin quartet. Pakistan's reverse swing/sweep, doosra and attacking middle-overs bowling. West Indies' four fast men and six-hitting in T20s. Australia's professionalism, early ODI cricket and scoring at four an over in Tests. Plus, Sri Lanka's use of the Powerplay and unorthodox bowling actions.These were all sizeable shifts in how cricket was played.
England were just stuck, through a combination of poor cricket and negativity at the national team level. But modern English cricket is suddenly the most fast-moving. If there is a freaky new tactic or a way of bowling the ball, there's a good chance right now it will come from England. There is science in the dietary plans, and creativity in their analysis. That the team doing this is England makes it all the more bizarre, like finding out your grandma likes Grime.
England are on their way to fun second-team status. That's so weird, from the team that everyone hated because of the whole empire thing through to the side that kids like because they're doing cool things.
England are an innovative team. That's a fact.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber