Apologies for not writing about days 2 & 3 of the test match. It’s a dead rubber, so it’s not particularly compelling unless you’re caught up in the Alastair Cook storyline, and I’ve been otherwise engaged with family and other sports. In fact, news is just reaching me that Cook has indeed completed his ton. Well done him. The fact it was so predictable says everything we need to know about him as a player. You just knew he’d do it.
However, today I want to focus on the future. And that means analysing the fascinating interview Ed Smith gave to Aggers on TMS yesterday. As I’ve been quite vocal in my criticism of Smith in the past, I thought I’d better give it a listen. My conclusion? Just as Smith felt ‘not confident but certain’ that Jos Buttler would be a success this summer, I now feel ‘not confident but certain’ that our chairman of selectors is overcomplicating what is essentially a very basic job: to pick the best England team.
First of all let me provide – and I bet Ed would love the idea of a writer articulating the prism through which he’s viewing a particular subject – a bit of background. It’s all to do with my Weltanschauung (worldview or way of looking at things) which became established during my brief stint as an academic. I did a PhD in modern American history, taught a few classes at the Uni of Southampton, and ended up writing a book on the concept of US imperialism. This period taught be something basic but important.
I eventually came to the conclusion that most concepts (or ideas) were pretty simple. The difference between some academics / essayists and most ‘normal people’ (for want of a better expression) is how they express their ideas. A normal person will just say what they think in basic language and get to the point. Many academics, on the other hand, like to explore the fringes of their ideas too, and often decorate their thoughts in unnecessarily complex language. Therefore they have a habit of making all their ideas sound incredibly impressive – even when their basic premise is flawed (as it often is). I used to feel a bit intimidated at academic conferences until I realised that half the people there weren’t quite as smart as I initially thought they were.
Listening to Ed Smith on TMS was a classic case of a very intelligent person expressing flawed views in a highly articulate manner. And in trying to justify some of the decisions he’s made this summer, he ended up contradicting himself a few times too. Smith basically spent half an hour making two troubling arguments: (a) that a selector should pick the best 11 or 12 ‘cricketers’ in the country, and then (b) let the coach and captain get on with it. He therefore happily took the credit for Jos Buttler’s recall (and what a good decision that has proved to be) whilst washing his hands of the moving feast which is England’s batting order. We were left to assume that was all Root and Bayliss’s fault – even though it’s clearly the job of the selectors to give the management the tools they require.
First of all let’s deal with flawed premise (a), an idea that would have Sir Alf Ramsey turning in his grave. It’s a long discredited view (across all sports) that a team should simply consist of the XI best individuals without any thought as to how they might gel as a team. This is the kind of deluded logic whereby Paul Scholes ends up playing left midfield, and Gerrard and Lampard end up playing together several times even though they’re incompatible and it never works.
Smith kept saying it was his philosophy to get the best XI (all-round) cricketers in the country on the field. And if he managed that then he’d done his job. He therefore basically claimed that picking a plethora of all-rounders was a deliberate ploy, and it didn’t particularly bother him if this meant several players had to bat one or two places too high in the order to accommodate them all.
When pressed on this issue, Smith tossed the concerns aside. For example, when asked about who might bat No.3 in the future Ed actually seemed a little critical of the question. “People say to me that I’ve got to get the No.3 position sorted … my answer is no … you’ve got to get the best XI cricketers onto the field first”. I found this rather baffling to say the least. It’s a bit like Gareth Southpage picking his favourite players without considering who might play left-back.
At one point the emphasis on choosing the best ‘cricketers’ led to a discussion of Adil Rashid. Smith seemed more concerned with Adil’s batting, and his handful of first class centuries, than his bowling. It was all about Adil Rashid ‘the package’. And there was me thinking Rashid has been controversially recalled because leg spin is a specialist art and it’s rather useful at mopping up the tail.
What concerns me is that I don’t think Smith mentioned the word ‘specialist’ once in the whole interview. ODIs and T20s are the formats that require all-round abilities. Test matches have always been a domain where specialists are required. Geoff Boycott often makes this point in very basic language. Smith argues the opposite in a highly articulate manner. But who is right? In this instance I’ll wager it’s the guy with a smaller vocabulary.
Moving on to assertion (b), the idea that the chief selector simply picks the players, and doesn’t pick the batting order, I have a couple of observations. For starters, it seems very strange to me that a selector would not consider how specific players might be utilised at the point they’re selected. It’s also unbelievable (literally). After all, Trevor Bayliss is now a selector, so he consults with Ed Smith when the team is picked.
The argument that Smith and the selectors decided to drop Dawid Malan (who was batting 4), and replace him with Ollie Pope, without considering where Pope might have to bat, doesn’t add up. This is especially true as at the very start of the interview Smith stresses how it’s always vital to consider who will come into the side (and presumably how they will fit in) whenever someone is dropped. There’s a clear contradiction here.
My overriding impression, therefore, is that Smith was being disingenuous when he claims the batting order has little to do with him. The idea there’s a disconnect between Smith and what XI takes the field is implausible. And if it’s actually true – and Bayliss and Smith aren’t discussing the needs of the team at selection meetings – then it’s quite bizarre and very worrying indeed. Perhaps that’s why, two minutes later, he backtracked / contradicted himself somewhat and conceded that ‘selection and the batting order’ are indeed linked after all.
Overall, I found that Smith’s interview clouded a number of issues rather than providing clarity. At one point he oddly claimed that England’s top order batting doesn’t matter, because this particular England team has been deliberately designed to compile totals via late order runs. In fact, he seemed a little upset that this aspect of his strategy had been overlooked by many people. And yet, in the very same interview, he claimed that the bowlers were picked because they’re the best pure bowlers available; and therefore the fact they batted well was a ‘bonus’ or happy coincidence. So which one is it, Ed? A cunning plan or one you stumbled upon?
The other thing that worried me is Smith’s views on statistics. He tried to argue that statistics can be misleading and that one must always look at the broader context of when runs were scored or when wickets were taken. He also warned against the dangers of reading too much into small sample sizes. All this makes perfect sense. You’ll get no complaint from me here. However, what worried me was Smith’ subsequent application of this theory in practice. And this revealed itself in his analysis of Keaton Jennings’s performances this summer.
Smith argued that Jennings could be excused his poor form – and all but confirmed he will go to Sri Lanka – because all openers have struggled this summer. It’s therefore harsh to judge the Lancs opener over this small sample size. What Smith is ignoring, of course, is that Jennings has played test cricket before; therefore the sample size isn’t as small as he claims. What’s more, he’s ignoring other factors that broaden the context i.e. the repetitive ways Jennings has been getting out.
Overall I sensed that Smith is only taking note of the evidence he wants to. And what of Mark Stoneman? He had to face a fired up Australian pace attack this winter and often looked better than Alastair Cook. Does the context of his failures not matter? Despite everything Ed argued, I reached the conclusion that subjectivity (not evidence) is what currently rules the roost. And it’s a little weird that Ed portrays his methods as somewhat scientific or forensic when they appear, at least to me, to be anything but.
No doubt many other people heard yesterday’s interview with Smith and found themselves nodding in agreement throughout. After all, he does sound very amenable, articulate, and intelligent. No doubt some might even feel relieved that after years of incoherence there’s finally a sensible and thoughtful chap with a good head on his shoulders in charge.
However, it’s my contention that if Smith applied his own analytical mind to his own interview, and examined it objectively, the essayist would soon find plenty of material to write critically about.
In my opinion, the fledgling Smith era has changed one thing: style and presentation. But look behind the beautifully annunciated concepts and the thinking remains flawed. Indeed, one could argue that his whole philosophy – this getting the best individuals on the field at all costs – breaks one of the most fundamental rules of team building. And there’s nothing remotely clever about that.