Our brave new world will be egg-shaped, at least if our lords and masters are able to bring their aspirations to fruition. According to Alastair Cook, the England cricket team will look to their counterparts in rugby union for inspiration – and as a template – as they look to rebuild after the disasters of the last six months.
Last week the skipper said he’s been impressed by the manner in which England rugby coach Stuart Lancaster has revived his side’s fortunes from a low ebb after taking charge in December 2011.
“Lessons should be learned from the way they have gone about it. Huge credit to Stuart and the guys for the way they have managed to change that. I imagine it has taken a hell of a lot of work and effort. They came second in the Six Nations three years in a row but everyone can see the development of the side.
“I went to watch them play against Ireland and it was a brilliant day. Stuart has obviously made some big calls about big players at certain stages of their career. He has picked people who are in form and who are playing well. Chris Ashton, he is an outstanding winger, he had a drop of form and they replaced him with a guy in form. Now ‘Ash the Splash’ has come back and done very well for Saracens and is back in the frame. That drives a higher standard.”
It’s not terribly often that Cook comes out with notions and analyses. I wonder where he got the idea from? By an extraordinary coincidence, ECB chairman Giles Clarke seems to have been mulling over something similar himself, as he revealed in an interview with the London Evening Standard’s Mihir Bose in March:
“Stuart Lancaster has done a fantastic job. In a very short space of time, he has sorted out English rugby. He’s talked the language of teams which Paul Downton and I like very much. Paul said to me, ‘If you look at the most successful sporting team over the last 100 years, of course, it is the All Blacks’. One of the fundamentals they live by is the team. You just don’t get to play if you don’t believe in it. In the end the team must matter.”
In other words, what’s happened is this: Downton’s come up with the brilliant observation that New Zealand are good at rugby, and therefore we should copy them. Clarke has bought this, and now Cook himself is parroting his boss’s line, substituting England for the All Blacks, and either consciously or unconsciously attempting to pass off someone else’s idea as his own.
At this point I should make a disclosure. I am biased, because I hate rugby union – the English variety, at least. For me, it’s a sport I associate with boorish dullards, estate agents, and public school-educated thugs. Rugby seems to have all the worst elements of cricket – elitism, old-school-tie cliqueiness, corporate arrogance – but none of the good ones. When I lived near Twickenham, I hated having to share a train with 600 beery accountants wearing stupid hats and Barbour jackets. At university, I hated how the rugby team took over the bar with their cruelty-tinged debauchery, and the way they all called each other by their surnames, as if they were still at Repton.
But I digress. My distaste for rugby is cultural, not technical, and in theory there’s no reason why one sporting team can’t learn constructive lessons from another. Nevertheless, you’ll surely forgive me for being cynical about the stall which Cook, Clarke and Downton are trying to set out.
For a start, they clearly haven’t remotely thought it through. The idea is less half-baked than quarter-baked. Which side do they want to copy – England or New Zealand? And which particular specific techniques or approaches of those teams do they hope to emulate? Are we talking about training methods, coaching structures, youth development, or what?
At the moment it sounds very vague – such and such a team are successful, so let’s try and be like them, because then we’ll be successful too. It’s a bit like forming a band and resolving to be like the Beatles, because they sold millions of records, without thinking about what kind of music you want to play.
Alastair Cook is basing his admiration for the England rugby team on two factors. First, he had fun at the Ireland game. Second, Stuart Lancaster drops players who are out of form, and then picks them again if they regain form – which hardly strikes me as a ground-breaking and revolutionary new departure in sporting philosophy.
Moreoever, Stuart Lancaster is a strange choice for a role-model, because despite having been in charge for two and a half years, he hasn’t actually won anything. England triumphed in the Six Nations the season before he was appointed, but have failed to in each of the three tournaments since. Giles Clarke might believe that “in a very short space of time, [Lancaster] has sorted out English rugby”, but it would be truer to say that in quite a long period of time, Lancaster has done moderately well – which doesn’t sound like much to aim at.
Mind you, as the ECB chairman also insists that “it’s utter nonsense to say [the England cricket team is] at some sort of massive low ebb”, it’s clear that he either lives on a different planet, or takes very strong hallucinogenic drugs.
Paul Downton, meanwhile, is obsessed with the All Blacks, whom he apparently views as “of course” the most successful sports team of the last century. That is in itself quite a claim, and one that Brazil’s footballers, Real Madrid, umpteen NFL and baseball franchises, and more usefully, several cricket teams, might have something to say about.
Downton is fixated with the notion of ‘team’. It’s like a religion to him – a vaguely-defined, cultish and militant belief-system which must have played a role in his sacking of you-know-who. But in all seriousness, exactly which elements of New Zealand rugby’s team-building culture can he meaningfully apply to the England cricket side? Will he get them doing the Haka?
Rugby union is a team sport in a very different way from cricket. In rugby, the interplay and interdependence between each of the fifteen players is direct and physical – passing, scrums, line-outs, rucks, and so forth. But cricketers bat and bowl alone. The winning of a cricket match is usually decided by the aggregate of individual performances. The ethos of team in cricket might be an attractive one but defining what it means in practical terms is a notoriously devilish business.
Clearly, all eleven players need to work hard, and with discipline, in pursuit of the common goal of winning matches. There will be times when a batsman needs to adapt his mode, if possible, to suit a match situation. Captain and bowlers need to achieve a workable consensus about tactics and fields. Everyone needs to field with commitment and zest. But all of these, surely, are minimum requirements of any professional cricketer. And none of those factors were obviously to blame, by their absence, for our side’s collapse in Australia. We lost five-nil chiefly because Australia batted and bowled much better, not because the players didn’t “live by the team”.
The most successful teams in test cricket history were not characterised by a zealous, unthinking faith in the cult of ‘team’. Both the West Indies sides of the 1970s and 1980s, and Australia’s in the 1990s and 2000s, were essentially loose and fragile coalitions of disparate individuals. The West Indians came from different countries. When Australia began to flirt with team-worship, several players rebelled – Shane Warne never bought into the nonsense, and refused to wear a Baggy Green, while Michael Clarke came to blows with Simon Katich for opting out of their post-match song so he could meet his girlfriend. But the team kept on winning regardless.
What those champion teams and others were characterised by was a preponderance of extremely talented players, operating at full throttle and with maximum confidence. The best sides are ultimately separated from the rest by something very simple: better cricketers, scoring more runs and taking more wickets. Just look the scorecards.
But there is a worthwhile lesson, albeit one requiring patience and commitment, which Downton and Clarke could learn from New Zealand – a country in which rugby is the number one sport, where their rugby team are a treasured national icon, and virtually every schoolboy dreams of pulling on the famous shirt. The All Blacks, as a result, can recruit from the absolute cream of every generation’s sporting and athletic talent – and the vitality of that player-pool feeds the strength of the test XV.
This is the dynamic which should genuinely inspire the ECB. They might think again, and with greater sincerity, about how to broaden the appeal, profile and player-base of English cricket. By making our national cricket side the gold standard for British sport, and by widening meaningful, sustained access to cricket for schoolchildren from urban areas and state schools – not just an occasional Chance to Shine roadshow – the talent pool will grow, and more of the most skilful and athletic youngsters will prosper at cricket.
The eventual result would be a greater number of exceptional professional players available for England selection. And by those means – having better players – are test matches ultimately won.
All of that is generally too tedious and laborious for the ECB to really contemplate trying. Instead, we get a load of inane waffle about ‘Ash the Splash’ and “living by the team”. Cook and Clarke’s vague platitudes are symptomatic of an England management whose response to the winter’s calamities involves moving a couple of the deckchairs around and speaking gobbledygook at press conferences. The genuinely scary thing about this rugby motif is that Cook and Downton have now had four months to think about how to rebuild the England team, and this is the best they can come up with.
(NB: many thanks to the excellent blogger Dmitri Old, who brought my attention to some of the above, and directed me to some of the material. You can read his work at cricketbydmitri.wordpress.com and on Twitter at @dmitriold)