There was an interesting interview with national selector Ed Smith in The Times over the weekend. I didn’t read it all because the article was doing an impression of live cricket in England i.e. it was hidden behind a paywall. However, a few tidbits from that interview have emerged on free-to-air media channels for our digestion. And thankfully we didn’t have to stay up past midnight to catch the best bits on C5.
The bulk of the article was about mental health and burnout amongst cricketers. Ed Smith talked a lot of sense. I’ve long thought that cricketers need more rest, especially because of the amount of time they spend away from their families, so I’m glad that cricket is finally catching up in this area. One only has to look at the performances of Stuart Broad during the Ashes to see what careful player management can do.
However, the bit I wanted to talk about today was Smith’s comments re: team selection. This has been a bit of a grey area for England in recent years. We’ve heard that the national selector picks the squad but then the team management (that’s the head coach with input from the support coaches) decide the final XI. But this approach has never really been officially codified. And it gets a bit confusing when England travel abroad and the match-day squad is often 16 or 17 players rather than 12 or 13.
This situation also gets a bit confusing because the selectors can occasionally present the head coach with a squad that doesn’t really add up. Take Ollie Pope’s test debut against India for example. The national selector seemed to choose Pope because he was the flavour of the month without really considering where he might bat.
When it came the choosing the final XI, Bayliss put Pope at No.4 (because this is where he thought the vacancy in the batting order was) even though young Ollie had never batted this high for Surrey. It was all a bit awkward and Pope’s first taste of test cricket ended in disappointment.
The problem back then was that the thinking wasn’t joined up. From the outside it looked as though Smith and the team management were on different pages and hadn’t really consulted each other.
Subsequently it looks as thought Smith tried to address this problem by becoming more involved in discussions surrounding the final XI. However, I don’t think this was a particularly good solution either. After all, who outranks who in this situation?
If there’s a disagreement, and it’s inevitable that different cricketing minds will disagree from time to time, is it the chairman of selectors (or national selector in new money) or the head coach who gets final say? It’s possible that the coach would feel under pressure to acquiesce to something he feels uncomfortable with – especially as the selectors seem to choose the over-arching team strategy these days. That’s why Ed Smith was able to implement his policy of picking all-rounders rather than specialists last year.
What’s more, England also have Ashley Giles the director of cricket lurking in the background. Where does Gilo fit into all this? It’s in Gilo’s job description to choose the overall direction of English cricket. The expression “too many cooks” springs to mind.
Thankfully, however, it looks like England have now identified this as a problem area and have taken steps to resolve the issue. In his Times interview Smith made it clear that the selectors (himself and James Taylor) will choose the squad but they will allow Chris Silverwood, the new head coach, to have the final say when it comes to the XI.
This seems throughly sensible to me. The head coach is in a much better position to assess the form, fitness, and mental state of the players than a national selector. The coach also knows the players better on a personal level.
Having said that, however (and this is where it gets confusing), Smith said there will still be some attempt to consult and collaborate. This is because Smith or Taylor will speak to the head coach two days before every game to discuss the final XI:
We will have a call two days out before every Test match … We’ll look at the options. If it’s these conditions that guy plays, in those conditions that guy plays. Two days out you have that discussion, so everyone is in the loop.
Although this sounds reasonable on the surface, I would still like to know what happens if there’s some disagreement. Presumably the head coach can overrule the selectors? And it still doesn’t solve the problem of the head coach being given a squad that he doesn’t particularly like. And why two days before a game? Why not one day? Or three days? Or on the morning of the match?
Personally I would prefer it if these discussions weren’t necessary at all. And England could do this by simply giving the coach more input earlier in the process i.e. by involving him in the selection process from the start; therefore he can state his case at the very beginning. He can say exactly what he thinks the team needs – whether that’s extra pace, extra batting, another spin option, a specialist keeper etc – and then the selectors can take that onboard before they pick the squad so all bases are covered.
Now I don’t doubt that Ed Smith and Trevor Bayliss had many discussion about the team (whether formal or informal) over the years. One could argue, therefore, that there’s no need to formalise these processes. However, it does raise the question of what the best way to operate an international cricket team is. How would you do it?
England have tried all kinds of things over the decades. There was a time when senior journalists basically picked the England squad. They’d create bandwagons that hapless and ineffectual selectors felt they couldn’t ignore.
Then we’ve experienced the other extreme where Ray Illingworth acted as a supremo and seemed to be in charge of absolutely everything. Dictatorship is rarely an attractive concept but if it’s a highly capable dictator (which by most accounts Illingworth was not) then I can see this system working in certain circumstances. After all, you can’t get more joined up that one man controlling all aspects of the team.
The other question is where the captain fits into all this? What influence will Joe Root have over the final XI that takes the field? What influence should he have? I guess it depends how much faith one has in your captain.
We’ve had situations in the past when the captain clearly hasn’t trusted a particular bowler thrust upon him. I always got the impression, for example, that Root never really rated Adil Rashid – not in test matches anyway. There were also times during the recent Ashes when it looked like Root was extremely reluctant to throw the ball to Chris Woakes (although Woakes’s fitness might have played a part in this).
We’ve also had extreme examples in the past when the captain doesn’t even know who his bowlers are. When Alan Igglesden walked into the England dressing room for his debut in 1989, captain David Gower gave him the “you’re not allowed in here mate” look and asked him who the hell he was.
So how should the selection process work in your eyes? Here’s how I would do it. I would make the head coach indisputably the most senior person involved. The buck would stop with them. The coach would obviously consult with the captain, and talk to the captain about what the team needs, but overall the head coach – very much like most football managers – would be the top dog.
In my ideal model the national selector would be below the head coach in the pecking order. The selectors would simply be there to serve a very specific purpose: to find the head coach the players he needs. A bit like how, according to football website Buaksib, a football manager might ask a head scout or director of football to find him players.
The strength of this model is that the person closest to the team is making the most important decisions and directing the overall strategy. The head coach will determine the overall ‘brand’ of cricket (I hate that expression, don’t you?) so if he wants an attacking opener, or even a stodgy opener, then it’s up to the selectors to find him that player.
The good thing about this system is that it’s clear cut. Everyone knows who is in charge. There would be no awkward discussions 48 hours before a game. The selectors are simply there to select. They’re like scouts; therefore they would have no input whatsoever into who makes the final XI.
Although it’s great that England are heading in the right direction (because they’ve acknowledge that processes need to be in place), there’s still an inherent ambiguity in the way they’re currently doing things. After all, we still don’t know who is responsible for the overall performances of the England team. Is Ed Smith the man in charge or is it Chris Silverwood? Who is more senior than who? And where does Ashley Giles fit into all this?
At the moment one could argue that the England side is almost run by committee. A braintrust chews the fat, talks things through, and then decisions emerge through consensus.
However, one does get the impression that Ed Smith is the overall guru in charge. But maybe we only get that impression because he’s the media savvy one who’s keenest to share his philosophies in public? Geoff Miller and James Whitaker rarely did that when they were the national selector.
It’s all a bit strange. I’ve been writing and reading about English cricket for about twenty-five years. But I have absolutely no idea who is in charge. Therefore, if were to England lose their next ten test matches, who’s head would be first on the block? All of them could make a compelling case that it’s not their fault, guv.
Written in collaboration with Buaksib
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