Saturday, 19 May 2012

England's Strategy for Success

All for One, One for All

Simon Hughes in Cricinfo

It was in 1997 that the chairman of the ECB, Lord MacLaurin, declared England would be the best team in the world within a decade. His aspiration was ridiculed at the time - and two years later England sank to the bottom of the unofficial Wisden world rankings. In 2011, with the 4-0 win over India, they finally realised their ambition. Four years late, perhaps, but no one was counting - even if the calculators were out again in 2012 when they lost 3-0 to Pakistan. 

There were many reasons for their elevation, not least the decline of other, once distinguished, sides. But to cite that alone would be to belittle England's feat, which was the result of considerable talent, careful planning and total dedication. To attain sporting predominance, it was ever thus.
Central contracts, introduced during Duncan Fletcher's regime, in 2000, were a major factor. They gave the players a sense of belonging at international level, empowered the coaches to work closely with their charges and, vitally, gave them time. England now have a backroom staff who at times outnumber the players. While this arouses some scepticism in the media, especially among the in-my-day fraternity, there is no doubting their worth as England transformed the art of cricket into something more scientific. In that spirit, here is a suitably ordered analysis of their route to the top.
1. The right stuff
It all began when Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower, two determined and ambitious men, joined forces in early 2009. Their first step was to identify players with the right character, and sift out anyone not completely in tune with the team's goals. Chief among these were Andrew Flintoff - emblematic as ever as he approached the end of his career, but a law unto himself - and his faintly lethargic sidekick Steve Harmison. Flower recognised the team was sprinkled with what he regarded as individual plcs and saw the importance of selling them off. He and Strauss developed a slogan, "The team is not a hire car", which encouraged the players to treat it with care and respect, rather than take advantage of it like a hatchback leased from Avis. They introduced a new level of commitment, consideration and honesty, and everyone bought into the ethos. Now, there was genuine delight at each other's successes.
2. Cover all bases
Keen to draw on ideas from other sports, Flower went to The Oval soon after taking over to watch a game of American football, strangely enough. He was struck not only by the number of coaches employed by the NFL's Green Bay Packers, but by the meticulous organisation of the pre-match training. As a result, England rehearse their roles with all manner of accessories. There are bright orange ramps off which close catches are skimmed; extra-thin bats for slicing slip catches; rubber clubs for whacking balls into orbit; springy stumps or mini-goals to shy at; and small square frames of elasticated mesh off which the ball ricochets to replicate bat-pad catches. Every possible fielding scenario is visualised and practised with total concentration. Unsurprisingly, England's out-cricket has been consistently better than anyone else's, while Jimmy Anderson - who among other key positions now stands at slip to Graeme Swann - is possibly the best all-round fielder England have ever had.
3. Wot no football?
Warm-ups with a kickabout had become an incongruous cliche´: in no other sport do players prepare by playing, well, another sport. Since the arrival as fitness coach of Welshman Huw Bevan, the former conditioning coach of the Ospreys rugby union team, England's training has been more rigorous, while the drills fit the disciplines. Fast bowlers are taken through a succession of 24 short sprints to replicate a four-over spell. Batsmen bat overs and are ordered to run the occasional three during an enervating net. Fielders are carefully filmed to pinpoint their biomechanical strengths and weaknesses. Data relating to successful catches, diving stops and run-outs is also collated by assistant coach Richard Halsall.

With an incessant schedule and frequent back-to-back Tests, stamina is vital. By keeping training varied, Bevan has raised fitness standards to almost Olympic levels. One of Flower's favourite moments of the 2010-11 Ashes win came when Jonathan Trott, after batting more than eight hours for an undefeated 168 in Melbourne, still had the energy, alertness and agility to swoop low at extra cover and run out Phil Hughes early in Australia's reply. The practice - amusing to some - of running over to a team-mate to congratulate him after a good stop not only induces a feeling of claustrophobia in the batsman but wards off lethargy in the field.
4. The whole world in one place
For some time England have led the field in cricket gadgets. Following on from Merlyn, an ingenious piece of engineering that can propel any kind of spin to precise specification, was ProBatter, a souped-up bowling machine that had the approach and delivery of opposing bowlers projected, film-like, on to its front to face the batsman. Using Hawk-Eye data, it can even reproduce actual overs from Tests.

This is as close as it gets to cricketing time travel: if you didn't handle a spell very well first time round, now is your chance to make amends. In effect, ProBatter transports the international game's bowling brethren to the nets at the ECB Academy in Loughborough. There is also a device that measures the amount of revolutions imparted by a spinner; unsurprisingly, Swann scores highly.
5. Pinpoint accuracy
England collect a wealth of data on their opponents. For any opposing batsman, the pitch is divided into coloured squares, with a statistic in each one revealing how the batsman fares when the ball lands there. In some cases, it confirms what everyone already knew: Mike Hussey, for example, is brutal against anything short and wide. But it also offers the bowlers clues about a batsman's weaknesses: in 2011, it proved a major aid in combating Sachin Tendulkar, as England plugged away outside off in the knowledge this was the best means of keeping him quiet.

Most significantly, England had the bowlers to put these plans into action. Anderson, in particular, can land the ball in the same spot time after time, though he is also extraordinarily versatile. Two deliveries from the recent past stand out: the ball to dismiss the left-handed Hussey for eight in Melbourne, tantalisingly pitched a fraction outside off stump, just short of a half-volley, inviting the drive, then nipping away a fraction to take the edge; and a near mirror-image to the right-handed Virender Sehwag in the second innings at Edgbaston. The plan had been to bowl straight as a die, but Stuart Broad said in the dressing-room beforehand: "I've just had a vision: Sehwag caught Strauss bowled Anderson zero." Anderson decided to offer the Indian opener, on a pair, the carrot of a driveable ball. Just as Broad had predicted, Sehwag had a swish and sliced it to Strauss at first slip to depart for a king pair. Despite their superb discipline, then, the bowlers were never dissuaded from going with their hunches.
6. Cherish the ball
The potency of a new ball is taken as read, and England generally make excellent use of it. With the help of bowling coach David Saker they focused on the periods when a ball is older and less effective, and worked on different strategies. Led by Anderson, they developed the wobble-seam delivery for use when the ball has lost its initial shine - after about 20 overs - but still has a proud seam. Released with the seam slightly canted, rather than bolt upright, the ball lands on the edge of the seam, then moves unpredictably. With meticulous care, they were also able to find reverse-swing earlier, sometimes by the 12th over. The key is to keep the ball scrupulously dry, so it is kept off the grass, or bounced on bare, rough parts of the square, and religiously passed back to the bowler via the sweat-free Alastair Cook.
7. Don't change gear
If bowlers are Test-match finishers, then batsmen do the spadework. But until recently England have rarely run up mammoth totals. Watching the way prolific subcontinental batsmen such as Mahela Jayawardene and Rahul Dravid assembled their scores, they realised the secret was to keep playing the same way throughout an innings, rather than seek to go through the gears and finally dominate the bowlers. Players such as Cook and Trott abided by this philosophy, picking up their runs quietly, unobtrusively, incessantly. They never sought to score in unfamiliar areas, sticking instead to their own risk-free plans. Cook's extraordinary propensity to avoid sweating - his sole pair of batting gloves were still bone dry after his marathon 294 against India at Edgbaston - has certainly helped.
Graham Gooch - England's leading run-scorer and now the batting coach - has been a major influence in this regard. He focused the players' minds with simple sayings like "play straight - be great", and encouraged them to convert "daddy" hundreds (150-plus) into "grand-daddies" (200-plus). He has also been unstinting in his support, whether feeding them thousands of balls with his ingenious Sidearm thrower, or hardening their mental approach. The result was six individual double-centuries in 12 Tests and seven team totals of over 500.
8. The end of the tail-end
One statistic put the England-India series into perspective: England's last five wickets averaged 57 runs each; India's 20. This was no accident, for the England lower order spend almost as much time in the nets as the main batsmen. Importantly, though, there is no pressure applied to them from the top and middle order: each lower-order batsman ("tailender" now feels obsolete) is encouraged to be positive and do what comes naturally, as long as it is not reckless and takes into consideration both the batting partner and the match situation.
9. Doing the maths
Flower was profoundly influenced by Moneyball, Michael Lewis's fascinating account of how the Oakland Athletics baseball team used statistics and computer analysis to improve their results. The recruitment of Nathan Leamon - cricket coach, maths boffin, and known in the team as "Numbers" - has been significant. On a daily basis, he enters individual, team, ground and other historical data into the Monte Carlo simulator, a specially designed computer program which forecasts the probability of various eventualities. These projections form the basis of England's decision-making - from team selection and what to do at the toss, to declarations, field settings and bowling strategies. Leamon played the Melbourne Test of 2010-11 through his simulator thousands of times in advance, concluding that England were 15-20% more likely to win if they bowled first. The statistics not only convinced England, but also invigorated them after their defeat at Perth: on Boxing Day, at the spiritual home of Australian sport, they put the home side in and promptly skittled them for 98. Three days later, the Ashes had been retained.
10. A constant quest
As a player, Flower had a restless desire for self-improvement. As a coach, he has imbued that urge in his team, though he admitted he fell short of his own high standards before the series against Pakistan in the UAE; if that was untypical, his honesty was not. Flower says he tries to make each individual keen to discover how good they can possibly be, which is why he and the coaching staff offer the players regular challenges to better themselves. The squad met at Cardiff Castle at the beginning of last summer to discuss how they could continue to progress. All the bowlers and three batsmen - Cook, Trott and Pietersen - were regarded as having attained world-class status after the Ashes, but others were lagging behind. By the end of last summer, during which the bowlers continued to reign supreme, England had four batsmen (now including Ian Bell) in the world top 10, two genuine allrounders (Broad and Tim Bresnan), plus Matt Prior, who had the best batting average of any England wicketkeeper. In short, they had no weak link. In the end, it was hardly surprising they crushed India.

Between the nadir of 51 all out in Jamaica in February 2009 and the end of 2011, England played 34 completed Tests, won 20 and lost only four. When asked to pinpoint one underlying reason for their success, Strauss said simply: "A team working together." While this may sound tautological, in high-level sport it is notoriously hard to achieve. Just ask Martin Johnson or Fabio Capello.

No comments:

Post a Comment