It seemed like enough was enough.
After England’s second shambolic Test winter in a row, where they failed to win one of their seven Test matches in Australia and New Zealand, ECB Director of Cricket Andrew Strauss felt that change needed to happen. Out went James Whittaker as National Selector and in came Ed Smith as his replacement. In addition, a greater ‘scouting system with designated discipline-specific scouts’ has been implemented to identify County Cricket’s star performers more quickly and accurately.
Whittaker’s position became virtually untenable after several selection blunders over the past two years, including not picking more worthy spin candidates for the 2016/17 tours to Bangladesh and India and refusing to bring in much-needed pace in Australia this winter, among others. One would hope that the intelligent Smith, who uses data heavily to influence his selections, will produce far more popular and astute calls.
The new scouting system is also a smart move. England Head Coach Trevor Bayliss has admitted before that he does not watch enough County Cricket to identify who is worthy of a Test call-up and who isn’t. Such refusal to do so has left the likes of Liam Livingstone, a man with a first-class average of over 50 before this season began, without a Test cap and others with far less impressive numbers picked instead. The new system should help feedback information to Smith and Bayliss about who is best equipped to deal with the demands of Test cricket.
Although these changes are a step in the right direction, there is still one huge issue that is yet to be resolved – the coaching. Andrew Strauss and the ECB have long been a fan of employing former players who have played at the highest level, mainly due to their experience of playing in pressure situations. And while there may have been some logic in that initially, recent results are pointing a different way.
The focus has been on England’s travails this winter but, over in the West Indies, the performance of the England Lions against a reasonably weak Windies A side is also a serious cause for concern. The Lions lost all three unofficial Tests and, in six innings, could not muster a total above 260. Their chief destroyer was left-arm off-spinner Jomel Warrican, who took 31 wickets at an extraordinary average of 8.96. Warrican averages 46.27 in four Tests for the Windies.
It underlined two things. One – England still have very little idea about how to play spin effectively. Two – the coaches in charge are not doing enough to make England productive against spin bowling.
There seems to be a serious issue with the batting coaches, especially. Mark Ramprakash and Graham Thorpe were two superb batsmen in their playing days but being a great player does not necessarily make you a good coach. Both have been known to just throw balls down to players instead of offering them valuable advice both technically and mentally. The question remains: what are they offering to England’s batsmen? The answers seem to be out on the pitch – not a lot.
Are the ECB afraid to make changes in this department? We have seen their ambition in changing the structure of English cricket but getting rid of two coaches who are big names in the English circuit seems to be a sticking point. Both have failed to make any progress with England’s batsmen in the longer form of the game and if the ECB are serious about making England a top Test side again, you would think Ramprakash and Thorpe would have to pay the price.
Another confusing aspect about the ECB’s stance on coaching is the absence of a technical batting coaching within their ranks. England’s batsmen, along with those in the England Lions and in the County game, have continuously had technical faults exposed against opposition bowlers, especially during such a poor run of form over the past two years.
You would be forgiven to think that a technical expert would be an extremely useful addition to the coaching staff to fix English batsmen’s problems against swing, pace and spin. Someone like freelance coach Gary Palmer, who has been working with Alastair Cook since 2015. Palmer helped Cook adopt a more open stance and emphasised a straighter bat in his strokes. Not only did it mean he can score even more freely through the leg-side without tipping over and losing his balance, but it has allowed him to play more frequently and effectively through the ‘V’.
Admittedly, Cook’s form waned significantly over the winter but this is largely due to the fact that Palmer was not there to help him. It’s no secret that Cook is a high maintenance player and needs a coach to groove his foot movement consistently in order for his batting to flow smoothly. When available, Palmer offers that. Without Palmer, like he was this winter, Cook struggles to maintain such a rhythm. The only session Palmer and Cook had this winter was in Perth during the third Ashes Test. The next Test, Cook scored 244 not out and looked as fluent as he’s ever been.
And that is why having a technical batting coach is so important. It helps players find better ways of coping with what challenges the opposition bowlers offer, and consistent grooving and practice of that technique is vital. Given the technical flaws in England’s batting over the past two years, especially, the lack of such a coach is alarming as much as it is confusing.
The same goes for fast bowling. It’s well known that in England there is not a plethora of pacemen capable of bowling above 90mph in County Cricket at the moment. That could well be down to a lack of technique being taught in young bowlers’ actions but yet again, technical coaches like Ian Pont aren’t being used in the England ranks.
The standard of coaching is currently a real issue in English cricket. The ‘jobs for the boys’ mentality that the ECB seem to have may look impressive on paper but it’s, in fact, yielding very little results on the field. The ECB have shown they are capable of making changes when necessary, now they must address the real big issue. Failure to do so could soon leave them slipping further and further behind the best of the rest in world cricket.