Where's the human touch?

There was something about England's cricket team, even when it was winning, that did not entirely connect with the public mood
David Hopps January 1, 2014

By the end of the year Alastair Cook had turned into an increasingly hollow-eyed captain © Getty Images

This was the year that the English public fell out of love with its cricket team. It was not the case for everybody and there was reason to presume, as always, that it was only a temporary estrangement. But there was no doubt as 2013 came to an end that the powerful bond forged during England's tempestuous 2005 Ashes victory was broken. It's been emotional, said the English cricket public. But, at least for now, let's cool it.

As England completed the year 4-0 down in Australia, the Ashes relinquished, and facing the threat of a whitewash if they lost the final Test in Sydney, consternation had long given way to condemnation. England had endured beatings in Australia before but most had been against sides touched by greatness. This Australian side had its heroes, how could it not, but it was a long way from greatness. It made England's feeble display all the harder to bear.

But the source of public disaffection ran deeper than simply whether England were winning or not. Even their 3-0 defeat of Australia in the English summer - a Test series played out to packed houses - had been met with grudging praise. There was something about England's cricket team, even when winning, even as many of its most celebrated players reached maturity, that did not entirely connect with the public mood and, as the New Year came, and the talk was of new beginnings, an examination of that disaffection was necessary.

For Paul Downton, a former England wicketkeeper and the new MD of England cricket, it will be quite an introduction to the job. Andy Flower went into meetings with him as the year turned, indicating that he wished to play a central role in a new era - a new era that in his view demanded the retention of Alastair Cook as captain, a man hugely respected for his batsmanship and general good-eggedness rather than his tactical acumen, and no dismantling of his gargantuan backroom staff. Essentially, the message was that they should be entrusted with the rebuilding of a new side.

Had England's planning now become so stifling that players felt disempowered, even demotivated?

But England's commitment to micro-management - and nobody believed in it more than Flower - was itself under scrutiny as the year turned sour. Cook, an increasingly hollow-eyed captain, had some justification in suggesting that the same careful planning and large support structure that had been hailed as a prime reason for a Test series win in India a year earlier was now being held up as the problem as a tour of Australia went belly up, but the comment of an England player in early summer that he sometimes felt as if he was being marked when he went to the toilet kept springing to mind.

Had England's planning now become so stifling that players felt disempowered, even demotivated? Had England, with their data-driven tactics, psychological counselling on tap, and a commitment to nutrition so detailed that it resulted in the publication of a much-ridiculed cookbook, built a support structure so all-consuming that it was now having a negative effect? And, if the thrill had gone, and fatigue taken hold, had the public begun to spot it before the players themselves?

That debate was thrown into focus in 2013 by the presence of an Australia coach, Darren Lehmann, drawn from the old school. Lehmann used data - he would be a fool not to, and Australia clearly had good plans, but he liked to give the impression that the knowledge gleaned would be disseminated over a couple of beers. Australia's cricket - even when they were losing the big moments in the English summer - was approached with verve and aggression. They had the human touch, in their vices as well as virtues. It was hard to see that freshness in England. England, whatever their protestations, lacked joy.

That two players failed to reach the end of the Ashes series in Australia encapsulated the year. Jonathan Trott, it emerged, had been controlling a stress-related condition for much of his England career. When he left the tour abruptly after England's defeat in the first Test in Brisbane, a perfectionist no longer able to cope, it was another reminder of the pressures of top-level sport when expectations are so high and an excuse culture is not to be tolerated. Mitchell Johnson's ferocious pace was the catalyst, but it was misguided to represent it as the cause, and those who equated Trott's departure with a lack of courage could hardly have been more inane. As Flower said, Trott had been England's rock at No. 3 and they suffered in his absence.

Graeme Swann's premature international retirement after three Tests was an expression of individual freedom at best, self-indulgent at worst. That such a popular player, in the timing of his departure, revealed a disconnect between this England team and its public was dispiriting. Swann deserved to be hailed as one of the most popular England players of his generation, an offspinner second only to Jim Laker in most eyes, and someone who was rightly cherished for playing and discussing the game with such evident delight.

Former players queued up to defend Swann's right to retire from international cricket when he wished. Others regarded him too fondly to criticise him. But polls suggested that a substantial majority were deeply dismayed by his failure to see the tour through, even if his debilitating elbow condition meant that he might finish it dropped and carrying the drinks. Revealingly, he would not have retired if the series had not already been lost. Those sitting through the night to follow England on TV, or fumbling for their radios or mobile phones at 6am to discover more bad news, wanted a display of solidarity, however meaningless, and that they did not receive it until the bitter end strengthened their conviction that something was awry.

Graeme Swann at a press conference announcing his retirement from international cricket, Melbourne, December 22 2013
Graeme Swann's premature retirement: an expression of individual freedom at best, self-indulgent at worst © Getty Images

England's decline was also seen, less controversially, in the form of Matt Prior. He began the year by saving the Auckland Test in March, won the England Player of the Year award, and was made Test vice-captain. By the end of the year, he was dropped, his international career in the balance. James Anderson was second only to Ian Botham on England's list of Test wicket-takers by the end of the year, but led the attack at times with a weary air. Of the coming men, whose progress was suddenly more urgent, Joe Root brought hope - even if his place at No. 3 in Australia proved to be overly ambitious - as did Ben Stokes, whose powerfully struck hundred in Perth left England dreaming of a quality allrounder in the making and a return to a five-strong attack.

For a decade and more, England's improvement had essentially been supervised by two Zimbabwean coaches, Duncan Fletcher and Andy Flower. Even the interregnum - the unsuccessful appointment of an English coach, Peter Moores, with a strong work ethic - did not change the overall mood. The much-needed commitment to instil greater professionalism into English cricket, and use the ECB's millions to fund it, was hugely successful.

The sound planning was still evident. England's defeat of Australia in an unusually dry home summer had been plotted on slow, attritional surfaces, which played to England's strengths - the reverse swing of Anderson, the offspin of Swann, the technical excellence of Ian Bell, and their general contentment playing a methodical, patient game - but it did not make for exciting cricket. And Mitchell Johnson reminded England, just as Saaed Ajmal had the previous year, that when they were faced by real pace or spin, all the planning in the world could not spare them.

Five wins, five draws (three in a stalemate in New Zealand) and four defeats told of a middling Test side. In 50-over cricket, under the guidance of Ashley Giles (who was promoted to limited-overs coach to give Flower more time with his family), they reached the final of the Champions Trophy in a chilly early summer in England, but any talk of progress was stilled by a heavy defeat in a bilateral series against Australia and by the end of the year they had lost as many matches, ten, as they had won. In T20, the story was much the same and, until England's best players gained more exposure in IPL, it is unlikely to change.

England played more than was healthy, they had too many international grounds to finance, the standard of their domestic cricket had dipped and their own relaunched T20 tournament would have to continue to make do without England players. By the end of the year, their rise to No. 1 in all three forms of the game was a memory. Talk of legacies had long been abandoned. Attention had turned to how England would negotiate their way through a difficult period.

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Posted by Dummy4 on (January 5, 2014, 13:37 GMT)

Very balanced, fair assessment. Sporting supremacy always comes in cycles; this has just been just very sudden.

The manner of it has been most concerning, though. I don't recall anyone except our own Geoff Boycott quitting mid-tour before. As they say: "When the going gets tough, Swannie gets going. Home that is. And to his literary agent no doubt." Contemptible, quite frankly. Chipper and brave but only when it's going his way.

There are others who need to have a good honest look in the mirror, not to apply more hair gel but to reflect on what they see.I exempt Trott and Cook from this. The image of the haunted Trott leaving the field on his final innings is the saddest sporting pic of the year. Cook has soldiered on with dignity.

No. They were about half as good as we thought but only a quarter as good as they thought themselves.

Posted by Leslie on (January 4, 2014, 13:18 GMT)

Bloody honest assessment Hoppsy. I think you have got to grips with the magnitude of England's problems more than any other CI columnist.

Posted by Dummy4 on (January 3, 2014, 0:06 GMT)

God you English are a touch crowd! They had a bad series, sure it was pretty woeful but almost exact same things were being said about the Aussies just a few months ago.

Yes they are a bit mechanical but it has worked. Kind of like the way Sampras used to get criticised for being too robotic. Who cares it worked.

As for the sledging, I really don't know what the heck you are talking about. I watched almost every ball of the last 3 ashes series and I didn't see anything over the top from the English. As an Aussie I hate to admit this, but the behavious of Johnson, Warner and co. is just embarrassing. It's just downright abuse and makes them very difficult to like.

Posted by Dummy4 on (January 2, 2014, 12:38 GMT)

I have to agree with the disconnect. I am finding myself become more indifferent to international cricket, and more in tune with the more human interaction of country cricket. It seems, and the sledging row has exacerbated this, that international cricketers are beginning to emulate their premiership football equivalents.

Posted by Dummy4 on (January 2, 2014, 11:48 GMT)

Absolutely or essentially bang-on, is this article. Very articulate. It has been very depressing watching this series, and there has been a little of that 'deadness' / lack of the human-touch in the England team, ever since Flintoff left, perhaps since Strauss left too... I don't blame Cook, he is senstivie you can tell,-although he lacks charisma. At thsi juncture, it does not seem like England are going to win this last, final Test, but I, most of all, wanna see Pieterson bat and Bat and Bat -for hours hopefully, indeed for a whole day. He is so great and beautifully-eccentric to watch!

Posted by Dummy4 on (January 2, 2014, 8:59 GMT)

@antiblogger, yes, it's just one of those things. Haddin and Johnson especially are having an absolutely incredible series, but it's not really down to Lehmann. Neither of them will be this good over their careers overall, and if Aussies other young quickies had been fit (seems to be an issue ?) Johnson may well not have been picked, and Haddin might not have been anyway. Good luck to them , and kudos on their efforts this time, but it won't last, just like Bell's summer. Sometimes the Gods are with you - and sometimes - Johnson on the last Ashes tour of Oz, they aren't.

I tend to agree with Benaud who is quoted as saying Captaincy is 10% skill and 90% luck, but don't try it without the 10%. Same applies to being a manager. Results, approaches are measured with the benefit of hindsight and it's a lot easier to captain a winning team than pull up a struggling one (Cook's problem).

Posted by Pankaj on (January 2, 2014, 7:21 GMT)

Good work David. Maybe the disaffectation was because of the knighthoods dished out after the 2005 Ashes. While 2005 remains a good series, it was just that - a good series. The English team had not really done anything in the direction of eradication of poverty, malnutrition, AIDS or even an attempt to create a cheaper automotive fuel. All that takes 100 or 200 man-years, and even then no guarantee of knighthood. It could also be that the English public in stages has seen through the massive talk-up given by the media. But it takes some courage to write on it, that too with perspective. Legacies forsooth.

Posted by $$ milind on (January 2, 2014, 4:11 GMT)

This English team under Cook really are robots in a sense, they don't really apply their brains instantaneously. They need some gutsy cricketers like Flintoff, Gough or few like their opponents Warner, Mitch, Hadds. Hope they get into some worthy form and start winning matches, Also, their ODI team with Cook, Bell, Trott in the top 3 fail to provide any impetus. Hard time ahead, best of luck England for 2014.

Posted by David on (January 1, 2014, 23:01 GMT) - Staff member

@Nicholas Horne. I can see your point, Nicholas. But I didn't say Australia were "weak". I said not great, and certainly not to be compared to those of recent vintage which beat England heavily. Big difference.

@shillingsworth. I've seen and heard more than enough evidence to believe the level of disaffection in the summer towards an Aashes-winning England side was strange and real. You might well think the opinion is nonsense, but it sure as hell ain't "lazy journalism."

Posted by Dummy4 on (January 1, 2014, 22:16 GMT)

As ever Hopps is sound (and he always writes well). But, whether or not he's right about a disconnect with the public mood is relevant neither to the current performances, nor to Swann's (or Trott's) premature departure. Where I think he (and many other worthy commentators) go wrong is in dismissing the current Australian side as a poor one because, compared with (say) 2006/7, it has two relatively weak batsmen (Smith and Bailey) and one relatively weak bowler (Lyon). I reckon this a good Aussie team. (Curiously, re this series compared with 2006/7 when we were last thrashed by Australia, three of England's main batsmen THEN are currently main batsmen NOW, but Clarke alone is an Australian batsman who features in each series. And, NONE of the regular Australian bowlers in 2006/7 feature also in 2013/4, whilst two of ours (Panesar and Anderson) do. A statistician looking at this might conclude that it is the AUSTRALIANS who have strength in depth, not us with our county cricket.

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