Not all failings of England’s Test team can be blamed on county cricket | Barney Ronay
England in Australia: anatomy of a shellacking. The reviews are in. The play-by-play reports have been filed by those closest to this sullen and lifeless Ashes tour. Two things stand out.
Firstly, the startling mediocrity of so much of the basic management. There is no question, if only in the spirt of making the deckchairs look nice while the prow of the ship slides into the north Atlantic, that heads must roll, even if just in the name of keeping up appearances.
The second thing is the level of blame and misdirection around England’s defeat, a quality that seems in itself deeply instructive. To date, the roster of excuses offered up by players, management and connected parties has included: the umpires, the rain, the heat, the ball, the pitches, inexperience, bad luck, Darren Stevens, injury, tiredness, boozing, skin folds, not enough family time, too much family time, the need to play golf, playing too much golf, the bowling being too fast, the bowling being too accurate, the bowling being too bouncy, each other and, best of all, a Culture Of Excuses.
Plus of course Darren Stevens, and Darren Stevens again. It is a quirk of English cricket’s angst-ridden conversation with itself that Stevens’ name was mentioned so often over the first three Tests that he issued a statement asking people to stop bringing him into it.
With good reason too. Here’s a funny thing: Australian Test players in county cricket have a WhatsApp group where they talk about the difficulties of playing here. It’s called “Stevosgoingtogetyou”. And he is. Last summer Stevens bowled to Marnus Labuschagne twice and once to Travis Head. He got them out all three times, for 11, 11, and 20.
In reality Stevens is one of the good bits of county cricket – supremely skilful, supremely fit, famously encouraging to younger players, with 227 wickets at 18 to his name between ages 40 and 45. To hold him up as an embodiment of a failed culture is nuts. He’s the good bit, a reservoir of skill and knowledge, and the guarantor of a certain standard of localised difficulty.
But then the idea that what happens in the county game is all bad, or divorced in any meaningful sense from every other part of English cricket is clearly absurd. This does seem to be the playbook however.
Witness the recent comments of the ECB’s eternally slippery chief executive Tom Harrison , who has presided over county cricket for the last seven years, but who seemed startled to discover in the wake of Ashes defeat that there is so much work to be done here, so many problems that only he, Tom Harrison, can possibly solve.
More jarring was Joe Root’s comment that “anyone coming into this Test team at the minute is doing it in spite of county cricket, not because of county cricket.” Root’s wider point was more detailed and well-meaning, although there will always be something a little odd in hearing the highest-paid person in English cricket telling every county level coach, player, groundsman administrator, development officer, paying supporter and junior hopeful that the thing they like is trash and it’s basically their fault England have just lost 10 for 56 in Hobart.
In Root’s defence it is a well-worn tale. Pitches are poor, rewarding only 40-something bed-blockers. This in turn is not preparation for Test cricket where pitches are good and the bowlers quick (not actually true most of the time). And this is why the England Test team can’t make 300.
Is this true? The idea county cricket has consistently been an elite testing ground is definitely overplayed. If young players in the 1980s really were being pounded by a revolving attack of Sylvester Clarke and Clive Rice every week why were England so bad at batting?
Similarly the idea the current circuit is peopled solely by aged pie-throwing decadents is exaggerated. In his brief appearances for Yorkshire in the last three years Root has faced Michael Neser, Kyle Abbott, Stuart Broad, James Anderson, Fidel Edwards, Jake Ball, Jade Dernbach, Sam Curran, Peter Siddle, George Garton, Michael Hogan, Nathan Gilchrist and Miguel Cummins, while playing alongside South Africa’s current opening bowler, Duanne Olivier. Does this really sound like the end of days?
The other obvious problem with Root’s statement is that batters keep coming out of county cricket, starting well at Test level, then steadily getting worse. Ollie Pope averaged 47 after seven Tests against high-quality bowling, then fell through the floor as a centrally contracted England player. Is that somehow county cricket’s fault?
The same goes for Dom Sibley, who averaged 47 in nine games in his first full Test year then fell apart under the eyes of England’s elite coaches. Ditto Rory Burns, who has got worse as an England player, and also Zak Crawley, who made a double hundred straight out of county cricket then fell to bits once England got him into the system.
There is an aspect of being worked out here. It is common to have an early spike of form. Opposition bowlers find your weakness. You plateau out, then work and push on. Why has that not been happening? Why are England unable to oversee that development? This is surely the role of the elite pathway director, the elite batting coach, the head coach, the managing director. It definitely isn’t anything to do with Darren Stevens.
There are two points worth adding. Root’s complaints about not replicating exactly the conditions of Test cricket in advance are the words of a sports person who has been cosseted through a system from boyhood, who feels it is an oversight not to be spoon-fed the perfect prep.
How many successful people in the history of sport are given this? How many times had Shardul Thakur, Mohammed Siraj, Rishabh Pant and KL Rahul played red-ball cricket in England before last year? How hard and how desperately have England’s batters been begging the England fast bowlers to help prepare them for Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins? That gap is there to be bridged. That is the test. It can be done.
This isn’t to say county cricket is a healthy place. But it isn’t a separate, blameable entity, some toxic netherworld presided over by the hobgoblin king Darren Stevens. It is instead of a piece with everything else in English cricket, subject to the same scarce resources, invisibility, narrow demographic and careless management. Rather than blame, what it really needs is a little care.