Ben Stokes celebrates after England's clean sweep over Pakistan
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At 10pm last Monday, England head coach Chris Silverwood logged on for a hastily arranged Zoom call. In consultation with Ashley Giles, England’s director of men’s cricket, Mo Bobat, England’s performance director, the head scout James Taylor and Ben Langley, the lead physiotherapist, Silverwood had to pick an entirely new England squad.
After two hours of discussions, interspersed with sending WhatsApp messages to county head coaches and directors of cricket about players’ availability, England selected a new 18-player squad to replace those withdrawn because of an outbreak of Covid-19.
Eight days after being selected, the squad clinched a remarkable 3-0 victory over Pakistan, sealed with a win that was entirely in keeping with the Eoin Morgan template: chasing down 332 with two overs still to spare. It was a victory that felt like a collective triumph for the English game.
Even before the pandemic, a major focus within English cricket in recent years has been deepening playing depth. This emphasis is borne of recognition of how much the skills required in the red and white ball game are diverging and an acceptance that the schedule will remain unrelenting.
Where once England could achieve their goals with a team – they only used 12 players during the entire 2005 Ashes series – now they can only achieve them with a squad. “Depth is a necessity if you want to achieve some sort of sustained success,” says Bobat.
One simple tool shows the rigour that England give to developing their squad. For all three international formats they have depth charts, a concept imported from US sports. These rank England’s options across a variety of roles – as specific as No 3s or left-arm quicks in one-day cricket – which enables the management to easily assess their options in each specific role and identify areas of comparative weakness.
For instance, if the depth chart suggested a lack of left-armers in ODI cricket, England would attempt to use the Lions programme to accelerate the development of players who could fulfil this role in years to come.
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“At any given time you might think what your shadow starting XI is. You also think of depth of talent of each role,” Bobat says. The depth charts – and most importantly, team selections – are influenced by the 11 specialist scouts that England use, overseen by Taylor. These compile regular scouting reports on all players of interest to England, providing a regular barometer of players’ capabilities and progress, enabling England to gauge how their teams may develop.
Yet the contrast between England’s brilliant victory over Pakistan and a far less depleted team being well-defeated by New Zealand in the Test series highlights that England’s pursuit of depth has been far more successful in limited-overs cricket. The nature of domestic cricket in the red and white ball games helps to explain why.
In Test cricket, England are stymied by how divorced the County Championship is from the five-day game: they are essentially different sports. Since 2015, there is less spin bowled in the County Championship than in domestic cricket in any other Test nation.
The nature of seam bowling is also completely divorced from that in the Test game. As the new book Hitting Against the Spin documents, 17 per cent of deliveries from seamers in Test cricket are over 88mph – but only 0.7 per cent of balls from county seamers are.
The Twenty20 Blast bears far more resemblance to the international game than the County Championship. The pitches are flat, the games are high scoring and there is as much spin bowled as in international cricket. There is also a lot more genuine pace: six per cent of deliveries from seamers are over 88mph, 10 times more than in the Championship.
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So while there still remains a considerable step-up between the Blast and international cricket, the types of players who succeed in the Blast are likely to be those best-equipped to thrive in international cricket too. This often isn’t the case in the County Championship, where Darren Stevens, say, has a better record than Jofra Archer or Mark Wood in recent years.
“Across the world the gap between county red ball batting, and international red ball batting, in terms of what you’re faced with, is bigger than with white ball batting,” Bobat observes. “That is maybe more so in England because of how extreme our conditions are.”
While in Test cricket the only bridge between the county and international game is the England Lions, in the limited overs game the best young players are exposed to overseas T20 leagues. From just eight England players playing in the four major foreign T20 leagues – the IPL, Big Bash, Caribbean Premier League and Pakistan Super League – in 2012, the number increased to 15 in 2015 and then 30 last year.
The next generation have benefited from the rising status of English limited-overs cricket: Phil Salt played 44 matches in foreign T20 leagues before his England debut last week.
Saqib Mahmood, the player of the series against Pakistan, credits the PSL with developing his game and the responsibility of being an overseas player with improving under pressure. “From the get go, all eyes are on you and everyone’s sort of judging you to see what kind of player we’ve signed here,” he said. “So you’ve got to step your standards up and be at the top of the game.”
England players in overseas T20 franchises
Perhaps England are also lucky. They are the sole major nation to play their domestic season in the northern hemisphere’s summer, allowing English players to play a full domestic season and then in a range of foreign T20 leagues.
“It represents a competitive advantage. We don’t have a very long season because of the weather – we can extend their seasons through playing overseas in really high-quality cricket,” Bobat says. “We’re not going to fight against franchise cricket. We’re using franchise cricket as part of a player’s programme.”
England were not always so pragmatic: only after the 2015 World Cup debacle did Andrew Strauss lead England to a newly enlightened approach to T20 leagues.
It is often said that England’s Test side lacks a clear DNA. It is an accusation that none would make against England’s white-ball side after 2015. The buccaneering style of Morgan’s side has permeated throughout the county game and the England pathway.
Across sport teams tend to play more conservatively than is optimal. England’s post-2015 strategy in limited-overs cricket was underpinned by recalibrating players’ relationship with risk, and making players more comfortable being aggressive earlier.
And so, among prospective England players, Bobat explains: “You’re looking for their default response under pressure. Under pressure, you don’t want to have somebody who’s probably going to gravitate back towards their shell and have that risk aversion.” At Lions and U-19 level “we’ve tried to be really consistent with the messaging around style of cricket. Some of it isn’t about the way they bat and ball – it’s about the ability to tolerate risk and embrace risk”.
The sight of Phil Salt pillaging 16 from the opening over of the run chase at Edgbaston attested to how England’s understudies embrace this mindset.
“The aim is depth across all-formats and all disciplines,” Bobat says. It is a journey that is altogether less advanced in the Test arena, especially with the bat. But in the warm afterglow of their exhilarating ODI victory, England’s capability to challenge all-comers in limited-overs cricket, even while far from with their strongest XI, is not in doubt.
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