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31 July 2014

Ed Smith: We can’t fix English cricket without tackling what’s wrong at county level

I used to hate it when the failings of the England team were blamed on the counties but there is no way of avoiding the fact: English cricket is getting a very poor return on its investment.

By Ed Smith

There is a vacancy at the top of English cricket. It is not for the role of captain, but that of chief executive. The psychodrama about Alastair Cook – a decent man dealt a terrible hand – is a relative sideshow. David Collier’s resignation as CEO gives England an opportunity to reform the whole game. This crisis must not go to waste.

Before we widen the lens, the position of Cook must be addressed. No one can lead a team on his own, in a vacuum. Cook’s team consists of five senior players (himself, Matt Prior, James Anderson, Ian Bell and Stuart Broad) and six fairly new faces. The six inexperienced players have held up quite well. For an explanation of the results, look no further than the five senior players – even a genius would struggle to captain a central core that is universally underperforming. Bell in particular, theoretically Cook’s second-in-command, has gone missing. In a conservative shuffle of the pack, he would most likely be the next captain, an example of rewarding failure.

Some shocking statistics emerged from the defeat against India at Lord’s, England’s seventh in nine Tests. Five English batsmen got out to the same short-pitched tactic, delivered by the same Indian bowler, inside one hour of play. But there is a more salient fact. At the start of this season, eight county teams employed overseas captains, all ineligible to play for England. I was commentating at Lord’s, surrounded by frenzied analysis of England’s “lack of leadership”. Yet no one, to my knowledge, mentioned that we demand leadership at Test level without supporting and nurturing it further upstream. Of England’s past eight captains, only Andrew Strauss (among the best) had significant experience as a county captain.

As a county cricketer, I used to hate it when the failings of the England team were blamed on the counties but there is no way of avoiding the fact: English cricket is getting a very poor return on its investment. The structure is internally contradictory. County cricket relies on centralised cash handouts from the England and Wales Cricket Board but county clubs are run and managed to please their members, prone to demanding instant results. Financially, county cricket resembles the subordinate minor leagues that supply top US baseball teams. In reality, they answer to themselves.

There have been various responses to this arrangement. Duncan Fletcher, now managing India but England’s coach from 1999 to 2007, basically cut out county cricket from the equation. A gifted technical coach, he wanted to manage a group of 15 players, in effect removing them from the first-class system altogether. He favoured players he himself had identified, distrusting everyone else. Two days before my England debut in 2003, I met Fletcher at the team hotel. “It’s Ed, isn’t it?” he asked. Even though I was the leading run scorer in the country that season, and had been the third highest in 2002, he wasn’t sure who I was. The physio joined us and the conversation moved to an injury to the England opener, Marcus Trescothick. “Put that Middlesex opener on standby,” Fletcher said to his back-up staff, “the left-hander.” “Andrew Strauss?” I wondered? “That’s the one.”

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For a while, Fletcher’s deliberate contempt for county cricket worked. He identified and nurtured a group of players who were personally loyal to him. But such an inorganic attitude to the health of the whole game, eventually and inevitably, turned in on itself. Cut off from the game’s natural blood supply, Fletcher’s later England teams were aloof and underperforming.

There is another approach to reviving English cricket. That is to address the system. This requires more imagination than is on view at present. Mike Brearley, whose captaincy inspired England’s miraculous Ashes win in 1981, was interviewed about Cook’s position this past week. Inevitably, there was great curiosity about what he thought would happen next.

Instead, we might consider the journey that led Brearley to become England captain. Before becoming captain of Middlesex, he was a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle. Only in his sixth season as a county captain (1976) did Middlesex win the championship. Middlesex stuck with him during the five-year wait and he rewarded their trust with four championships in seven years.

This story is inconceivable now. That an academic could return seamlessly to the professional game; that a relative outsider could be invited to captain a county; that he would be given so much time to find his feet and nurture a team. Instead of worldliness, perspective and life experience, most captains now take the job in a context of short-termism and narrowness.

How to fix England? A commitment to nurturing leadership throughout the system; emphasis on developing rounded people as well as accomplished players (let German football be the model); allowing county players to operate in a semi-professional capacity, with careers and lives outside cricket (I know several top players who quit due to boredom); stressing the value of play and self-expression just as much as hard work and sacrifice.

As captain of Middlesex, I attended a meeting about an underperforming young spinner. I recommended we should advise him to get a job in the winter, grow up and come back ready to enjoy his cricket again. I was overruled in favour of a dreary gym programme (translation: two hours in the gym, eight on the PlayStation). He was sacked inside six months. He later told me he became a far better bowler as an amateur.

Dozens of times every day, I am asked if Cook should resign. Instead, it’s time to have the real conversation that everyone is avoiding – there is no one else. Changing that fact must be the focus of the inquiry.