As England’s cricketers have just proved, unflashiness is the way to turn a team around

Cricket is famously a team game played by individuals – but it is easy to miss the crucial adjacent fact: a better performance by one player often enhances the performances of the other individuals.

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England’s Ashes triumph deserves to become a management school classic. First, hold your nerve against critics (the senior experts almost universally advocated sacking Alastair Cook). Second, don’t believe the polls (which suggested Kevin Pietersen’s return would be popular and beneficial). Finally, look for lots of incremental improvements rather than one big, quick fix.

Vast changes in performance do not always have correspondingly giant causes. Many imperceptible influences interact to create a multiplier effect. The single, grand causal explanation has a more pleasing narrative momentum. But it rarely reflects how change happens. How can one team lose 5-0 and then, just 18 months later, beat the same opposition 3-1? That is the analytical challenge presented by England’s Ashes victory. There is no easy answer.

In Australia in 2013-14, England weren’t just whitewashed 5-0, they were annihilated. It is now Australia’s turn. The series tally may read 3-1, but emotionally it feels even more lopsided. Australian teams are known for their self-belief and resilience. Not this one. Within moments of taking on water, the boat had sunk without trace.

Change in personnel offers a partial explanation. Although eight of the 2013-14 Australians played in the first Test here, there was higher turnover for England. Where suddenly Australia’s core looked jaded and old, England were energised by the youthful quintet of Ben Stokes, Joe Root, Steven Finn, Mark Wood and Moeen Ali.

Circumstances changed, too. The third and fourth Tests were played in thoroughly “English” conditions that provided great assistance for seam bowlers. Australia’s batsmen, used to sunbaked flat pitches at home, completely failed to adapt to the green English surfaces.

Taking the last three Ashes series together, the home side has now won 11 matches, with Australia’s victory at Lord’s the solitary away win. That imbalance is confirmed across the international game. In Tests played in 2013, home wins outnumbered away wins by 29 to two (and both of those were against the weakest Test team, Zimbabwe). So England should celebrate with one note of caution: winning away is the ultimate accolade.

Yet neither English conditions nor home advantage satisfactorily explain the astonishing swings in team performance. In 2013-14, so great was the gap between the two teams, it would have been 5-0 if they’d played the series on the moon.

Another variable has been England’s new coach, Trevor Bayliss (an Australian, as it turns out). I worked with Bayliss when he had a coaching stint at Kent in 2003. He sensibly avoids the limelight and always talks common sense. As Alastair Cook mischievously pointed out, however, Bayliss has “only just got here”, so the full explanation must be wider than one man.

Cook himself deserves great credit, but there is a danger of overplaying the theory that England’s renaissance is explained by changes in his captaincy style. Cook, naturally, will find himself under enormous pressure to acquiesce with that narrative, as it offers his critics an elegant escape route. Implicit is the following logic: “You say you’ve changed, I say you’re now great, and everyone looks good, right?” While he has now grown naturally as a captain, the sustained personal criticism of him was dispro­portionate and often wide of the mark.

What is it, then? How can we explain the radical shift? Cricket is famously a team game played by individuals – but it is easy to miss the crucial adjacent fact: a better performance by one player often enhances the performances of the other individuals. The team’s performance is not, in reality, the sum of individual performances. The combination of individual performances, as Stefan Szymanski points out in his book Money and Football, is “multiplicative rather than additive”.

Football explains the point more easily. Imagine playing alongside Diego Maradona at his best. Suddenly there’ll be open spaces for you to pass, run and generally appear better than you are. That is because the opposition will naturally and rightly be worrying about Maradona. In contrast, imagine being a midfielder playing in front of a failing defender. Now you have to spend the whole match covering for a team-mate rather than creating opportunities for yourself.

So it is in cricket. When the batsmen play well, the bowlers benefit. Unconcerned about conceding runs, they can set attacking fields. And when a team’s bowlers provide a first-innings lead, batsmen in the second innings can play their shots without worrying about getting out. Everything – batting, bowling, captaincy – is profoundly easier when the team is on the front foot.

One Ashes anecdote is subtly revealing. It shows the unflashy reality about turning teams around. When England returned to the pavilion after defeat at Lord’s – with the press turning on them, the series in the balance, its momentum horribly reversed – Trevor Bayliss was not found standing on a chair shouting at everyone. He was chatting quietly to Moeen Ali about slight tweaks to his field placing when bowling round the wicket. A better field contributing to a better over, an improved over leading to an improved session, a positive session shifting the balance of the match.

We watch elite sport as an arm-wrestle. But we miss the thousands of invisible hinges and moments (think physics, not history) that lever one side towards victory. Dave Brailsford, the director of cycling’s Team Sky, tried to capture this in his adage about the cumulative effect of “1 per cent” improvements. The phrase has become overly associated with cutting-edge science. In fact, it describes an unchanging human effect. Tiny advantages, as they multiply and interact, turn into victories. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article appears in the 13 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Battle for Calais