Jim White, courtesy of The Telegraph, 1 August 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/cricket/8677394/Englands-cricket-secret.html
The England cricketers’ victory over India puts them on the verge oif being the best in the world. What can the rest of us learn from their march to the top? Michael Atherton calls this the best England team he has ever seen. Shane Warne offers them the highest compliment available to a sportsman of his ilk: they play, he reckons, like Australians. Even Geoffrey Boycott cheerfully accepts his old mum would struggle to gain selection ahead of these players, with or without her stick of rhubarb. How on earth did that happen? How did England’s cricketers put themselves in a position to become something no team from these islands has been since the 1950s: the undisputed best in the world? How did a country that as recently as 1999 was deemed the very worst become so good that they can brutally demolish a side as accomplished as India? And if they can do it, is there anything we could learn from their march to ascendancy that could be applied to whatever it is we do for a living?
If you want a clue as to how they arrived close to the pinnacle of their sport, the evidence is there in the way England polish the ball between deliveries. Every mother will recognise from the stains besmirching her schoolboy son’s freshly laundered whites that polishing is an essential part of the game of cricket.
The ball’s movement through the air is determined by how shiny one side remains, so players address it during play with an application that borders on the obsessive. Anyone watching the England team in the field this summer will have noted that the polishing duties have been devolved to one man: Alistair Cook. Between deliveries, the ball is thrown to the young opening batsman who rubs it with demented enthusiasm against his thigh.
Cook does not do this because he missed his vocation as a French polisher. He does it because scientific analysis of the England players’ palms discovered his to be the least sweaty. Thus, with less salty discharge to interfere with the process, his hands were deemed the most suitable for polishing duties.
Batting, bowling and fielding may be the things that actually win matches, but everyone does that. Only England polish like they do. And in international sport, it is the little things that can make the difference. Sir Clive Woodward, coach of the World Cup-winning England rugby team, was the first to describe the manner in which “the incremental accretion of marginal gains” produces winners. In business as much as in sport, no detail is too small to help.
And the details are clear in everything the England players do: in the way the fields are set; in the way the bowlers know every weakness of the opposing batsmen; in the way, too, that the bowlers have improved their batting, knowing that their contributions with the willow can be decisive. When you compare today’s team – focused, energised, prepared – with the collective of shirkers, slackers and smokers who have represented the country at various points in the past, it is not hard to see why the class of 2011 is more successful.
None of that comes cheaply, mind. No team in the history of the game has had as much spent on its well-being as this England. Occasionally during Test matches the cameras catch sight of England’s support crew working on the sidelines. Usually such a view comes with a sneer from an old-timer like Ian Botham, wondering why so many coaches and analysts, dieticians and statisticians are needed to keep the England team going. Didn’t need ’em in our day, will be the refrain. But then, in their day, England were never the number one team in the world.
It began, this backroom revolution, when the Zimbabwean Duncan Fletcher (now, coincidentally in charge of India) became coach in 1999. A colonial, an outsider (he wasn’t even offered British citizenship until 2005), Fletcher recognised from his distanced position that nothing short of revolution was required to improve England. And that it would take time to remove the old adherence to the dilettante, the amateur, the disdain for trying too hard epitomised by the English game’s heroes, from Ted Dexter to David Gower.
He inherited a team at the very bottom of the world rankings, a side that included in its number few with Dexter or Gower’s abilities, but plenty with their approach: Phil Tufnell’s idea of training was to light up another Marlboro. Fletcher eased out the idlers, radicalised the preparation and fitness, increased hugely the spend on sports science and analysis. Unashamedly aping many of the ways of the world’s leading team, Australia, he appointed tough, uncompromising captains who shared his vision.
And, in a thoroughly un-British way, he had the support of the game’s governing body; they gave him everything he asked for, not least central contracts for players, which took them away from the back-breaking county circuit and made their principal job playing for their country. No longer was there a procession of 20 or more players in and out of the Test side in a summer – now there was an elite.
But despite all that, despite winning back the Ashes in 2005, Fletcher never managed to take England beyond second in the chart of the world’s best. It took the accession of his fellow Zimbabwean Andy Flower for the summit to be reached.
When Flower was interviewed for the position of coach, he was asked what it would take to make the leap to the top. He said he needed to change the culture in the dressing room. England needed to be rid of what he described as “player power plc”, those individuals who saw their place in the national side as a route to financial improvement and whose presence, Flower reckoned, inhibited newcomers.
If it seemed like heresy to the average England fan, the retirement of Andrew Flintoff proved vital in establishing the Flower ethic. Freddie was the hangover (often literally) of the ways Flower defined as counter-productive. Now there were no heroes, there could be a team. Now there was nobody who might win it on their own – as Flintoff, at least in theory, could – everybody was obliged to contribute. Now there could be no more hiding behind someone else’s ego.
To put his vision into practice on the field, Flower chose his captain wisely. If Flower is the England CEO, Andrew Strauss is its managing director. Strauss is an unusual combination: a nice guy with a ruthless undertow. His players like him, respond positively to his ready smile and kindly appearance. But they also respect his tungsten interior. Together, the pair created an atmosphere of mutual support and high-fiving encouragement, but one that insisted on enormously high standards.
With these two at the helm, gradually England climbed the Test table, exploiting those marginal gains, shedding along the way traditional English weaknesses, like lower-order collapses and feeble capitulations. The victims had finally metamorphosed into the bullies.
But what even Flower would admit is this: none of this, the team ethic, the captaincy, the application of sports science, would have brought England to where they are without the raw material to work with. Above all, Flower has been blessed by happenstance delivering him a generation of talent unavailable to his predecessors, albeit some of it hailing from parts beyond these shores. Obdurate batsmen, swashbuckling all-rounders, a clever spinner, a battery of fast bowlers: he might have made them better, he might have forged them into a formidable unit, but these were some players to start with.
And that, ultimately, is the lesson of England’s march to cricket’s summit. In sport, as in any facet of life, the way you manage talent can be vital. But no amount of polishing, even by the driest of hands, will make base metal sparkle.