A broken system.
England faced off against New Zealand and, after 2 weeks of admittedly dreadful cricket from the 3 lions, New Zealand reigned triumphantly and England suffered their first home series defeat since 2014. Rather peculiarly for the first time ever I have nothing to praise. Usually, I will try and point out the positives in this team; desperately scrambling to not deliver a post mortem but instead show everyone that there is still hope but for once I have nothing. I must follow this by stating that I haven’t had a great few weeks with a family bereavement and therefore my natural instincts are more negative but for once even the positives are outweighed by the disaster that was those performances. Bowling was mixed in terms of quality and throughout there were good spells. Yet, these were often counteracted by England being passive for large passages of play, often hitting back of a length or pitching it up too much. England didn’t lose the series on bowling, instead, the batting collapse on day 3 knocked all the wind out of me and the team itself. As the series concluded I realised that for the first time in the Silverwood era I lost trust in the team. Now of course there is a multitude of reasons as to why the team failed over the past 2 weeks, in which they were comfortably outplayed, but there is one which for me was the driving factor behind the batting collapse on day 3 and the failure to make big runs across the series on absolutely flat wickets and this is the absolutely preposterous approach England are taking to coaching.
One of the large criticisms thrown at England, over the past week or two, has been over their selection policy and more notably why players are selected. Improvement to their selection policy has been more and more noticeable under Silverwood but this wasn’t overly difficult given that pre-Silverwood the selection policy was a complete kerfuffle with no one knowing just how it worked. Sometimes players were picked from white-ball performances and other times they were picked purely as horses for courses (think James Vince for his ability against the short ball) and worst of all they were picked to play an aggressive brand of cricket which didn’t work. Under Silverwood however, they have reverted back to how it should be with players having made nearly 1000 county runs a season before they get chosen or them showing extreme skill as a red ball bowler. Silverwood is picking largely prolific run makers for the test side with the likes of Burns, Sibley, and Pope all being among the leading run-scorers across the championship in recent years. Whilst the only real young ‘talents’ are Zak Crawley and Dan Lawrence and even the latter has been making runs for a long time; whilst James Bracey is still slightly in between the two with his recent run making impressive but not outstanding and yet at 24 he is nearly past the threshold of a young player.
Dom Sibley feels like the aptest batter to begin this post with as his technique is the one that should have the most failures. Sibley does almost everything that a ‘traditional’ batter wouldn’t do: stand open chested, bat dangling at an angle, and be heavy on his feet. However, this is a technique that works. Sibley has had some mightly impressive performances in an England shirt; think of his 87 vs India or his 120 vs the West Indies. Both of these innings had Sibley standing tall in difficult conditions and twice he batted out the day. Sibley has always made runs and this semi innate ability to make runs is what got him picked in 2019 following his mammoth county year (1324 runs @ 69.68 with 5 100s and 2 of them doubles). Sibley’s technique does work, the numbers don’t lie, and most importantly it works in test cricket. Sibley often makes starts- the Warwickshire batter has 10 test scores between 20 and 45- and his failings to convert these are sometimes technical and sometimes mental; as is the case with most modern players. The technical side is purely part and parcel of test cricket. Being a test match batter presents its natural challenges and these are ever-present in the modern-day. Bowlers are quite simply just better; they hit the good lengths more, they can work you out, and more importantly, they’re demonstrably smarter thanks to the recent upsurge in the use of data. Sibley's technique got found out very quickly and bowlers started targeting the area in and around his left armpit with it cramping him and often leading to him being caught behind by the keeper or leg slip. Not only this but Sibleys inability to truly dominate the bowler- with his bat angle almost entirely removing off-side scoring- and his strength in leaving the ball, allowed teams to build up copious amounts of pressure on Sibley and in turn England. When you pair this with England's new coaching strategy of "leave them to work it out" an issue arises as the players won’t just "work it out"
Like a batter who has scored mountains of runs, as say Sibley did and always has done, using their own technique the chances of you changing and or recognising some of the flaws in the technique are minimal. For this very reason the role of a coach was brought in; coaches are supposed to recognise the flaws that you cannot see as they can observe you in real-time and help you fix these issues to maximise your strengths and nullify your weaknesses. Think of Rory Burns against Ireland who was being bounced out and was a real doubt for the Ashes- Burns subsequently went back to Surrey where the coaches told him that he had lost his hands and helped him fix the issue. Burns leaving the England set up to go and find external help doesn’t bode well for the future. Naturally, the factor of Burns trusting those coaches and these coaches knowing his game inside out plays a part in his decision-making process but the point still stands; the England coaches aren’t coaching. Burns wasn’t receiving the help he needed from inside the camp and instead had to do it off his own back and this is incredibly rare. Throwing balls isn’t coaching, letting players work things out for themselves isn’t coaching and it never will be as the players will never work it out for themselves. Who can blame them though? They’re elite sportsmen who have grown up often being told they’re the best thing since sliced bread and they think they know their own game inside out when it is a simple fact there are certain aspects they won’t notice. Mark Butcher made the point that players need to be in the right mindset to make changes or nothing would get done and whilst this is true is there anything better to get your mind in the right place than a dreadful batting collapse?
Almost like a river flowing down the stream into the sea all talk surrounding England at the moment flows back to the mercurial Ollie Pope (or as he’s more colloquially known Ollie Pop). Pope is one of the brightest talents England has produced since Root and arguably he’s the most naturally gifted batter they have produced this century. At his best Pope is a dasher in the Michael Clarke mold capable of dismantling any bowler in the world; I mean for all the talk of Pant smacking Jimmy Anderson with a new ball over his head Ollie Pope did the same thing to Vernon Philander, but Pope hasn’t been at his best for a while now. Everyone who has been on Twitter over the past few weeks will know all about Pope's technical issue with him falling over and his weight being uneven and his head falling to the offside rather than his previous equilibrium. However there has been no change from Pope, no difference in his methods, his chest isn’t more open, he’s still limiting his scoring zones and most importantly his technique is failing to do what he wanted it to; which is take the outside edge out of play and let him score off his pads. Pope has stood firm behind his decision to have this technique openly discussing it more than once but sadly it just isn’t working and I cannot see it working. Pope can’t cut the ball, his biggest strength, nor can he play particularly straight and he’s losing his off stump and the last two of these three are some of the basic fundamentals of test cricket which Englands best batter (Ben Stokes) does to superb effect. It is down to a coach to change this, it is the responsibility of a coach to let Pope know that it isn’t working and the chances of it working at all are obscenely minute. Pope is in fact not allowing his talent to flourish and is taking away some of the key aspects not of his game but of the game of those he should be trying to emulate. Pope doesn’t have the legside game of Steve Smith or Marnus Labuschagne but he does have the offside game of his captain or say the aforementioned Michael Clarke and for some reason, he is actively removing this from his repertoire. Pope is just one of several examples of severely basic technical issues that are consistently being disregarded within the England batting unit and it is taking players a long time to make the needed changes and the lack of support from the coaches is becoming ever-present. For all the stick we give to Michael Vaughan his description of practice is one that I fundamentally agree with: 'practice should be so difficult that when you get out to the middle you find it easy' (or something to that effect). The mere essence of practice is to discover, hide and then nullify your weaknesses; not accentuating your strengths. Right now it’s hard to imagine an England batter doing more than creaming a few throw downs through the covers.
Some people may take this approach too far in both directions. Geoffery Boycott's article in the Telegraph, in which he discussed how his old coach used to reduce boys to tears, is on one end. Whilst Alastair Cook's approach on Test Match Special, everyone is responsible for their own game, is too far in the other direction. As with everything in life, there is a perfect middle ground and England needs to find this; let the players work it out for themselves but when they fail to do so then a coach must intervene. At the international level, this is easier said than done as the lack of time a player gets with a specific coach makes it much harder for the player to bond with the coach and this is why so often a comeback story includes the inevitable ‘then I went and saw x who has known me since I started playing and he told me y’. England needs to get this right for any chance of success and they need to fix it as soon as possible. A change of tone coming from the England camp this summer concerning coaching is something that if we do not hear will spell out serious trouble heading into their biggest winter yet.
Alas the tone won’t change England will remain cocksure and arrogant, but what can a man do if not dream? England still has the basic foundations for a test match team that can compete at the highest level and they have a chance to prove this against India. Yet the Silverwood era is spearheading a system that no one else uses and for good reason as it doesn’t work. England needs to fix this and they need to do it quickly to not run the risk of falling further and further down the rankings.