This picture, on pages 12 and 13 of this month’s Cricketer, caught my eye. Always nice to have an official team photo in front of the famous old pavilion at Lord’s and don’t they all look smart in their pristine England kit? Even the chairs with armrests, no doubt borrowed from the Long Room, add a touch of class. Much better than a bench or half-a-dozen plastic seats, eh? But just a minute…..the official team photos at Lord’s always used to be taken backstage, as it were, in the Harris Garden in front of a rose filled trellis. Ah, I know why not. There are too many of them. The Harris Garden would not have been big enough. Far better to take up pretty much all of the playing area in front of the pavilion so that nobody is cut out.
By now I guess you will have worked out what I’m driving at. Yes, it was only 11-a-side when I was playing too. The England team in the photo numbers 27. The cavalcade as it drives around the country must rival President Trump’s. And a fat lot of good this cohort of experts and support staff did for their team in that Lord’s Test against Pakistan; I have rarely seen a worse performance from an English side, for which they were justly excoriated. I know, I know – one swallow doesn’t make a summer, one bad game doesn’t make a bad team (though it certainly doesn’t make a good team either). Notwithstanding their vastly improved performance in the 2nd Test at Headingley, can anyone really justify a support staff of 15 for the England team? How do they all fit in the dressing room? Are there enough pegs?
Ever since I stopped playing, way back in the Paleolithic Age, I have long and hard resisted the temptation to bang on about how things were “in my day”. My grandmother was Irish and she never played ‘creekit with a stick of rhubarb’ so I was never lectured about the great Jack Hobbs and how he adapted his technique on different pitches in the Golden Age. So it ill behoves me to point out to the current generation of professional cricketers how they should prepare for matches. Different eras, different practices. But this photo has got my goat. Included in the line-up are:
Head of communications
Lead fielding coach (presumably as he is a leader, he has a team behind him to lead)
Lead wicket-keeping coach (ditto fielding)
Strength and conditioning coach
In the 1970s, county teams travelled around the country with 11 players, plus a 12th Man and a scorer. The England team at the same time was tended to by the ubiquitous Bernie Thomas, masseur extraordinaire, and nobody else, other than the manager, perhaps supported by an assistant, who dealt with the administrative side of things. In other words, the teams shifted for themselves. It was no doubt a little primitive and things began to change with the appointment of team coaches and more in the way of support staff but I have yet to meet anyone who can convince me that the players play a great deal better now than they did then. If the game has moved on – and it has, I freely admit that – it has more to do with equipment than coaching. Are the players fitter now? Perhaps – I shall grant that too. But cricket is a strange game. You have to be fit to play cricket, not rugby, football, hockey, cycling, athletics etc. It just isn’t the same and does not demand the same levels, or types, of fitness.
Furthermore, these are Test players we are talking about. What can Mark Ramprakash, the batting coach (52 Tests, 2,350 runs, average 27.32) possibly tell Alastair Cook (158 Tests, over 12,000 runs, average 45.65…..and counting) about the art of batting? As for analysts and psychologists….don’t you think Cook worked it all out for himself a long time ago? England teams of recent vintage – and I am not just talking about cricket here – have been criticised for being too predictable, too regulated, too hidebound, unable to think on their feet, incapable of executing on the hoof, as it were, Plan B when Plan A goes awry. It’s a very comfortable world in the English dressing room by all accounts with an army of helpers at their beck and call. But Test match cricket was never meant to be a comfortable environment; that is why they are called Tests. If they are the best – and if they are in the England side then we assume they are – they should have no need of coaches, analysts, psychologists and the rest of them. Tinkering here and there where technical problems crop up but is a large team of assistants really necessary?
Let me give you an example from my Hampshire days. Following pleas from the players, a physiotherapist was added to the staff. Well, he wasn’t really a physiotherapist; he had no professional qualifications but he had been a rub man on the QE2. He set up a little ‘surgery’ in a broom cupboard underneath the stairs, equipped with treatment table, a chair….and little else. Immediately Gordon Greenidge appropriated the treatment table and as far as I can remember, he never relinquished it for the next six years. The point is that players will take advantage of any crutch that is to hand. It’s human nature to accept help where perhaps none is needed. The fitness of the team did not significantly improve thereafter but the excuses did.
Imagine the scene, if you will. It is set in the England dressing room on the day before a Test match.
Batting coach: You’re falling away on the off side, mate. You need to stand up straight at the crease.
Assistant coach: I’ll do a few throw downs with you.
Physiotherapist: It’s because he has a problem with his spine. We need to work on the muscles around it, in particular his erector spinae.
General mirth in the dressing room.
Masseur: Lie down here, mate, and I’ll give you a rub.
Strength and conditioning coach: No, no, no. What he needs is a few exercises to strengthen the muscle.
Fielding coach: If he can’t bend, he’ll have to field in the slips. Better have some catching practice.
Bowling coach: He won’t be able to bowl, then. Good news for our unit ‘cos they think he’s rubbish.
Psychologist: Good God! You can’t say that! Denigrating one of your team-mates in front of his peers is just not on.
Bowling coach: Sorry. Joke.
Psychologist: You know there’s no such thing as a joke. It’s always at someone else’s expense.
Bowling coach (sotto voce): Oh, for Christ’s sake….
Analyst: Research shows that 29.7% of batsmen with bad backs score on average 15 runs fewer-----
Chorus: Shut up, Anorak!
Doctor: If he has a crooked spine, there’s no way he’s playing tomorrow.
Player: But I’m fine. I want to play. It’s my home ground. My Auntie Marie’s coming to watch.
Assistant coach: Where’s the boss? We need a decision here.
Wicket-keeping coach: He’s with the head of communications explaining to the press the new midnight curfew.
In literary terms, this is known as a parody, which is intended to make fun of, or comment on, a subject, capable of both amusement and instruction. I leave it to you whether the point is well made.
There is a law of diminishing returns, which states that the level of benefit gained is less than the energy invested. As organisations grow, coordinating the efforts of individuals becomes increasingly difficult. The theory was first propounded by a German by the name of Schumacher, no, not Michael, but Ernst Friedrich, a statistician and economist best known for his espousal of human-scale decentralisation of organisations. His book, Small is Beautiful, published in 1973, is considered to be one of the most influential that has been written since the Second World War, though as an English Literature graduate, you can hardly expect me to agree with that inflated claim. However, when I look at this photo of the England ‘team’, I do see what he was driving at. Who on earth can separate the white noise from the correct frequency in that dressing room when 27 people have a say?