So the England team is just two draws away from deposing India at the top of the ICC test rankings. The recent success is quite a departure from the altogether darker days of the 1990s and early 2000s. So what’s changed? Why has England suddenly become a world-beating unit?
The response to failure from the England and Wales Cricket Board in the past 20 years has been a consistent one: commission someone to provide a report into the failings within English cricket. Sometimes wealthy businessmen were asked to lead the investigation (the Tesco millionaire Lord Maclaurin produced a much heralded report in 1997) and sometimes a committee of ex-England cricketers and administrators provided the analysis.
Each report made its recommendations and then faded away out of memory. Some good things were instituted, such as central contracts, but most concepts were considered and quietly shelved because one party or another would object to them.
One thing often suggested was that the English First Class structure was too bloated: too many fixtures, too many clubs, too many players. A plethora of different structures were proposed, but whatever theory was in fashion at the time, all agreed that the county system was not producing players who could cope at the highest level.
The numbers bear this out: in the decade between 1993 and 2003 65 players were given England debuts, and 40 of those failed to play more than 9 test matches. It speaks of a ‘chop and change’ policy of selection, but also a shallow pool of talent: whenever an established player missed a game due to injury, no one stepped up from the county game to replace them.
Many pointed towards the Australian first class structure for inspiration. With just six state teams there were much fewer games, but consequently those games were of a much higher standard. Beneath that, club cricket was also strong, featuring players that would surely walk into English first-class county sides.
The Australian team during this period was settled, and whenever there was a retirement or an enforced absence, the ‘next in line’ player would be called up and seemingly inevitably give a good account of himself. In the same 1993-2003 span, 34 players made their test debut, with only 16 of them failing to reach 10 caps. Not only did they use half the number of new players as England, but crucially their ‘discard rate’ amongst those debutants was 47% compared to England’s 61%. Amongst those discards were the likes of Stuart Law, Brad Hogg, Martin Love and Nathan Bracken: players who arguably would have played many more tests had they been born English.
This was a crucial factor behind the Australian dominance of world cricket in the two decades: every time Glenn McGrath or Jason Gillespie missed a match, a Michael Kasprowicz or an Andy Bichel would be on hand. Whenever a champion batsman was absent, the likes of Michael Bevan, Matthew Elliott or Darren Lehmann would step in. When Shane Warne was unavailable, there was Stuart Macgill.
Yet now we see the exact same thing inexorably turning the current England team into world champions. Chris Tremlett misses a match and Tim Bresnan takes his place, adding a match-winning five wicket haul and an innings of 90. Behind him waits Steven Finn, a bowler who took no less than 46 wickets in 2010: his first year of test cricket. Should a batsman be needed there is Ravi Bopara, ahead of a new batch of exciting youngsters headed by Leicestershire’s James Taylor. Behind Graeme Swann is England’s erstwhile hero Monty Panesar. What Australia would give to have a Panesar in their ranks right now.
The worm has evidently turned: since the beginning of 2008 Australia has given debuts to 21 new players, whereas England’s tally stands at 12. The trend looks set to continue, and all talk of England’s ‘flawed’ county system has long since vanished. It may be the case that the brilliance and longevity of Australia’s golden generation left their natural replacements a little long in the tooth. The selectors are now looking beyond them, searching to find new champions from a pool of young players largely untested due to the paucity of first class fixtures in which they could develop their skills.
Now Australia has its own committee, set up to look at ‘all aspects’ of Australian cricket in the wake of 2010-11’s catastrophic Ashes series. Will the report praise England’s first-class county structure as a model to aspire to, just as England did with Australia’s state system? That seems unlikely, but maybe perseverance and acceptance are what is needed, rather than the suggestions of change: perseverance with the system that produced the champions of the 90s and early 00s, and acceptance of the ebb and flow of fortunes and power in world cricket.