Club Cricket Conference

Wednesday, 8th April 2020

Clubs and boards have crucial part in England's future

Personal View: Charles Randall

Questions will have to be asked about the quality of player available to England after the humiliating exit from the World Cup. The system and coaching attitudes need to be examined from club level upwards. Especially club level.

Everybody could see that England were ordinary. That is a damning criticism in an era of one-day cricket when ultra-thick bats, good pitches and innovation have raised requirements to ever-increasing heights.

The national media, understandably short of fresh points to raise after week on week of miserable England displays, generally did not progress beyond the 'sack everybody' theme. Colin Graves, the incoming ECB chairman, did not help by allowing himself to discuss in public a return for Kevin Pietersen, a ill-timed diversion while KP's former team-mates were trying to deliver results in the middle.

At club level there is scope to examine what can be done with, for example, youth development. Nearly every cricketer starts at a club. The question is how best to coach skills and good habits. The 20-over age group leagues draw thousands of children into cricket, but one wonders whether the majority of players learn enough in match situations. Over the years training formats have been tried, with Charley Cricket the latest. The Hertfordshire Cricket Board are to continue in 2015 the Hampshire experiment with Charley, a hard-ball training game trialled last year.

Unfortunately in Hertfordshire a rift appeared between the board and the league clubs over player pathways after an attempt to introduce Charley across the club strata without adequate consultation. Iain Fletcher, the director of coaching, gave the impression of concentrating on the elite end, with little appetite for the wider recreational picture.

Though this might be a little unfair, Fletcher, a former Somerset batsman, made little effort to persuade the Hertfordshire Junior Leagues to buy into the Charley concept, and he announced that age-group 'area' cricket – a self-funded representative competition for the best players in the county's four areas – would be disregarded as a player pathway. This attitude threatened to squander the energy and goodwill of a small army of club volunteers.

The Hertfordshire changes caused confusion about the best path for elite players up to the age of 13. Though the county board claimed that there had been “full consultation”, the link-up with Saracens Herts League clubs amounted to no more than a request for comment on a website. No meeting was arranged, though Fletcher did speak at a close-season gathering called by the clubs, who decided that area matches should continue in defiance of board policy. “Charley Cricket should be introduced with the full co-operation of the clubs and not imposed on them,” said one organiser. “Hertfordshire should be in the business of providing recreational cricket; that’s what the Saracens League and the Herts Junior Leagues are all about. The county can provide representative cricket right up to minor counties, but not to provide a stepping stone to first class cricket. If the county is providing coaches to try to turn cricketers into first class players, then they are wasting their money.”

Rightly or wrongly, that was the broad perception among the clubs, already annoyed that a specially commissioned report by Russell Haggar on junior cricket had been completely ignored. Among many points, Haggar's futile report  recommended that area cricket should remain. The Hertfordshire Board would not be alone in finding the appropriate emphasis on elite cricket and the broad spectrum an all-too-delicate balancing act.

Fletcher said that Haggar's report appeared too late for his 2015 planning, but in any case he could see little point in area games and wanted age-group selection to be done by his own coaches. He was excited by the potential of Charley Cricket to teach and inspire children. The clubs said they were not “against” Charley Cricket; they wanted any changes thought through and introduced into the system after proper trials.

This Hertfordshire rift was only a snapshot of what could happen at any county with less than ideal communication and leadership. There must be plenty of scope for a rethink.

Charley Cricket is played nine-a-side, using a 16-yard pitch up to the age of 11. Two bowlers bowl three balls each at the same end, as in nets, to speed up play. Of the six outfielders one must be a slip and three in the circle. Batters are allowed two lives until they reach 50, and a maiden means the loss of wicket for the facing batter. The theory is that the short pitch adds pace to the game, and aggression is encouraged.

A Charley Cricket day was held for under-10s in 2014, supported by three clubs and two county selected teams at Knebworth Park. All players in theory had a decent go through rotation of the batting and bowling order, with no winners or losers. It was described as a “hugely successful” by the Hertfordshire Board website, but this was not necessarily the view of the parents on the day.

Incidentally another training game, emanating from Queensland, involves all the players much more closely, this time with a Kwik Cricket soft ball or similar. The format, called Revolver Cricket, is ingenious and very competitive, involving three teams of five – identified by coloured bibs - rotating batting, bowling and fielding in the field, with bowlers and fielders ganging up on the batting five. Every batter, of whatever ability, receives an exact number of deliveries, with runs deducted for dismissal, and a scoresheet records the winning team and what every player has achieved. I have trialled Revolver myself  at Radlett and Stanmore without being able to enthuse the coaches to ask for more.

As every county now uses academies as a favoured player pathway to a career, the role of club youth development becomes ever more important.

The ECB must take a major share of the blame for the World Cup debacle. Readers of these columns might remember how the ECB bowed to the cacophony of media criticism – the tin drums – and sacked Alastair Cook as captain just before the tournament when they must have known it would make not a jot of difference to the side's weak bowling attack. This poor judgement shoved Eoin Morgan into the hot seat when his own confidence had sunk to an all-time low. And it came to pass...

The role of nurture should be mentioned in any ECB post-mortem. The former Australia captain Ricky Ponting made a telling comment in an ESPNcricinfo column after England's exit in the group stage. “England have, for a long time, had an attraction to bits-and-pieces players, who they think might chip in with 30 runs and six or seven overs, rather than the sort of players who can turn a game,” he said. “The teams heading into the World Cup quarter-finals have all got X-factor type players. But you don't see that in the England line-up.”

Fletcher, the under-fire Hertfordshire coach, argued that Charley Cricket would help with the X-factor, and he might well have a point. Could clubs be satisfied that X-factor players at a young age have the right environment? Can these players show their X without fear or favour? The answer is perhaps no to both questions in orthodox 20-over games in youth cricket. For example, bowlers are restricted to four overs in most peer matches until the age of 15. There are good reasons for this limit, but it hardly adds to the development of bowling. Batting is not restricted, and indeed can produce a long inappropriate innings.

One might add here that in 1979 Geoff Boycott occupied 17 overs before reaching double figures in the World Cup final when England were chasing 286 in 60 overs against the West Indies at Lord's. Boycott and Mike Brearley put on 129 off 38 overs, guaranteeing defeat before the first wicket fell. The shrewdest cricketers of their time? You answer that one. Definitely no X-factor and palpably no perception of what was required.

Thank goodness the 1979 attitudes have been binned, but England still seem to lag. Apart from Graham Gooch, the club system has not produced batting giants in the one-day game such Viv Richards, Kumar Sangakkara or even KP. There have been some good all-rounders such as Andrew Flintoff – he once hit a double hundred as a 14 year-old in a 20-overs game for St Annes CC – and Ian Botham. And there was Graeme Swann, a truly exceptional off-spinner, who played in England's only under-19 world success.

Peter Moores, England's coach, was mocked for mentioning statistics – perhaps he shouldn't have said the word – but figures can reveal trends usefully. For example, England have not reached a World Cup final for 23 years and have fared poorly since their fine effort in Australia in 1992. That suggests that the ECB criticism of county cricket one-day format does not hold water. In other words, whether the counties choose 50 overs or 40 overs for their competitions has never impacted on the national team's performance. Most England players do not play in county competitions.

Tin drums

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