I guess it is easy to criticize, and I am perhaps guilty of being too quick with criticism. Hopefully I am also constructive with my criticism.
The England cricket team possess a wealth of talent with almost every member capable of match winning performances against any side in the world. They have risen to the top and are currently on their way down. When they reached the top they were unable to maintain that position, what is wrong?
Two things strike me immediately.
1. A poor dressing room environment.
2. Symptoms of being over coached.
These two things could be inter-related, I prefer to consider them separately, but first let's look at the recent games.
While the recent failures have been batting related, our real problems lie in the bowling unit. Our bowling shows distinct signs of a unit that takes to the field with a plan and is unable to adapt to circumstances on the field.
During the commentary on the Headingly test I continually heard Vaughan and Boycott complaining that our seamers were keeping the ball too short. That Headingley particularly required the ball pitched up closer to a driving length, rather than keeping it just short of a length where the batsman is in two minds about going forward or back.
Fast bowling like many other sports where there are repetitive actions requires lots of muscle training, many many hours of bowling at a set of stumps with only a wicket keeper and no batsman. He is generally taught to control his length by how deep into his hand he places the ball. The closer to the fingertips the earlier the ball releases from his hand and the fuller the length and conversely the deeper the shorter. This becomes his stock bowling pattern varied with an effort ball periodically (bouncer where more back is put into the delivery). His stock delivery pattern should, without a change in action, allow him to bowl varying lengths from the ball on a length that rises to chest height (rib tickler), to a yorker, depending on the amount of bounce in the pitch.
The length described by Boycott and Vaughan is always the correct length to bowl on any pitch that has seam movement. Both Broad and Andersen are amongst the best fast bowlers in the world today and length control is within their skill set. We can only assume therefore that they were bowling to a plan devised by the bowling support coaching group. Certainly we never saw a change after intervals where they could have been asked to bring the length a yard closer to the batsman, if the coaches saw things the same way. For quite a while now I have considered England too dependent on swing and short pitched bowling from tall men. It is as though they see that as the only way, Great bowlers get the bulk of their wickets against good batsmen caught in slip cordon, lbw or bowled and against tail enders caught at short leg or other close catchers and off top edges.
While swing is a powerful weapon, all bowlers will tell that there are balls that swing and some that won't no matter how conducive the conditions and the bowler must maintain all his basic weapons … varying the length, changing the line and continuing to keep the batsman out of a comfort zone where he is consistently able to push forward or move back with equanimity. I would expect the quicks to be doing all these things automatically regardless of "the plan". Short of a length bowling can limit the opponents ability to score freely it is good length bowling that ultimately gets the wickets.
With four centurians over the two tests against Sri Lanka we cannot be too concerned about the batting. Cook is going through a lean patch, possibly as a result of the added burden of captaincy and possibly because International teams have recognized an apparent weakness just outside the off stump with good length bowling, most batsmen to a greater or lesser degree have a weakness in this area. Unfortunately the crowded calendar and "squad system" mitigate against him spending time playing county cricket where he would have a better chance of regaining his confidence and ironing out the apparent weakness. Bell still looks good even though he is not going through to make big centuries. Again I feel that they are not spending time playing county cricket, The advantages of fewer back to back tests are untold mainly in that the players are put into different environment where, the thinking of county coaches, might be different allowing for cross pollination of ideas.
I have basically been showing why I think the side is over coached, they come onto the field with pre-made plans all coming out of the same think tank … analysis of opponents is good in that we have a better idea of strengths and weaknesses, but it should not go to the length of taking away the freedom and instincts of players who have risen to the top. Coaches should be there to help but not try and control the course of the game, otherwise the relationship becomes incestuous.
Listening to this test on TMS, particularly to the comments from Graeme Swann … who has impressed me tremendously with his willingness to be open and honest in his opinions without any sign of parochial bias, has reinforced my opinion that the England dressing room is currently an unhappy place. One can understand the demoralizing effect of being thoroughly bounced out by Mitchell Johnson in Australia, but when three of the team plus two of the coaches effectively departed during and after the tour one should start asking questions.
After Downton's comment about Pietersen being disengaged. I started having concern about the dressing room. I have always considered Pietersen a bit of a loose canon, however he is a player with a lot of flair and a match winner in his own right. With the right man management he would still be a tremendous asset. I can only think that factions had developed in the dressing room. When I hear Swann describe the attributes of a good captain say the most important is man management and then point to Strauss as the best he had served under, then criticizing Cook for fielding at deep square leg instead of being near his bowler … I wonder how much he actually encourages his bowlers, or points out observations about batsman's techniques.
There are other things that also make me wonder whether all is right in the English dressing room environment. The furor over the mankading of Jos Buttler. To quote from Cook over the incident "I was disappointed … it was a pretty poor act" Sorry, the laws are clear the non striking batsman is trying to gain an unfair advantage putting himself a yard or two down the track before the bowler delivers the ball makes an impossible quick single feasible. If Jos had simply been standing casually leaning on a bat that was accidentally an inch beyond the crease one could have questions … but he was moving forward getting ready to sprint through for that single.
England Cricket needs to forget all the little tricks to get an unfair advantage, and to "play up, play up and play the game".