Ashes 2013-14: The task facing English cricket's key men

By Ed SmithTMS commentator
England cricket team
England cricket team

A team's culture is ultimately set by the captain, the coach and the senior players. But others can help too.

One of the tasks facing England's chairman of selectors James Whitaker and managing director Paul Downton is to nudge the team in the right direction after their 5-0 Ashes whitewash, while simultaneously allowing the players and coaching staff to feel that they are in charge of their own destiny.

It is a subtle balancing act for the two men, who were appointed to their roles by the England and Wales Cricket Board at the end of last summer.

But a glance at Australia reveals that some productive decisions can emanate from outside the dressing room. It was John Inverarity, Australia's chief selector, who led the process of bringing Chris Rogers and Mitchell Johnson back into the Test set-up.

Inverarity believed - as former England captain Alec Stewart pointed out - that Rogers' record of run-scoring around the world should not be ignored just because he was 36. He also felt that Johnson's talent was too great to throw away, despite his undoubted unreliability - and that he could be a major asset with some careful nurturing.

The end result of those decisions? A steady senior pro with a calm demeanour, plus a match-winning maverick capable of terrifying the opposition.

England's new chief selector would dearly love to uncover a similar duo. Let's not forget, however, that Michael Carberry, who showed significant technical skill here in Australia, could yet prove to be the English Rogers.

After all, Rogers was far from an instant triumph in the Test arena, playing last summer's Ashes series in England five years after his Test debut against India in 2008.

Aged 19, I played against Whitaker's Championship-winning Leicestershire side. The county has only won the championship three times (1975, 1996 and 1998), twice doing so under Whitaker's leadership.

It was a notable achievement to take that team to the top of domestic cricket. They were not a side of big-name mercenary imports, a cobbled-together alliance of self-interested cricketers. Instead, Leicestershire somehow added up to more than the sum of its parts.

They embodied the dictum of Stephen Fleming when he was captain of New Zealand: "Understate, overachieve."

How England would like the same to apply to them, a reversal of the current situation. In Australia this winter, no one has fully explained how such a talented core of players - Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Alastair Cook, Matt Prior, Stuart Broad and James Anderson, plus Graeme Swann and Jonathan Trott at the start of the tour - could play such poor Test cricket over a sustained period.

England's Ashes humiliation in numbers

Whitaker's natural interest in team dynamics will lead him to address the side's identity, as well as simply trying to identify technically accomplished players.

One option open to the selectors, surely keen to introduce some new players to the team, is to look for seasoned first-class cricketers rather than green youngsters.

Here in Australia, they suffered from a lack of realistic replacements - in particular Durham's Graham Onions, who finished as the County Championship's leading bowler with 70 wickets but did not make the Ashes squad.

England were reluctant to make substantial changes during this Ashes series because the back-up seemed too callow and risky.

And, in an awful way, England's cautious selections earlier in the series were partly vindicated by the catastrophic final chapter in Sydney, where they lost by 281 runs.

Freshness need not imply youth and inexperience. In Rogers and George Bailey, Australia have benefited from the wisdom and cricket savvy of two experienced first-class captains.

No England player, in contrast, has been a full-time county captain - including Cook. My advice to experienced county players in April and May 2014 is that it's a good moment to string together some hundreds. They may be closer to England selection than they think.

Downton's focus will be on the wider picture. His playing career as a resilient wicketkeeper-batsman exposed him to two very different versions of sporting experience.

At Middlesex, he was a vital part of a dominant team, the Championship-winning side captained first by Mike Brearley, then by Mike Gatting. In England colours, Downton witnessed a less-settled team suffer at the hands of the brilliant West Indies side. Whitewashes are not entirely new to him.

After retiring from cricket, Downton enjoyed a successful career at the City firm Cazenove's. He never severed his ties with the game, however. He always kept informed about the England set-up and served on the Middlesex committee.

He benefits from being a cricket man, but not only a cricket man. He is unassuming, quietly assured and happy not to be the biggest ego in the room.

Having played in the England team of the 1980s, Downton doubtless got used to being surrounded by colourful characters. By nature, he is a consensus-builder rather than a dogmatic maverick.

Those skills will be tested immediately. Before Downton has unpacked his desk - he assumed office on 1 January - he faces an instant challenge.

It is widely reported that a rift between Pietersen and England team director Andy Flower must be resolved, even though the pair deny there is a problem.

Whatever happens with Pietersen, both Downton and Whitaker will find it hard to ignore the brand of cricket England have played recently. It has long been pragmatic and slightly programmatic; that tendency tripped into dourness and fearfulness in Australia. Statistically, it was their worst Ashes series ever.

One of the pleasures of being in Sydney is swimming in the 50-metre public pools. Yesterday, I found myself reflecting on batting as I swam in the Andrew 'Boy' Charlton pool, carved into the rocks by the coastline of the Botanical Gardens.

Tiring at the end of long swim, I slowed my front crawl to catch my breath. There is a point, however, where deceleration made things harder rather than easier.

If you slow down too much, it feels as though you're almost sinking. Even when you're conserving energy, a swimmer needs a critical speed, a natural tempo. So too does batting. With a run rate of 2.89 per over, England's batting sank into an eddy of inactivity.

For those who operate behind the scenes, such as Downton and Whitaker, a central challenge will be to energise a weary team, one which seems to have been trying to hang on rather than move forward.