plan to unplan

Watching England win Tests had up until recently become my profession. I’ve seen them win a couple of Ashes, and defeat Pakistan, West Indies, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. All up close and personal. It’s meant that I’ve been an often reluctant watcher on their journey to No.1. Their gritty, well-planned effectiveness has played out in front of me so many times you start to see the reasons why it exists.

To become No.1, England have done a bunch of things right.

They hired Andy Flower who is a brilliant cricket coach. He’s even got the face of a cricket coach, someone who can only smile for seven seconds a week. I can’t see how England would’ve made it to No.1 without him in charge. Anyone who doesn’t believe cricket coaches do much after watching Flower scruff this team and hurl them to No.1 is trying to stay in the dark days.

While no one was paying attention, England became the most professional side ever in cricket. Off the field they are No.1 by a distance whether it be their coaching, fitness, analysis and even their administrators. Every box is ticked in preparation. They probably have a person whose job is just that. Names like James Avery and Richard Halsall may not be known to many cricket fans, but they are the best at what they do, and when you continue to hire the best in the business off the field, it can only help those on it.

They call their bowlers, like so many do, their bowling unit. But for this team it’s probably better to refer to them as a bowling pack. They stick close together, give little away and stalk their prey. Their plans are simple and workable, do enough with the ball in all conditions, have good variety, more than one capable back-up and the ability to play allrounders when required. There are few eight-wicket hauls from a bowler on the rampage. Generally the wickets come in clusters at both ends because of the pressure and how hard it is to score off them.

Andrew Strauss is a natural leader of this team. He’s not showy, or unorthodox, he just forms plans with the coaching group and senior players and keeps the team calm. He’s not Stephen Fleming or Douglas Jardine tactically, but this team makes sense with him there.

Their fielding is athletic and well drilled. Their catching very safe. And if someone does something good half the team will race over to make sure he knows it was appreciated. It’s an unconfirmed rumour that they have a manual on when it is the correct time to pat a team-mate on the bum.

Their batting can be monumental. It is all built around their top three. Stoic men in no rush. The perfect men to slowly choke the life out of any new ball by either defending or leaving it alone. The opposition bowlers have to bowl to them. Then when the new ball is seen off, these three men, or if they let any other batsman come in, can cash in between the 25th and 80th over. When the second new ball does come, England will have set batsmen facing it and probably have one batsman eyeing a big score.

It’s not revolutionary. Sure, in money ball there is talk of seeing more pitches to tire out the pitchers, but seeing off the new ball has always been a pretty sound cricket theory. Tired bowlers with an older ball is what batsmen dream of.

England have just done it better than most, and they also bucked the trend of selecting players like Virender Sehwag, David Warner and Tillakaratne Dilshan. Perhaps it was a plan built around having the right three men, rather than something Flower always believed in. But in the right conditions, say Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa, it works perfectly. These are generally new ball countries where seam or swing is extremely effective. If you can see off the first new ball, and your batsmen below are quality players, you can up the scoring rate later on and make very big scores that intimidate the opposition.

The problem is that in the subcontinent this game plan doesn’t work.

When the ball loses its shine on a low and slow turning wicket, it can get harder to score. England’s batting plan was tested by Pakistan and it failed, and now it has failed in Sri Lanka as well.

In some ways, England have already changed from their solid top-order plan. In Pakistan the batsmen stood at the crease waiting for Saeed Ajmal to beat them. Against Sri Lanka they were far more attacking and at times a little bonkers. Andrew Strauss’ decision to come running down the wicket like a seven-year-old in a beach game was completely out of character for him. He’s more like the person who would spank a child for playing that shot.

Jonathan Trott’s hundred was England’s ray of light. Trott played Trott cricket. It was sensible, played to his strengths, and only premeditated when Sri Lanka were trying a 15-man legside field. According to Trott, England’s batting is so bad the team may have to call in an exorcist.

To stop that in future it might be best if they just forget about the plans. I know it’s tough, because England is a plan-heavy team. But it’s not like their batsmen are poor, young, or stupid. They’ve been around and some stuff, and this is no-one’s first trip to the subbie. Let them all work it out on their own. Now, maybe only two or three come good. But two or three an innings would still be a vast improvement on what they have at the moment, which is very occasionally one.

Now there are more reasons than their batting template for why England is struggling in these conditions. Strauss is not making runs, with everyone else in form that mattered little, with no one in form that matters a lot. They seem to trust the sweep shot more than an NRA member trusts his rifle (even though they’ve shot their own toes off with it many times). And they don’t really use the crease that well, either forward or backwards.

At the moment England batsmen are little more than targets who occasionally throw in a gut-wrenching premeditated sweep.

Before this series, like I did before their last against Pakistan, I thought Flower would come up with the appropriate game plans for England to conquer these wickets. So far he hasn’t.

Yet, I continue to believe in Andy Flower. The ‘man with the plan’ has to become the man who lets his players play. Just let go of the scruff of their necks and see if they land on their feet. Blocking, slogging and sweeping haven’t worked. Perhaps batting will.

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