Andy Flower is worried we are getting ahead of ourselves. He is right, of course, as he will no doubt drum into his players on the eve of the next Test at Edgbaston. It is for the rest of us to have some fun, to wonder how the current team and players within compare to past eras. But how did we get here? How did we get to the point where we are even having a debate about whether England are the best in the world?
In England’s case the transformation has taken about 15 years and you have to go right back to 1997 when Lord MacLaurin of Knebworth was appointed the chairman of the England and Wales and Cricket Board. He was the first administrator who really listened to the then captain (me) and other senior players and recognised how disadvantaged England were, in comparison to other teams, because of the refusal to properly resource the national team.
Until that point, the England team were a collection of individuals whose focus was doing well enough in county cricket to make the team, and then doing well enough to stay in it. And whilst, obviously, there was pride to be had in performing well and winning Test matches, it was very much an ad hoc process. Successes were in spite of, rather than because of the system. The levels of fitness and attention to detail you now see would have been impossible in the days when England players prepared for, and recovered from, Test cricket by playing for their counties.
MacLaurin made small changes initially- players were given single rooms on tour, for example- but the club v country was settled absolutely when central contracts were introduced for the first time prior to the summer of 2000. It is easy to forget now how radical a move that was. All of a sudden, a player’s ties to his county were weakened: he was neither paid by, nor under the aegis of his county anymore, all of which allowed the England coach the kind of freedom and scope of which his predecessors could have only dreamed. And the average standards in county cricket became irrelevant because the England players were no longer a part of it.
Duncan Fletcher was the lucky recipient of this change of ethos. Things didn’t slip into place smoothly, though. Counties continued to whinge when Fletcher pulled certain players out of county cricket but not others. Where was the fairness in that, they cried. Fletcher’s great strength was keeping his eyes firmly on the far horizon rather than the day to day squabbles that had embroiled other coaches. Even now, as he watches his own team being thrashed by his old team, deep down there must be an element of pride in the role that he played.
His partnership with two captains was vital. Firstly Nasser Hussain, cussed, angry and determined and then Michael Vaughan, more laid-back, fun-loving but equally smart. These were strong and stable relationships, in contrast to what had gone before and what came immediately after.
To pick out two key matches in this period: West Indies at Lord’s in 2000, when Hussain was actually absent with a broken finger, was a vital game. One-nil down, and in danger of going two- nil down, already there were dissenting voices from the shires about the value of central contracts. This nerve-wracking victory, which heralded the first English defeat of West Indies for 31 years, gave Fletcher breathing space.
Edgbaston 2005: but for this victory, in one of the greatest Test matches of all time, it is difficult to see how England would have gone on to win the Ashes that year. That victory, on the back of sustained success for two years, gave the England team the confidence that not only could they beat other good Test teams but that they could beat the best. Australia’s psychological hold over England was broken that summer and it has heralded England’s strongest run in the Ashes since the 1980s. If you want to become the best in the world, you have to beat Australia.
After that summer, the ECB took the decision to abandon terrestrial television and sell their entire rights’ package to BSKYB. It was a move that was widely criticised and some would say the ramifications of removing much of the visibility of the team to the general public has yet to play out. What is undeniable, though, is that the extra cash allowed a massive investment into what was now called Team England.
When you look up onto the England balcony next week at Edgbaston and see the batting coach, fast bowling coach, spin bowling coach, fielding coach, wicket-keeping coach, statistician, masseur, strength and conditioning coach and the head of security, amongst others, ask yourself who pays for all that. When you see the investment in cutting edge technology at Loughborough, such as bowling machines with simulations of international bowlers, ask yourself who pays for it all. The simple answer is satellite television. Hugh Morris the managing director of England cricket spent £24.8m last year on all England teams, up from £10.9m in 2005, which was incalculably more than five years before that. From being one of the worst resourced teams in world cricket in 1997, England are now the best.
Kevin Pietersen brought upon himself much merriment after the Ashes victory of 2009 when he obliquely suggested it was all down to him. In a funny way, it was. The Fletcher years had turned sour, as they always do in the end, and the upshot was what turned out to be a disastrous arrangement with Peter Moores, as coach, and Pietersen as captain. It was doomed from the start but few could foresee how quickly it would end and the benefits that would immediately accrue.
It ended through Pietersen’s bravery, stupidity and naivety. Brave because many would not have rocked the boat and would have looked after their position first of all; stupid because, although he made his move at the fag-end of the India tour, it came to a head whilst he was on safari in Africa; naive because he thought he was invulnerable when clearly he wasn’t. The upshot was the advent of the Flower- Andrew Strauss partnership, which has taken England almost to the summit.
Flower took some time to find his feet as he was, after all, an inexperienced coach who, as Henry Olonga relates in his autobiography, was not a natural communicator. With one early decision, though, he set out his stall. England had been bowled out for 51 in Jamaica, Flower’s first Test in charge, and he decided to make Ian Bell the scapegoat and drop him. Under Moores a feeling had been growing that an England cap had become something of a sinecure; that once there, you were there for good. With a ruthlessness that has become his trademark, Flower changed that with the axing of Bell. The signal went out that you have to perform or else, and that the cosiness of the previous year was over. In retrospect, Bell says that it was the making of him as a Test player. He went away, toughened up, sharpened up, got fitter and came back a better player and, crucially, a stronger man. It sent a message to others, too.
One other player was soon to go into the wilderness, and his retirement in a way allowed Flower and Strauss to chart their own course at last. Andrew Flintoff was an iconic figure in the English game after his heroics in 2005, but in the years following his presence had become as much a distraction as an advantage. The focus (from outside the group), too often, was on Flintoff and not the team- something Flower abhors and after 2005 he, Flintoff, was in the papers just as much for non-cricketing reasons as cricketing ones.
Flintoff retired in a blaze of glory after the conclusion of the 2009 Ashes and the nucleus of the 2005 team had gone with him- Steve Harmison, Marcus Trescothick, Matthew Hoggard and Vaughan, too. He had played a full part in England’s rise and now his departure allowed England under Flower and Strauss to move on. After Flintoff’s retirement, Flower settled on a strategy of six batsmen, a wicket-keeper and four bowlers which has served him well since then.
A younger, fresher group enabled Flower to demand that every player to buy into an ethos that put the team’s needs before everything else. The way Pietersen played at Lord’s recently is testament to that. This is a team without ego. The groundwork had been laid for a period of sustained success.
So there we have it: a talented bunch of players- but not more so than previous eras- strongly managed, well led, supremely fit and focussed on being the best cricketers they can be with no distractions. They will not realise it, since current players pay little credence to the past, but they have also been gifted a system that allows them, almost demands of them, to be the best.