Have changes in County Cricket added to England’s Ashes woes?

Have changes in County Cricket added to England’s Ashes woes?

Just as England suffer another Ashes defeat Down Under, Bradley Adams ponders how the domestic game may be impacting on the side's problems at international level.

James Vince Photo © Luke Adams

As England toil in Australia, it is difficult not to wonder quite why England’s away record is so woeful.

A whitewash would mean that only two teams – Bangladesh and Zimbabwe – would have a worse win/loss ratio away from home than England in the past two years, having just two Test wins from 14 on the road in that time.

It would also mean Auckland plays host to a match in March where New Zealand could make it ten consecutive defeats for England.

These issues clearly aren’t new. The absence of Ben Stokes in Australia hasn’t helped this touring party, but to suggest things would be drastically different were he not in Canterbury but in Brisbane, Adelaide, and Perth is to take a shortsighted view.

The root of everything wrong can be traced to the current set-up of county cricket – that invaluable, mistreated child of the English game – and those problems are only going to be perpetuated by further alterations to the structure of the domestic game.

In early 2016, the ECB announced changes to the way county cricket would be run in the following year. The Specsavers County Championship was cut to 14 games, with eight teams in Division One and ten in Division Two, and pushed to the ends of the season.

This, after a previous decision to allow the visiting team to forgo a toss and bowl in Specsavers County Championship matches, implemented with a view to encouraging spin bowling development and improving pitches. Home teams would not produce green-tops, it is thought, if they face batting first.

It was a good idea, but the change in fixtures in the 2017 season negated its impact entirely.

In Division One, three teams played just five matches between June and August – the height of summer – four played six, and one, Middlesex, played seven. It was a similar story in Division Two, with between five and seven matches during the trio of summer months.

The periods at the beginning and end of the year are notoriously bad for spinners: the weather is usually cold and murky, ideal for trundlers who wobble the ball under grey skies, with pitches not baked hard enough from the scarcely appearing heat and sunshine.

As a result, England’s backup tweaker Down Under, Mason Crane, featured in just seven Championship games, his first coming in Hampshire’s fourth fixture in mid-May.

His lack of time on the field and, more importantly, his subpar performances when he did feature -16 wickets at 44.68 per scalp – led to debate over whether his selection was the right one.

One hundred miles west, Somerset have had the right idea since the toss change. Taunton has been dubbed ‘Ciderabad’ for how responsive the wickets tend to be for spinners, but it is no minefield, and Craig Overton showed that there is help for pacemen.

Jack Leach has taken more Championship wickets (116) than any other spinner in the past two seasons (51 this season), with only New Zealand’s Jeetan Patel (110) close to catching him. That he overcame having to remodel his action, after screenings in 2016 suggested he had a kink in his arm and ruled him out of contention for England’s Tests in Bangladesh and India, make his achievements this year all the more impressive.

But it is strange how little reward has been given. Leach missed out on the Ashes while Somerset, for a time, faced the possibility of a point deduction for a pitch that spun sharply from the first morning of their final match against Middlesex.

If the purpose of the new toss rule was to benefit spinners, that should surely be recognised rather than punished.

The ruling, at present, is a wicket becomes dangerous if there is anything more than occasional uneven bounce on the first day – not if it produces excessive turn. Such turn would see the wicket rated as below average, exactly what happened in Somerset’s final game.

Excessive seam movement at any stage of the game should see a pitch rated as poor, yet teams still prepare green-tops to assist medium-fast bowlers. Little is said.

Inherently, this isn’t the worst thing, if only because it makes life at the crease far more challenging for batsmen, which in turn produces a far more exhilarating contest. But as England are finding in Australia, bowlers bred on such wickets have a propensity for moving the ball, and often struggle when there is no lateral movement; similarly, batsmen cope against a swinging Dukes ball, but are all at sea against an SG or a Kookaburra.

Is this really how those associated with English cricket wish to develop bowlers?

The same issue arose in India last winter: seamers were wholly ineffective, while desperate turns to Gareth Batty, Zafar Ansari and Liam Dawson, all competent county bowlers, displayed fully how little faith the selection committee have in club spin departments.

But it isn’t just bowlers who suffer. On numerous occasions during both this Ashes tour and the last, in 2013-14, batsmen suffered the wrath of Australia’s fearsome attack – caught hooking or fending, beaten for pace and bowled or trapped in front.

Perhaps if these players regularly faced genuine pace, on wickets perfectly suited to those who charge in and bowl at 90 miles-per-hour, they would seem more like batsmen and less like targets for the likes of Mitchell Starc.

Doing that, of course, would mean that England have to produce such bowlers, a concept that feels like a pipe dream.

In India, no one expects a team to entirely negate Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin; they’re numbers three and four in the Test bowling rankings for a reason. But the incompetence with which they were faced is staggering – England passed 300 only three times spread across as many matches, and lost two of those by an innings.

The potency of the touring bowlers was a major factor, too, with Ashwin and Jadeja taking ten fewer wickets between them than all of England’s bowlers combined. And Adil Rashid, the most effective with 23 wickets, hasn’t played Test cricket since.

Again, the batsmen lose out from a problematic spin development system, so there is more surprise in a broken jack-in-a-box than seeing India run through England.

To return to the issue of scheduling, it is worth wondering quite how the ECB intend to improve a flailing Test side by marginalising the primary competition tasked with developing players for the international stage.

There is much talk over how the Championship will look in a decade’s time, with some suggesting it may not be long before there are just ten matches. It remains mere talk, but the consequences of further reducing it could be catastrophic.

A reminder that it is only a little over five years since England lost the number one spot in the Test rankings; rarely in the time since have the team looked so far from returning to the top than right now.

The ECB approach to the Championship mirrors that of a student who, years ago, got an A* on an exam. That grade came from the student studying, but after receiving it, the student began to study less than before, and did so at times of the day where his focus could waiver.

Upon getting a C, he opts not to study more and more productively, but to further push it aside and subsequently wonder why he failed his latest set of exams.

It is far from the most productive approach.

Part of what causes this can be put down to the success of, and over-reliance on, T20 cricket. With a new franchise tournament coming in 2020, the most fitting of years, it seems difficult to believe that the other formats will not be denied suitable schedule space.

In Andrew Strauss, England have a director of cricket who, in the wake of spectacular failure at the 2015 World Cup, made clear in his first months in power that one-day cricket would be a particular focus.

In that regard, success has been had. A T20 World Cup final and a Champions Trophy semi-final do not represent silverware, of course, but this white-ball team play with a remarkably entertaining freedom to express themselves – a tactic far removed from the Peter Moores era of obsessing about data and statistics.

But it is a double-edged sword, and on the evidence of some Test performances in the last 18 months, the aggressive approach has its drawbacks, too. The likes of Geoffrey Boycott wax lyrical about patient batting more often than Steve Smith twitches at the crease, but the view is not without value.

In James Vince, England have a batsman at first drop who can look the most elegant player in the world, but whose greatest strength – his drives through the offside – is also his biggest weakness. His temperament is often called into question, but he played such an integral role in Hampshire’s period of T20 domination that it is understandable why.

To be entirely fair to Vince he has made a pair of half-centuries, both impressive knocks in their own right. But he has also been caught behind four times out of six.

As it stands, England tend to revert to trying to bludgeon their way out of trouble, and that will only get worse as white-ball cricket continues to be the priority at the domestic level.

So too will the spin conundrum haunt England as, in turning T20 cricket in this country into the unnecessary franchise extravaganza of a Big Bash League, the prime slot for development is lost to a format that in 2017 saw just four English spinners take more than 15 wickets – and one of those, Max Waller, last played a Championship game in 2012.

Very few could disagree that T20 is entertaining, and a good gateway for new spectators and young children to begin playing the game. But the impact of putting it at the summer’s peak means in the driest conditions, the best time to be working with spinners, any young spinner is forced to alter their game unfathomably to avoid being hammered into the stands.

England have lost an Ashes series to an Australia team that is, in all fairness, populated both with some world class players and with some who have proven themselves to be very good players over the course of three Tests.

But it is not as good an Australian team as the one that whitewashed England four years ago and, although evidence down under would suggest that the tourists’ party is not quite as weak as it was back then, it is clear the missing elements that have contributed to this defeat, alongside the abysmal run of away matches in the last two years, have come from regression in the domestic game.

Still, England have only lost one Test series at home, from ten, since relinquishing that number one spot, and they’ve won seven. It would seem that is an adequate achievement for the ECB. Supporters tired of defeat overseas may, very reasonably, take a wildly different view.

Until the County Championship is fixed, this run of results will only get worse. But if the prospect of back-to-back Ashes whitewashes isn’t enough to prompt a change, what will?

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