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John Stern: England robots no match for Indian flair

November 25th, 2008 by John Stern in County cricket, England, Miscellaneous and tagged , , , ,

England’s limp performance in India has reopened the ‘over-coaching’ debate. In the dark blue corner you have the super-correct Ian Bell, the ultimate product of the ECB system, while in the light blue corner you have Yuvraj Singh, England’s long-handled nemesis who golf-shots yorkers for six.

This is not about who’s the better player – after all Yuvraj does not command a Test place. This is about innovation versus orthodoxy, individual versus robot.

Awash with Sky TV money, the English game is investing like never before in academies and other strands of its grass roots. In theory, this has to be a good thing. Anybody who has been to the facility at Loughborough cannot fail to be impressed. At the elite end of the game, nothing, it seems, is left to chance.

English cricket has always been conservative, hamstrung by class, tradition and convention. The concern is that our efforts to improve standards and compete with Australia and the like has made the game more institutionalised and is curbing individualism rather than encouraging it.

The two least conventional specialist in England’s one-day side are Kevin Pietersen and Owais Shah, both learned much of their cricket overseas (almost all in KP’s case). Shah has had a huge struggle (still ongoing) to have his quirky batsmanship accepted and trusted at the highest level.

In Loughborough at the start of last week, Kevin Shine, the ECB’s senior fast-bowling coach, made an impassioned assertion about the importance of strength, conditioning and injury prevention. Shine has been accused of trying to clone fast bowlers, notably Stuart Broad and Liam Plunkett. He denies all charges but there are a number of experienced and expert witnesses around who testify that his ethos is counter-productive and stifles the sort of match-winning individuality that England need.

Two days later at a new school in a deprived area of Bristol, the ECB chairman Giles Clarke was waxing lyrical about a boy who had never picked up a cricket ball until that morning but found he could bowl a natural inswinger. Clarke revelled in the rawness of the talent, the unconventional action and made analogies with the organic talent-spotting on the streets and maidans of Asia. Yet for this boy to ‘make it’ even as far as a local club requires commitment and conformity that may not be entirely inclusive.

In the next issue of TWC (out on December 19) we have a feature about Leicestershire and their admirable quest to wean themselves off their Kolpak habit and populate their side with home-grown players. Of the six young players we have highlighted, five are at private school. This is not to decry the productive links that Leicestershire have forged with their local private schools.

But it does raise the question about how wide the net is really being cast when it comes to elite selection. Is cricket in England becoming less rather than more egalitarian?

John Stern is editor of The Wisden Cricketer

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