Caught out

After a decade of mismanagement and low morale for England’s cricket team,
the ECB has turned to HR for inspiration

Nothing symbolises the eternal appeal of the "cult of the amateur"
to the English psyche more than the England cricket team. England’s Test
victory last month over South Africa just failed to enable them to swap places
with Zimbabwe and become only the second worst team in the world.

Many explanations have been given for this national disaster. Some say we’re
just not very good at the moment, others point to alleged structural changes in
British society – like a reduced emphasis on competitive sport in schools –
while one chairmen of the selectors even suggested it had something to do with
the movement of the planets. The belief that we are just picking the wrong
team, once a popular point of view in the nation’s pubs, now has fewer
adherents than the Flat Earth Society.

But there is a much simpler explanation which says that the men who have run
the game for most of the last decade have presided over a massive mismanagement
of the human resources at their disposal. Not all England cricketers are lions
but they have, at least until fairly recently, been managed by donkeys.

Poor direction

In 1995, cricket-mad City manager Patrick Whittingdale ended his
multi-million sponsorship deal of England cricket in protest at the treatment
of England’s Test cricketers and the insularity of the game’s administrators.

"They have no idea how to treat people. The mental side of cricket is
much bigger than most realise. It is essential that players should be allowed
to meld together as a team and that when a batsman goes out he knows what the
game-plan is and long-distance criticism of players through the media is very
bad management," he raged.

Indeed, management of England’s cricketers in this decade of decline has
been so inconsistent, perverse, and downright stupid that if you collected all
the mistakes together in a book you would have a new strain of business
bestseller called How To Make The Least Of Your Human Resources.

The days of the "gin-slinging dodderers" (to borrow Ian Botham’s
famous phrase) being in charge do seem to be over with the arrival of new,
professional management under former Tesco boss Lord MacLaurin.

Many things have changed for the better: the old Test and County Cricket
Board has been replaced by a new sleek England Cricket Board, women have
finally been admitted to the MCC and the ECB has campaigned firmly and publicly
against racism in the sport. Players also usually get a call from the new
chairman of selectors David Graveney to let them know if they have been
selected for a Test. Only a few years ago it was not unheard of for players to
find this out through the media.

Yet there are equally disturbing signs that, in Douglas Adams’ trite old
words, the more things change the more they stay the same. At a tribunal
hearing, the ECB chief executive Tim Lamb was accused of trying to persuade a
female employee to have an abortion and was quoted as describing the entry of
women into the MCC as "We need some good dykes to get some lottery
funding".

And what the ECB promised would be "cricket’s greatest carnival" –
the World Cup – lost some of its sheen when the event’s celebritous promoter
Anneka Rice described cricket as a "dodgy sport" and England were
bundled out in the first round.

The early exit may not be entirely unconnected to the fact that with less
than three weeks to go before the event started, the England players were in
dispute with their employers.

"The original issue was money," says cricket journalist Scyld
Berry. "Some of the players thought the initial minimum guarantee of
£3,750 for five weeks was derisory but it soon broadened into a clash of
culture. When the World Cup schedule arrived, one of the more emotional members
of the England party was so incensed by its militaristic nature that he tore it
up."

The arrival of former major general Simon Pack as director of England tours
may not have helped matters: his insistence that players needed permission to
see their families revived memories of bans on wives and girlfriends on
previous tours.

Pack was also involved in finding a replacement for David Lloyd as England
coach. His trip to South Africa to see Bob Woolmer suggested to the media that
he was the ECB’s first choice, a leak which became embarrassing when he turned
it down. They then turned to Duncan Fletcher who had, ironically, lost out to
Woolmer for the position of South African coach a few years ago.

Fletcher and his skipper Nasser Hussain seem to be forming an effective
partnership but there are continued leaks over the discussions of the selection
committee which consists of Graveney, Hussain and Fletcher. The decision to
drop batsman Mark Ramprakash for this winter’s tour of South Africa is thought
to have been taken against Hussain’s wishes. Indeed, former captain Mike
Atherton told The Sunday Telegraph "What Nasser will not say as captain is
that we have got only three experienced batsmen in our team." As it is
England’s batting which has conspicuously let them down and as MacLaurin is
believed to have been responsible for Ramprakash being dropped – even though,
technically, he is not a member of the selection committee – the finger of
responsibility points clearly at the ECB chairman. The Ramprakash affair became
even more puzzling to the outsider when he was, belatedly, called up to cover
for injuries, told to keep his temper under control and informed he might end
up going back to England as soon as the other batsman got back to match
fitness.

Hiring and firing is always one of the most contentious issues in HR but it
is even more contentious in sport, when these decisions are high profile, and
particularly in cricket where the criteria by which a player may be picked or
dropped are even more subjective than in, say, football.

Theoretically, the vital statistics for a batsman (the average runs a player
scores before they get out) and for a bowler (the number of wickets they take
and the number of runs they concede on average for each wicket) should be an
easy-to-use and reliable guide to performance. Yet history shows that the
players who top these performance charts are not always selected for England.
Good practice would suggest that these decisions are explained quickly and
clearly to those involved, something that is beginning to happen under the new
regime, and that the players/employees should be given scope to air their
views.

Former Warwickshire captain Dermot Reeve, in his autobiography Winning Ways,
describes a very different scenario. Before the 1996 World Cup, the then
captain Mike Atherton told Reeve he doubted he would be selected because of his
fielding and fitness. Reeve argued that he was fielding out of position and
pointed out that he had won the fitness contest between the players. A few days
later, he was told he would not be going because of his fielding and fitness.
He was then called up to cover for an injured player.

Confidence dive

It is equally good practice to try and keep morale among employees as high
as possible, an aim which doesn’t quite square with previous England
management’s predilection for slagging off their players in the press. To be
fair to the ECB and the TCCB they have not been afraid to bring coaches in to
help morale whether they be a parson, a former England captain (Mike Brearley
who is now a psychotherapist) or a technical adviser like Geoffrey Boycott.

These appointments have not, however, always been handled tactfully. While
Boycott was coaching individual players on their technique, he was also allowed
to act as a media pundit where one of his jobs was to analyse players’
performances. Ian Botham insists that Boycott’s diagnosis of the flaws in
England’s batting was of immense use to New Zealand. This may or may not be
true but Boycott should have been forced to give up one of those roles faster
than you can say "conflict of interest".

Changes in management have been too frequent for comfort. Since 1992,
English cricket has had three chairmen of selectors (Ted Dexter, Ray
Illingworth and David Graveney), five coaches (Micky Stewart, Keith Fletcher,
Ray Illingworth, David Lloyd and Duncan Fletcher) and four captains (Graham
Gooch, Mike Atherton, Alec Stewart and Nasser Hussain). There is nothing like
continuity among senior personnel to settle the rank and file, and frankly this
is nothing like it.

If one thing destroys employees’ morale swiftly it is talk of redundancy,
and England’s cricketers know that they can be dropped even if they do well.
Bowler Andrew Caddick must have thought he had cemented his England place in
1993 when he finished a tour of West Indies as his side’s top wicket taker, but
he was dropped because he was "difficult". Sometimes, the criteria
applied to the make-up of the England team seem to be even more obscure and
abstruse than those used to choose the next Pope. This may explain why England
have used 86 players in 106 Tests over the last decade, whereas Australia – the
reigning world champions – have used only 41.

This is probably the most damning statistic which can be thrown at the men
who have run this sport over the last decade. But here, at least, is personnel
manager Lesley Cook’s first real contact with the nitty gritty of the way
cricketers are managed in the 18 months she’s been at the ECB. Previously,
almost all of her time has been devoted to managing HR for the ECB’s 90 or so
staff. While Cook, as she charmingly admits, has had too much "media
training" to comment on this she does say "Simon Pack is discussing
the fine detail of these contracts with the players in south Africa now."

She refuses to elaborate on the substance of the contracts, but The
Telegraph reports that they will be awarded to eight Test players and eight
specialists in one-day internationals. Up to 80 per cent of their salary could
be paid by the ECB, according to this report, and senior players could earn as
much as £50,000. Other players who play for England will be paid a fee for each
game. Hodgson says, "I don’t think this will create two classes of England
players." In some ways, this is a logical extension of the system under
which the ECB employs players for winter tours but it should, at least, ensure
that those 16 players feel they have the confidence of their employer. This
also represents a serious investment by the ECB. Lord MacLaurin estimates it
will cost £1m a season.

Such moves can only help as, in the long term, will the £10m donated to
grassroots cricket in the last four years. The challenge for next season must
be to get behind the employees/players as even MacLaurin’s worst critics admit
English cricket is on a very slight upswing.

There is also more that can be done behind the scenes to improve England’s
performance. Reeve has been especially critical of the previous management’s
failure to give players a clear team plan, analyse the opposition and even use
a technology as established as video to address specific issues pointing out
that "Bob Woolmer used video to help the South African players make fewer
movements when they caught and threw the ball". On one famous tour, Reeve
recalls, the England batsmen agreed to try a new approach in the nets only to
find that they didn’t have enough cricket balls to give the tactic of going
down the pitch to the bowlers a proper try.

While the team has the usual panoply of fitness coaches and dieticians, much
will rest on the way Fletcher and Hussein manage the players. "Fletcher
and Illingworth seemed to think they could just have a chat with a player on
the boundary," says ex-sponsor Whittingdale. This is where the ECB could
usefully apply some serious HR expertise although it would be an even greater
help if the counties followed suit. When Warwickshire won five trophies in two
seasons, partly because of a complete change in HR introduced by Reeve and his
coach Woolmer, other players reacted as if the team had somehow
"cheated" its way to success.

Change is possible but it will not come easily. As Lord MacLaurin has
pointed out, "a chairman of Tesco can sit down with his colleagues, make
plans and do it. At the ECB, I do not chair a management board which can
actually manage."

Mind you, there is nothing much at stake here, only the survival of one of
our national games. Perhaps it is time for a sport which invented the divisive
concept of "gentlemen" versus "players" to get
professional.

Jon Holmes, agent for sporting personalities like Gary Lineker and Will
Carling, once asked an ex-England captain to have a quiet word with a promising
new Test batsman called David Gower. "I don’t want to talk to him,"
said the ex-captain. Holmes later said, in a frank interview with Sue Mott,
"Sport in this country is run like a school games department: the fourth
formers were not allowed to talk to the sixth formers. If cricket doesn’t
radically revise itself, it will become the next billiards."

By Paul Simpson

England’s technique

English coaches follow a strict adherence to correct technique in a
prescriptive way – insisting that your left knee or elbow is at the correct
angle.

There is one basic problems with this textbook technique – it doesn’t work.

The gurus have failed to develop enormously talented players such as Graeme
Hick or Mark Ramprakash.

A prime example was that of Devon Malcolm. Despite having demolished the
South Africans with a historic performance, a year later on tour, England coach
Peter Lever decided that his action was wrong and insisted that he change. This
sowed seeds of doubt in the minds of the selectors and to the South Africans’
delight and amazement Malcolm was dropped.

Oxford graduate Keith Morrison, who was coached by the Australian Jack
Potter at the university, compares the two approaches. "In England the way
they teach you is step-by-step – getting in line; putting your shoulder over
the ball and then hitting it; whereas in Australia they get you just to strike
the ball, and learn how to hit the ball hard." Easy, really.

By Philip Whiteley

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