Should England have rocked up without a plan? Were they mentally exhausted before they even began?

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We’re not lodging this as an official criticism. More just raising it as something to think about. How much does England’s insane obsession with tours Down Under drain the players before they’ve even arrived?

It was Jos Buttler’s first innings dismissal in Adelaide that made us think of this (and some of his catching too). He got pressured into a suicide drive and yet it was only the 15th ball he’d faced.

Now 15 balls is a pretty long time to be stuck on nought in an Ashes Test, but you’d think it might take a bit longer before a batter went all Michael Douglas in Falling Down. It smacked of a man who’d already used up all his conscious decision-making and had been dragged into nonsense.

This is a thing we’ve written about before in the context of ‘digging in’, but it’s a phenomenon that applies more broadly too. Decision-making is wearying. Batters are generally at their best when they’re pretty much just cruising along on autopilot.

Buttler would have expended plenty of mental energy in the field: conscious thought, when formulating gameplans and so forth, and a fair whack of emotional energy too, given a couple of his drops.

He’d have used a lot of physical energy too – and you should never underestimate the impact of that. But we just wonder at some of the England batters’ mental energy reserves. Are they starting their innings with their cognitive fuel indicator lights already flashing?

Everything plays into mental fatigue – not just what happens on the field of play. All the thinking and decision-making in the lead-up to a game can take it out of a player too. Even if you don’t believe that self-control is a finite resource, you might accept that enthusiasm is. Maybe Rory Burns was sick of facing Mitchell Starc before the series even began. (If not, he certainly is now.)

But then how can we square this with Buttler’s second innings, where he exercised almost comical restraint in batting 4h18m for 26 runs? Perhaps we’re guilty of seeing mental fatigue where there isn’t any. Or maybe by that point in the Test, all of the plans and ideas and what-ifs and ramifications had been stripped away and cricket life had become a whole lot simpler.

England have very explicitly had their sights set on this series for several years now. It’s a thing they have spoken about at times when it made no sense to speak about it.

“Playing the top two teams in the world, in New Zealand and India, is perfect preparation for us as we continue to improve and progress towards an Ashes series in Australia at the back end of the year,” said Chris Silverwood at the start of the British summer.

If one of the key responsibilities of a coach is to try and take the pressure off their players during the very biggest engagements, this doesn’t seem a great way of achieving that; talking the contest up in comparison to others that are really pretty big themselves.

We don’t know about you, but if we had to spend our time in that kind of environment, we’d almost certainly be suffering a kind of monomaniacal burnout by the time we touched down in Australia.

We’re not seriously suggesting that England should have turned up in Brisbane without any kind of a plan, but we are arguing that a certain volume of talk and thinking can become yet another mental burden on the players. This is an era when international cricketers have a fair bit on their plates anyway and every human being only has so much bandwidth. The art of top-level coaching is surely to give players a bit of a steer without overloading them.

This doesn’t feel like the England approach. It feels like England have been planning with such ferocity that they can’t stop and don’t even notice when they’re going round in circles. When did they decide to play the first Test with neither of their top two wicket-takers? At what point did it become the right move to pick five right-arm fast-medium bowlers for the pink ball in Adelaide?

The tourists may at one point have started off with some solid ideas, but it now seems like their strategy for any given match is just whatever they happen to be talking about when the music stops.

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10 comments

  1. The 80s successes certainly seem to have been built on the bedrock of shambolic incompetence and random appearances by Elton John. On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine Silverwood could be as intense and over-prepared as Andy Flower, and that seemed to go okay as long as they were winning.

    Maybe Flower was better at keeping the pressure off the players. Maybe Silverwood, Thorpe and Collingwood is a bit samey as a coaching team, when there’s no other batting coach. Maybe Pope is the new Ramprakash. Please God, not that.

    1. It is a very different environment at the minute though, isn’t it? It’s even harder to get away from cricket and so even more important that they do so.

      Posted this on Twitter earlier:

      1. Absolutely. There’s always the Brian Clough approach of locking then in the dressing room and forcing them to get shit-faced, I suppose.

        Slightly off-topic, but there are enough great sporting feats achieved with a hangover that you wonder if it’s performance enhancing. Sobers seems to have been nailed on for a double hundred if he needed someone else to tie his shoelaces for him. Maybe Buttler could add ten runs to his average with a debilitating alcohol problem. Not that, etc, etc.

  2. Disclaimer— I’m going to dive into a little rant here, and I might conflate “English cricket” with the “England cricket team”, but I don’t think this is far from the truth.

    As much as they like to talk about the Ashes, I don’t think the powers that be in English cricket care about the longer format in reality. If they actually cared, we wouldn’t have a situation where just 2 (!) of England’s top 6 average around 50 in first-class cricket, and everyone else averages in the 30s (!). We wouldn’t have a situation where the career of the main Test-class spinner has been utterly ruined due to gross mismanagement.

    I think what we get is lip service in the media about how important the Ashes are, but if they actually gave a fuck, the ECB wouldn’t treat white ball vs red ball as a zero-sum game and would actually have proper plans in place to keep first class cricket healthy and thriving.

    I know everything now has to be seen through a Covid lens — but we all know that the problems predate Covid. You could take the last Ashes down under and just rinse and repeat, and you’d get this one.

    Overall, I feel that what’s said in the media and dressing rooms matters much less than basic quality on the field and the system that is put in place to produce that quality.

    1. Think they do care about the Ashes, but it’s the only long format cricket that really registers. This is then weighed against shorter formats that are profitable even at domestic level and the upshot is a lot of crossing of fingers.

  3. The ‘Buttler Leave’ image has me nostalgic for the days of hover captions and Lies About Pictures

    Merry almost-Christmas, fellow commenters – I am done with work now until the new year, and may not be on the site much so I wish you all an adequate festivus and of course a happy Boxing Day Test Eve when it comes

    1. Surely not on the basis of 5 tests?! Joe flippin’ Root has got to be it. If England didn’t win a test it wasn’t because he didn’t contribute. And if they did, it was almost certainly because he did.

  4. Good to wake up this morning to witness the seasonal airing of grievances on this site.

    Happy festivus everyone.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Festivus

    My feat of strength today shall be (a rather inadvisable) two hours on the real tennis court.

    Daisy and I shall indeed have our main seasonal dinner this Festivus evening (if I can still sit) ahead of doing Crisis (if I can still walk & stand) from tomorrow.

    The seasonal grievances about Ashes tours no doubt stem in part from the inherent difficulties involved in winning long test series away from home, which always makes the battle asymmetric. Add to that the short term additional difficulty of touring at a time of COVID, the short term self-inflicted injuries of mismanagement & poor decision making by England.

    And don’t even get me started on the medium to long term problems with the game in England limiting resources to a small percentage of the population who happen to come from privileged backgrounds (eg go to private schools) and in places limiting the talent pool yet further through exclusivity based on ethnic and/or class prejudice. Still, once we fix most of that, England will have a much better chance in the longer form of the game.

    There, that’s my grievances aired. Once again, happy Festivus everyone.

    1. Happy Festivus, Ged. Happy Festivus, all.

      May your stockings be stuffed with half-price bargain bin cricket books by Simon ‘Yozzer’ Hughes.

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