Bull leaves gate open when he is not in charge
Sunday 10 December 2006
In the aftermath of two cataclysmic Ashes defeats it has been obligatory to search for scapegoats. Steve Bull, the England team's psychologist, has been among them and, given the manner of the reversals in Brisbane and Adelaide, one of the cheap shots levelled against him was that he is not only named Bull, he must be talking it.
Bull has been around high-class sportsmen long enough to be unbothered by such allegations. Considering his profession he will also recognise that, having taken some of the credit for the 2005 Ashes victory, he might be expected to shoulder some of the responsibility now.
He is as inscrutable as the coach, Duncan Fletcher, when it is all going off in the middle, but the two Test performances, one beset by nerves and the other providing a perfect example of implosion under unexpected pressure, were not in his game plan (The Game Plan, indeed, is the title of his book).
Bull has worked with England for several years, but this tour assumed a deeper significance the moment Australia were beaten in 2005. On the eve of the First Lord's Test last summer he renewed his acquaintance with the players with a small pep talk.
There followed a series of meetings towards the end of the summer, and shortly after the final one-day series was concluded Bull led a meeting with the squad for Australia at the National Academy in Loughborough. This was aimed at letting the players know in general what they could expect, not only from the opposition but in the harsh glare of media exposure. Bull is keen on younger players taking responsibility to cement the team ethos.
At a Heathrow hotel just before England left, Bull orchestrated another meeting. Captain Andrew Flintoff and coach Fletcher spoke about what they expected, Bull presented a motivational video. The players were divided into groups of two or three and given simple exercises about their goals.
Each player was then given a sheet of paper on which he was asked to write down why he thought all the others should be in the squad. So far as is known, nobody suggested that a colleague had not deserved selection. The discussion focused on the mental aspect of cricket and how the players should be ready for Brisbane on 23 November.
The next formal meeting between Bull and all the players was two days before the start of the series - though he holds regular one-on-one sessions with players. He brought along the replies from the Heathrow meeting and used them as motivational tools.
Crucially, he also addressed the subject of nerves and how players might either suppress them or deal with them. The senior players also spoke. Something might not have got through, because there can never have been a more obviously nervous group of cricketers than England that Thursday morning.
Come the following week, the players regrouped. All of them spoke at a specially convened meeting and, gently guided by Bull, they all bore some responsibility for the defeat. When Bull returned to Britain for a brief visit in the middle of the Second Test, whatever he had done seemed to be working. England were on top. Or maybe it was just that they had won the toss on a flat wicket.
Bull was not there when it all went wrong on Tuesday, but it is generally recognised that a player can hardly leave the field in the middle of the match and ask the psychologist what to do.
All players are encouraged to set goals - they all carry bullet-point cards with reminders about mental strength - and it is reasonable to suggest that not many have met them so far. Bull will have an idea about why it went so badly awry in Adelaide. One member of the camp said: "You'd have to ask Bully about it."
But he is being deliberately steered clear of media encounters because the management are worried that backroom staff who put their heads above the parapet will become Aunt Sallies. A psychologist would make something of that.
Bull will return for the final two Tests, by which time it is to be hoped that it is not too late for psychology, or anything else.
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