Secret to England's success? Listening to roar of the Lions
Overhaul of the second string is finally bearing fruit with the majority of the current full ODI squad having made the step up
Sunday 13 January 2013
In a year when England face an unprecedented amount of cricket, their new squad rotation policy will look to prove that you're only as weak as your strongest Lion. "Squad rotation" is the phrase buzzing around cricket's dressing rooms of power in 2013. For those who can afford it, a steel-enforced second string is this season's must have accessory.
The days when a squad numbered 14 (England won the 2005 Ashes using just 12 players) and all that rotated were the wheels of the team bus are now as distant as 60-over cricket. From ECB managing director Hugh Morris to head coach Andy Flower, to bowling coach David Saker and national selector Geoff Miller, squad rotation is on everybody's lips.
At the weekend, it was Morris: "There is a recognition now that we can only go so far in terms of always getting the best side out on the park all of the time." Before Christmas, it was Miller: "We feel [squad rotation] is the best way of keeping players as physically and mentally fresh as possible during a demanding 2013."
And, ahead of the current series, Saker gave the issue some back-to-back Ashes context: "In an ideal world you'd have the three that start the first Test start the 10th Test but being realistic that's not likely to happen, so we know how important it is to have back-up fast bowlers."
Trend-setters Australia have led the way in 2013 with a policy borne out of necessity; due to fatigue and injury the Australians had to change their entire bowling attack between the second and third Tests against South Africa in December. Ricky Ponting, whose 168 Tests and 375 ODIs for Australia qualify him better than most on the subject, has mounted a defence of the policy. "A lot of people talking about it, past bowlers in particular, have got no idea of the workload of some of the guys," he said.
However, as Australia's convincing defeat in that third South African Test proves, squad rotation is all well and good in theory but in practice you have to have a second string of players capable of being selected. When Saker said of Australia that they have "a good core group of fast bowlers but they're having trouble keeping them on the park", it highlighted that for Australia, rotation is a cure not a prevention.
England believe they have found a cure. Following the Schofield Report, the England A team was brought under the auspices of the ECB's National Cricket Performance Centre and rebranded as the Lions. The report, commissioned in the wake of England's humiliating 2006-07 Ashes whitewash, contained enough hot air to send a basket of PRs into orbit but what it did get right, it got spot on.
Central contracts – point one of the report's 19 recommendations – bore almost immediate fruit with back-to-back Ashes victories in 2009 and 2011. Point 13, the establishment of the Performance Centre and a more professional England Lions side, took longer to ripen but now underpin the policy of squad rotation. England have, in essence, established a cricketing equivalent of Barcelona's La Masia – and the flower bears fruit.
When Joe Root made his one-day debut last Friday, such was his composure, it was impossible to credit that he had just 27 one-day games to his name. When asked about the pressure he felt playing in such a cauldron he replied, "It's quite relaxing actually." And meant it.
Since 2010, England have handed new ODI caps to 14 players who have graduated from the Lions; of those 11 were 22 or younger at the time. What is more impressive is that nine of those 14 are in this current one-day squad (that figure would be 10 if not for the absence of Jonny Bairstow due to family illness), suggesting that the selectors' new-cap wielding hands are not groping in the dark.
In the past, one former Test player admitted: "'A' tours were often seen as roads to nowhere but hard slog." Now contemporary players consider an England Lions tour as the highway to Test status. Darren Pattinson, five years ago, is the last player to win a Test cap without playing for the Lions. Since then there have been 15 new Test players from the Lions system, including Jonathan Trott, Eoin Morgan, Graeme Swann and Samit Patel.
Patel believes his experience on last year's Lions tour to Sri Lanka was "great exposure, not just for me but for any young player. We have a good structure and good people in place. You can feed off each other and learn about the game together. They are good trips but hard trips. When squads get picked there's some experienced guys and some younger guys, it's a really good blend."
Ian Bell was part of that blend when he played for the Lions ahead of the West Indies Test series. He relished the opportunity to pass on his knowledge. "I think it's a great chance for me to show the younger players how a Test player prepares, how we practise and, essentially, what it takes to reach the top," he said. "It was certainly not how it was when I came through."
Times have changed and when England need a replacement, be it for the Champions Trophy or the Ashes, they know there will be a young Lion ready to roar.
The futureheads: five lions to watch
Ben Stokes Age: 21, County: Durham
Kiwi-born but North East-bred, he looks and plays like Paul Collingwood on steroids.
James Taylor 23, Nottinghamshire
Diminutive batsmen fell from favour but is back in form. Talent in inverse proportion to his height.
Alex Hales 24, Nottinghamshire
Recent excursions in the Big Bash have proved what a clean striker of the ball he is. If he improves his defensive technique, he could be a KP incarnate.
James Harris 22, Middlesex
The young pacer left Glamorgan for the big city lights. If he stays injury-free under Angus Fraser's guidance, his wicket-taking potential will blossom.
Reece Topley 18, Essex
Height? Check. Pace? Check. Southpaw? Check. Adding muscle to his teenage frame and overs under his belt could spell carnage for opponents.
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