How to make England's cricketers match fit

After another international sports failure, Bob Woolmer looks at what's needed to compete with the best
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The Independent Online
Cricket creates more debate, more contention and more ideas than most other sports. It also creates more experts, most of whom are never more anxious to air their views than when the national side is going through a rough time, such as it is today, after being knocked out of the World Cup by Sri Lanka on Saturday.

For years, administrators have been searching for the "ultimate" system to remedy the problems of English cricket. The majority of these experiments were made in the interests of bringing back spectators to the first class game and, latterly, to improve England's chances against international competition.

There was a time when changes seemed to happen every year: bonus points, overs in a day, seams on the ball, limitation on overseas players...

Now the cry is that the County Championship is a poor competition; that there are too many teams; and that to motivate players whose teams are out of the running there should be two divisions, with promotion and relegation. My belief, however, is that whatever system is employed to keep the cricket "cottage industry" alive, it is the people within the system who should examine their contribution.

Every cricketer wants to play first class cricket, and joins a county side not to make a fortune but because he loves the game. What destroys that initial enthusiasm? Lack of opportunity? Lack of skill? Negativity by his employers and/or coaches? Probably a combination of these, and some more. The system may contribute, but where is the pride and guts, the British bulldog spirit?

Whatever system the sport comes up with, players, coaches and administrators should make plans to deal with it. For example, if the season is demanding physically and mentally, fitness training must start earlier. Players should be paid to attend these sessions. Skills training should start at least two months before the season is scheduled to begin. Players should be schooled technically to deal with all the different aspects of the game. Batting practices, for example, should concentrate more on remedial work for an individual player's deficiencies. Bowlers should not complain about a two-hour net session but should be fit enough to be able to practise their skills to a high degree.

One of the perceived problems in English cricket is the lack of quality bowlers. What do they mean by quality? Trueman and Statham, Willis and Botham had two great advantages: apart from being quick they were able both to move the ball and bowl accurately. One of the reasons England has not had recent success overseas may be that its bowlers lack the necessary accuracy for sustained periods, thereby relinquishing pressure on the opposition.

Why does England's batting capitulate, especially with such good players? Is it through fear of failure? Communication after failure is almost non-existent: if a player who is important to the side loses form, he gets dropped, but who helps him to recover? Encouragement does not seem to be the watchword of the county scene. And if a player continues to fail, he must go to the second XI and work hard to challenge for his place.

The team's performance is vital but this can only be enhanced if the 11 players in the side are doing the best they can to make a contribution to the success of the team. Players should not think of their performance in isolation but must adapt themselves to the more demanding regime the sport now imposes. Properly prepared, fit and strong, the player should be able to cope with the demands he faces. What has to be guarded against is the player who performs once and then rests on his laurels for three to four weeks.

There is a danger that there are too many "hangers-on" in the cricketing world: hanging on desperately for a new contract by averaging just enough; and then waiting for a benefit or a new contract - all the while possibly keeping out the enthusiastic youngster. In fact, the benefit system is holding English cricket back. Benefits put a major block in front of young players trying to further their careers; they may prevent a player from moving counties to further his ambitions, and thereby creating a transfer system which would increase opportunity for everyone.

There is a lot of talent in England - a lot of good people working hard to breed successful young players. Counties should not be scared to give them an opportunity. English cricket is reminiscent of an unkempt garden. Give it a good weeding and allow the talent to bloom. Enthusiasm will return when the players learn the difference between work and play.

The writer is a former England all-rounder and is now coach of the South African national team.