What is the shelf-life of a sports team?
The debacle that was the performance of the England cricket team in Australia has brought to the fore the issue of the longevity of sports teams. There is no doubting that the England cricket team were once an excellent team both in terms of individual performances, and in terms of the performance of the team. However, by the end of the Ashes series there was pretty wide spread recognition that this current team had reached the end of the line. The questions now being posed in the media, and hopefully behind closed doors at the ECB, is how this could happen, and how to recognise the warning sights earlier.
The writing had been on the wall for this team for the past 18 months (hindsight is a wonderful thing) Andy Flower (England Head Coach) has stated as much in recent interviews. If this was the case why was nothing changed? After all it is not an unavoidable part of the cycle that a team will go into decline. Individuals yes but not necessarily the team. Manchester United in the English premier League are a good example to support this point. In his time as the manger of the club Sir Alex Ferguson successfully transitioned through at least three distinctly different teams composed of different playing personnel. Crucially these teams changed with the times and adopted their game to meet the current challenges. If you look at the success of the club during this period it appears to be one continuous period of continued success.
In some ways the England cricket team have been a victim of their own success and system. The reasons why England became the number one team in the world in 2011 have ultimately contributed to their downfall. A real plus of the successful England team in recent years has been the consistency in selection. This approach was adopted to reduce the uncertainty and pressure on players, giving them the assurance that they would be given time. In the short-term this provide to be very successful. However, over time this has resulted in the team sticking for too long with players who were out of form. England’s batting performances over the last 12-18 months have reflected this. With players being selected on past records rather than current performances. Also, this policy has had another effect. The reduced competition and lack of threat for players regarding their place in the team has reduced the incumbent players’ ability to fight and deal with pressure due to this security in selection.
Also, England need to look again at their policy in the development pathways of just focusing on young players. In recent years the ECB policy has been to look at developing young talented players, which is great, but this leads to relatively inexperienced players ‘stepping up’ to England. All of the players now transitioning into the England side are very talented and I am sure will ultimately be successful but it will take time. The policy of England has been to replace players when they are injured or, retire. It is very rare that these young players make the step up because they are playing well and force their way in. This in turn results in players transitioning into the England team at a time when they might not be playing well, and at that level confidence is key in making the step up. The balance between loyalty and ruthlessness in selection is a difficult one to achieve, and over time there is too often a significant shift towards loyalty even when the evidence suggests otherwise.
There are many mediating factors of course. International cricket makes for a strange team environment. The English players had not played any competitive cricket for months prior to the Ashes series which would have had an effect, but the planning and preparation for this tour was simply not up to the standard of the previous tour of Australia.
So, for the first time in our history England were able to build a team who were officially ranked as the best in the world, the challenge now is to be able to build another successful team who have longevity and are not in decline as soon as they hit the heights of the international game.