It has been a good week for England’s cricketers. The men’s team won their ODI series against India, confirming their status as the best side in the world, while the women’s team defeated New Zealand 2-1 in their one-day rubber, making it three series wins from three this summer. The England Lions are currently dominating India ‘A’ at New Road, Worcester, with a number of the full Test side members going well. And to cap it all off, England’s U19s beat South Africa in a two ‘Test’ series to register their first series victory since 2009. There have been worse weeks.
It is the last of those achievements which is perhaps the most interesting. With England’s Test side apparently in stagnation, the whole approach to red-ball cricket in this country is being reviewed by the ECB. Above all, the criticism leveled at the County Championship and the ECB’s development programme is that they do not produce enough cricketers with the skill and application to flourish at Test level. Whether that’s fair or not, the recent struggles of the Test side – and in particular of those who have been added to the side from county cricket – suggest that the pathway to the top level has its issues.
This is why victory for the U19s in a two-Test series against a good South African side is important — not only as a boon to the work the ECB and the counties are doing with their young players but also as proof that there is talent coming through. “It was a brilliant result,” Jon Lewis, the head coach, tells Cricbuzz. “Really happy for the boys, they worked really hard. We had a good week and a half prep and they’ve taken what we were trying to do in practice into the game.”
England won the first match at Scarborough comfortably in the end by nine wickets but there were moments when the South Africans looked to be getting on top before the home side eventually pulled away. “We held our nerve better than them and our periods of pressure lasted for longer than theirs,” says Lewis. The second game in Durham was a similarly see-saw affair in which England negotiated a tricky fourth innings chase to win by four wickets, sealing their first Test series win at this level for nine years.
What’s more, the victory over South Africa was achieved without five players who would have been in the team had they not been playing for their counties. The likes of Warwickshire’s Henry Brookes, Worcestershire’s Dillon Pennington and Sussex’s Will Jacks have been doing well at first-class level and that county experience is of greater worth than playing for the U19s, which is why they were left out of the squad. “It’s a higher standard than playing international U19 cricket. It’s a better development opportunity,” says Lewis.
As well as the likes of Brookes and Pennington, there is another, older group of players also doing well in county cricket who have also come through the U19 set-up. This number includes Surrey’s Ollie Pope and Sussex’s Delwray Rawlings. Far from there being a dearth of young talent, then, there seems to be an abundance of it and the chances being given to the likes of Pope and Rawlings prove the old adage still more or less holds true. If young players are good enough, they will be picked.
There will always be exceptions and some counties receive criticism for importing players from overseas or from other clubs rather than developing their own. Earlier this season, England U19 players who had played in the winter’s World Cup were struggling to get opportunities in first team cricket, something Mike Atherton discussed with Cricbuzz in May. There were varying factors at play there – schooling, being one – but as the summer has worn on, county scorecards have been filled with young talent getting their chance.
There is, of course, a balance to be struck. “Picking players on potential is dangerous,” Lewis says. “There has to be an element of performance. We have to be careful what we are measuring. Are we measuring: this guy might be really good in a couple of years’ time if he plays some cricket? Or do we know that because of his behaviours and how he goes about his practice, how he learns, whether or not he is curious, does he ask good questions, does he understand his own game? Then, yes they might be good enough to play first-team cricket.”
Lewis has had plenty of coaching experience since retiring from the first-class game. He was Sussex’s bowling coach before he took over the England U19 job, initially for the World Cup and now on a full-time basis. He also spent time over the winter working with Perth Scorchers in the Big Bash. That is a wide range of experience but at the level he is working at now, Lewis’ coaching heavily involves assessing how the players behave and how they react to different situations, something which is almost as important as the runs and wickets they take.
“We do monitor performance but we are trying to monitor the guys who learn and grow quickly and adapt their games quickly to playing in pressure situations because down the line, those are the guys that will stand out and play their best cricket for England,” he says. “We are trying to identify and develop players. We are not just trying to be a successful U19 side. So winning Test matches and winning series is important but it’s not the paramount purpose of the programme. That is to identify players that I can then pass on to Andy Flower and their counties in a better position than they were.”
To assist this identification, Lewis and his team of coaches monitor behaviour on a weekly basis. “We meet weekly as a management group and we measure those things. How has a player reacted this week? This morning we met and discussed how the players have reacted to winning a Test match and the pressures of playing in a Test. The observations you make are not just in practice sessions but around the hotel, what conversations they are having with their friends when they are travelling.
“You continually try to monitor the people and how they are dealing with the situation they are in. We monitor for however long we are on tour and then we make assessments and give feedback to the counties so they can try and develop those areas. When they come back to you next time, you monitor again and see if there has been an improvement. We will have a whole storyline about this guy and how he has reacted to different situations and the common themes of his personality that we think are the right sort of things to go onto the next level.”
England had an inconsistent U19 World Cup during the winter but the defeat to Australia in the quarter-finals when they were bowled out for 96 in pursuit of 123 proved to Lewis that these young players need to be put under pressure more frequently. “The lads struggled to cope with the pressure of the World Cup and by pressure I mean, not the pressure of the game situation, but the pressure of the whole situation. Which is why going to World Cups as an U19 is brilliant because it is the biggest pressure test these lads will have ever been put under.
“They’re not used to games being on the TV, they’re not used to playing knock-out cricket, they’re not suited to playing in different climates, they’re not used to touring for a long time, they’re not used to the attention they get on social media and in the media. They also have their own internal pressures around wanting to be benchmarked against the best players of their age. We are going to put these guys under pressure and measure them under pressure a lot more and actually understand how they cope with it rather than just understanding what results they give in terms of performance.”
Of course, there is plenty of work still to be done to address England’s Test weaknesses but developing a steady stream of young cricketers with not only the talent, but the ability to handle pressure and think quickly on their feet, has to be a key long-term part of it. The series victory against South Africa is therefore important but so too is the work Lewis and his coaches are doing to help develop tougher, more resilient players. After all, if England are to improve in Test match cricket, they will need plenty of those.
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