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What's the Story with England's glory? - There's lots of I's in Team!

After 2011's summer of unbridled success in one area of sporting endeavour, I felt an inclination to write something on the England Test Cricket team..... but for one reason or another I never got around to it. Recent events out in the U.A.E mean that it is probably time to offer a view.  

Unlike the English National football team who still harp back and sing songs about 1966 (It's now 46 years of hurt - not sure how Baddiel, Skinner and the chap from the Lightening Seeds will get that to rhyme for this years European Championships) and the Rugby team who have never really rediscovered the form of the Clive Woodward led group that captured the 2003 World Cup in Australia, the England cricket team seem (note I am resisting using the past tense) to have hit on a winning formula. Beating India so comprehensively last summer and assuming the position of the number 1 ranked test team in the World was a phenomenal achievement.

Before I go on, apologies to those readers for whom the mere mention of sport makes them glaze over. As a sports fan and a Business Psychologist - whose role often involves helping individuals and teams give of their best - there is a huge amount of intrigue for me in what creates and sustains high level success for any team.

It is worth saying at the outset that I think it is probably not about any one thing in isolation, more a combination of factors that when they come together really can produce something quite amazing - and indeed outstrip the sum of the parts. There is also a significant element attributable to some superb individual performances.

The renaissance of English test cricket is arguably not such a recent phenomenon - Its re-birth and, I think most importantly, the re-discovery of the winning mentality can be traced back to the 2005 Ashes series against Australia, where under the leadership of Duncan Fletcher (off the field) and Michael Vaughn on it, England found out what it was like to beat - and in many instances outplay - their most fervent foes and re-claim the famous urn. Something that had eluded them since 1987. 

Since then a few coaches have come and gone, sometimes in the most bizarre of circumstances, but fortuitously bringing the current back room staff in to the arena. Overseen by Hugh Morris (Deputy CEO of the ECB) and led by Head Coach Andy Flower (O.B.E). In his time Flower, was a highly capable batsman, particularly of spin bowling and had a successful international career - playing in 63 test matches for his native Zimbabwe.

The England team, backed by the positive intent of Morris and with Flower at the helm, seems a strong, positive and resilient group. It is interesting then to try and pinpoint some of the key ingredients that have contributed to their winning formula.

Some of the factors that seem to be relevant to an outsider looking in and which are also very pertinent to the worlds of work I inhabit are:

  • A clear and consistent selection policy - Getting the right players in to the team and investing in them seems to be managed very effectively nowadays. This is something that has changed noticeably over the years. Players appear to be in the team on merit and through a proven ability to perform consistently and well in their club teams or on England Lions tours. They are given time and opportunities to refine their skills, build their understanding and develop their confidence - so that when the chance comes to step in to the international arena they are truly 'ready'.

  • Talent Development - At one time there appeared to be an interminable wait for youngsters in the game to get an opportunity to represent their country. And like in any sport, it holds true that players are unlikely to build the skill level and mental strength/discipline required to succeed at the top, without exposure to the highest echelons of the game. It has been refreshing to see a stream of new faces emerging and swiftly progressing to full England honours (admittedly at T20 level - which is arguably an ideal format for the blooding of fresh talent). Players like Somerset's Buttler, Hales from Nottinghamshire, Bairstow from Yorkshire and the young Hampshire spinner Briggs. The ongoing commitment to Elite player development means that the talent pipeline should continue to yield the next generation of English crickets star performers.

  • Belief in the enduring quality of players (and adherence to the adage 'Form can be transitory but class is permanent') - Cook, Broad and Bell were all touted by the media as 'On the point of being dropped' from the test squad, but all have come to the fore with breathtaking individual performances. This demonstration of commitment to the players and belief in their capability can only be positive for the individuals concerned and those around them. It shows that 'Management' appreciate they will have spells where they are not firing on all cylinders, but they will be given the continuing support and opportunity to re-discover their form. This will be of tremendous benefit psychologically to the players as there will be less fear and doubt in their game - something that coaches in the world of sport and business work hard to maintain as it is in this frame of mind that we are likely to get 'peak performance' from individuals.

  • The emergence of strong 'Leaders' and the demonstration of a 'leadership mentality' on the pitch - Andrew Strauss has matured into a clear thinking, well organised and seemingly popular leader of the team. Vice captain Alastair Cook has a similar demeanour on the pitch - seemingly unflappable. James Anderson is commonly referred to as the leader of the bowling attack - and brings a sense of real determination and 'edge' to his role. But there are also those who lead through inspiration and motivation - Kevin Pietersen can be seen talking and clapping and smiling/joking throughout the days play. His body language is always upbeat and positive, which will buoy those around him, even in the more difficult sessions of play. Those who stand out by virtue of their performance and personality will act as positive and influential role models, from whom the newer members of the team can take their lead. Vicarious learning will play a large part in team sport - individuals will inevitably watch and notice what their successful colleagues do and start to implement certain aspects in their own game.

  • Skilful (multi disciplinary) coaching - Less than twenty years ago there were one or two people in the back room coaching team with overall control and responsibility for team performance - now, the England team carry a dedicated support staff. There are discipline specific coaches along with support professions such as nutritionists, sports psychologists, (notice I didn't want to put psychologists first and infer any disproportionate value they may add!), statistical analysts, physiotherapists and physical performance experts. All of whom have a clearly defined and very important role to play in enabling individual players to deliver match winning performances on the pitch.

Integration of relevant science and technologies - The National Performance Centre in Loughborough boasts the best technological devices available in world cricket. Gadgets abound such as something called 'ProBatter', a bowling machine which is designed to replicate the action of any bowler in test cricket - which takes net practice and technique refinement to a new level. Also 'Trackman' a device which uses missile tracking technologies to measure how many revolutions spin bowlers put on the ball - to aid the awareness and development of their 'art'. Innovation and creativity in this area are helping England to stay ahead of the game and hopefully the competition.

The above are just some of the ingredients and perhaps the ones that stand out most prominently to me given the type of work I do. The parallels to the world of work and business are not difficult to see. I am happy to concede, however, that other 'observers' may point to a range of other very relevant contributory factors that have made this an outstanding sporting unit.

As a footnote, it is probably worth stating that the England team, with highly paid centrally contracted players and a large support staff to maintain, is an expensive business with almost £25 million spent each year. With such high levels of investment, it is likely that the expectations for return on that investment will be equally high - and understandably so.

The teams 3-0 defeat in the most recent test series against Pakistan, has probably acted as a wake up call for this highly gifted group of professional sportsmen. They will undoubtedly have learned that to be the best then you have to always be ready for the next challenge and adapt well to different environments and conditions - a principle that businesses also have to abide by.

Elements of the usually successful formula didn't quite work in the test series with Pakistan, over the coming weeks and months we will see just how resilient, flexible and capable of continuous learning, this high performing, high potential group are.

I for one am really hoping that the 3 test series in the U.A.E was just a 'blip' and normal service will shortly be resumed out in Sri Lanka.


Damian Gregory March 2012