A Tale of Two Teams

January 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

The year of the twin teams: a study of the performances of the England Test-match cricket team and the England rugby union team in 2011 (including the Ashes series commencing 2010), comparing their results, analysing their methods and identifying crucial differentials for the assistance of future England teams in both disciplines. Preliminary notes for a doctorate-length thesis.

Commonality Both teams enjoyed remarkable achievements early in the 21st century and each subsequently suffered at least one devastating reverse. The cricket team won the Ashes in 2005, the rugby union team the World Cup in 2003. Both struggled to get over the open-top bus parade: the cricket team lost the Ashes 5-0 in Australia and the rugby team struggled all the way to this year’s calamitous World Cup.

Divergence In 2011, the cricket team completed a resounding victory over Australia in Australia and then beat India at home, becoming the world’s No 1 team. The rugby team collapsed at the World Cup in New Zealand and lost humiliatingly in the quarter-finals.

Board No journalist likes to say good things about sporting administrators, but at the least the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) is stable. Crucially, the club-versus-country matter has been settled since the central contract system prioritised the national team in 2000. In contrast, with the Rugby Football Union (RFU), the issue is still a cesspit of infighting . The organisation has been so involved in its own politicking it has had little time for such fripperies as the national team.

Coach The RFU appointed Martin Johnson as team manager and gave him a 3½-year run at the World Cup. He was a great captain, untried as coach. Most of his time in the job was spent in learning it — and doing so without advice or back-up. The ECB also took a punt. Andy Flower was appointed as team director after less than two years as assistant coach, after the brief experiment of Peter Moores, with Kevin Pietersen as captain.

Legacy The rugby World Cup of 2003 was won under Sir Clive Woodward, who established a set-up that gave England their finest period in history. He was resented and got rid of, and the system he established was largely dismantled. The Ashes 2005 were won under Duncan Fletcher. The system he established was modified, but the basic Team England and preparation-is-all concepts were kept intact.

Culture A consistently excellent team has a strong sense of self, one that is both admirable and rather odious to outsiders. You know you are part of the elite, but you also know that you must do your damnedest if you want to stay there. Rugby 2002-03 had it all right, so did cricket 2010-11. Rugby 2011 did not.

Money The England cricket team’s deal gets sorted out long before a series starts. The rugby team were rowing about money just before departure. That’s a management issue.

Responsibility (part one) In a bad team, there is a feeling that if we all mess up, nobody has messed up. There was a trade union solidarity about the England batting collapses of the bad years. In a similar way, one piece of poor off-field behaviour followed another at this year’s rugby World Cup. When someone in a good team has a bad day, someone else reckons it must be his turn for a good day. Example: when Andrew Strauss, the captain, was out for one in the Adelaide Test of 2010, England were three for one. The second wicket fell at 176, the third at 351; England declared on an unbeatable 620 for five.

Responsibility (part two) Responsibility continues off the field. After the cricketers collapsed in Australia in 2006-07, the drinking by the captain, Andrew Flintoff, grew unacceptable. England regrouped and, under Flower, they have been largely scandal-free. The rugby team’s behaviour in New Zealand was characterised by a failure to realise that professional athletes playing for England have a public profile. Flintoff’s negative example told England players that no one gets fame on his own terms; perhaps Mike Tindall’s example will eventually have the same effect on rugby players.

Responsibility (part three) A governing body has responsibility for performance. The ECB accepts this, at least to an extent, and it has shown commitment to Flower. The RFU refused to take on this responsibility, most notably the eternally ambiguous Rob Andrew.

Responsibility (part four) Head coaches, subsidiary coaches, captains and administrators each have responsibilities. But each player is responsible for himself. The cricketers accept this. Many of the rugby players made it clear in the leaked post-World Cup reports that they expected other people to be held responsible for their own performance and their own behaviour.

Professionalism A former England rugby coach told me about “the amateur’s inalienable right to play like a pillock”. Rugby went professional in 1995; in cricket the distinction between Gentlemen (amateurs) and Players (professionals) was abolished in 1962. But amateurism dies hard. It was still observable in cricket before central contracts; it still haunts rugby, and was manifest in the notorious drinking games.

Skills Every player picked for an England team has core skills. The England cricket team have worked immensely hard at secondary and tertiary skills; all those small things that might make a difference of 1 per cent. The rugby team have been notably lacking in such mastery of minutiae. The cricket boys trust their coaching team; the players of the rugby team at the World Cup did not. Example: Australia were reduced to two for three in the first 13 balls of the Adelaide Test. The sequence involved a run-out from Jonathan Trott, supposedly a batting obsessive, and two exceptional catches at slip from Graeme Swann, a spin bowler and late-order bat. The match and the Ashes were probably settled in those few minutes, thanks to those hard-worked-for supplementary skills.

Agenda A leading team sets the sport’s agenda. Swann was asked if a team with lofty aspirations needed to beat India in India. He answered that any team with serious ambitions must beat England in England. A second-tier team are always playing catch-up; ever since Woodward’s departure, the rugby team have been playing catch-up.

Luck Both organisations took a punt on an inexperienced coach and it came off for one and not the other, which is at least partly luck. Strauss, in England’s second innings in the first Test in Brisbane, was guilty of a horrendous leave at the first ball and might have been out leg-before. The ball was shown — on a review from Australia — to be going just over. There was luck there, too. All teams have luck. It’s knowing what to do with your luck that makes the difference. England backed Flower and Flower bloomed. Johnson was isolated. Strauss cashed in, made a century and the first Test was saved; the rugby team went from poor performance to outright defeat. Dealing with luck is an essential skill in sport and in life. You have to be humble enough to accept it with gratitude — and grateful enough to exploit it with everything you’ve got.

Conclusions A successful team require every single person involved to work at every small thing that might contribute to team success. A good team is a totality, like a balloon; and, like a balloon, easy to pop. A bad team is like a jumper: one snag and everything unravels until the wearer stands naked before the world.

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