The American psychologist and social scientist author, David Niven, would have been impressed by Brendon McCullum and his New Zealand team.
Niven writes self-help books, often to do with problem solving, and believes a more satisfying life can be had with small changes to attitudes and actions.
When McCullum’s team were dismissed in Cape Town for 45 by South Africa in January 2013, it would have been simple to address that by clearing out failing players, working harder in practice, and all the usual things that accompany defeat. But instead, they questioned why they were playing the game, understood their good fortune to be doing so, and decided to have fun doing it. The transformation, as we have seen in the past six months or so, has been remarkable. McCullum, intuitively, had found a lateral solution to the team’s problems.
I’ve been reading Niven’s book It’s Not About The Shark, subtitled How To Solve Unsolvable Problems. The title comes from a story of Steven Spielberg, then a young film director, spending millions of studio dollars on trying – and failing – to make a working, plausible mechanical shark for his film Jaws. He finally evoked what he thought the great master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock would do, and decided to make a film about a shark without the shark being in it all that much. Rather the shark was implied. And from it a B-movie was transformed into one of the highest grossing films of all time. Focusing on a problem is the wrong way to find a solution, argues Niven.
Following England’s harrowing defeat at Lord’s, the reaction has been understandable and predictable: the team are in crisis, make sweeping changes, the new coach is a disaster, and so is Andrew Strauss. In an idle 10 minutes while waiting for my train after the match, a series of conversations on Twitter produced 19 different serious suggestions as to how the team should evolve, quite aside from those that thought things should stay the same, but the team should just play better.
Even in that small time span, it was apparent quite how difficult it is to rationalise these things. We all know the old thing about a camel being a horse designed by committee, and aAnother of Niven’s rationales is that decisions, whether they prove right or wrong, are best made by an individual on the premise that the more voices that are heard, the greater the tendency, as research has shown, for a consensus which may be reached by individuals agreeing to things, often against their judgment were they making decisions on their own, simply to go with the flow. Committees involve trade-offs which is no way, in the case of the England team, to take them forward.
Strauss has yet to come to a conclusion on how the England team should best be selected but Niven and my brief Twitter experience serves to reinforce the idea that having more people involved in such decision making means the less likely you are to get the best outcome. Currently, the old selection committee remains in place, with the addition of Strauss himself. Which means five people pick the side, in addition to the strong voice of the captain. So my belief is that ultimately, when he is much more familiar with players in this country, it should be Trevor Bayliss alone who chooses the squads, and the job of others to advise.
For now though, there are a couple of things to bear in mind. First, as poor as England’s play was at Lord’s, they were beaten by an opposition playing formidably well. It may well be the case that this Australia team, certainly the bowling, is just more accomplished, which is a notion borne out by the rankings. But second, an England side who are now viewed as in crisis had been good enough themselves to beat the same opposition by a massive margin only a week before, which ought to lend a little perspective.
This does not mean that all is necessarily as it should be and it brings us to the question WWBD (What would Brendon – or Bayliss – do)? England have already bought into the spirit of attack rather than defence where possible, and there has been a welcome joie de vivre about their play this summer. However, whether England have been winning or losing these past few months, the collective performance of the top three has been an underlying issue well beyond the need to focus specifically on what happened at Lord’s.
Put simply, no side can expect to compete consistently if there is a continual battle first of all to rectify the failings of the upper order. Likewise, no side should be changed simply for the sake of finding a scapegoat, but there is something systematically wrong when only three of the last 14 opening partnerships have exceeded 17 and where on the same 11 occasions, the third wicket has fallen for no more than 73 runs. In this and nowhere else lies the crux of the England inconsistency that has thrice in the last three months seen them follow a win with a loss. It is to this, and nothing else, that Bayliss needs to find a solution that is not necessarily Lord’s-specific.
He could start though by recognising you have to be very confident that any replacement is a better option than the incumbent, and not in a couldn’t-do-any-worse sort of way. It was as recently as the end of May for example that Adam Lyth scored an admirable hundred against an excellent New Zealand attack and he received a wicked delivery in the second innings at Lord’s.
It is worth remembering too that although Gary Ballance’s idiosyncratic technique has been exposed, he has on all but three occasions been effectively opening the batting: all this with Alastair Cook batting better than he has for some years. There is an English reluctance to change anything that appears to be working, even if it might mean improvement, Joe Root batting at five is a case in point. Is it more pertinent to say he is doing wonderfully there, so don’t try to fix something that isn’t in itself broken? Or to think how much better it could be if instead of rescuing things he was setting the agenda.
At three, Ballance’s career average has dropped relentlessly from a high of 67 in West Indies to 47 now. But he has made four Test hundreds in 15 matches so temperament is not an issue. Were England to name an unchanged side but tweaked the order it would not be a case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic but a sensible reassessment of resources.
They may reasonably come to the conclusion though that well as Ballance has done, there is a trend now, and he should be replaced. Then though they have to make a judgment as to whether the only credible alternative, Jonny Bairstow, has himself sufficiently eradicated technical issues of his own to survive at the top level.
Such things are rarely crystal clear but that should – given time – be the head coach’s decision to make and no one else’s.
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