According to the press release sent out by the team manager, India had an optional practice session at The Oval ahead of the Test tomorrow. England used to have optional practices, in about 1986, I seem to recall, when they were being wiped out in the Caribbean.
Practice for the current England side, the best Test team in the world lest we forget, was definitely not optional. It started around 1.30pm and ended three and a bit hours later when Alastair Cook, dozens of cricket balls strewn at his feet, finally decided that he had batted long enough and he and his mentor Graham Gooch returned to the dressing room.
One man was still out there, though, even then. Andy Flower, the team director, was the last man to leave the Oval pitch on late Tuesday afternoon, bags over his shoulder, head bowed, contemplative.
As the players left the ground to return to their hotel, Graham Onions, back in the squad for the first time in over a year, asked Ian Bell if he fancied going for a coffee. Bell said he was going to the gym.
As Andrew Strauss wearily climbed the steps to the dressing room, he smiled at a spectator who said: “Hard work.” “It never ends,” Strauss replied.
Unlike my newspaper colleagues who are treading the England beat on a daily basis, I’m not in the habit of watching entire England practice session so the experience was something of a novelty and certainly instructive.
I was at The Oval to interview James Anderson for a forthcoming issue of The Cricketer and his minor thigh injury meant he wasn’t bowling which was convenient for me. Except that in mid-sentence he was beckoned to the field by Flower. Up he jumped and off he went to have a bat. He later spent half an hour or so with David Saker, the bowling coach, putting through his paces a teenage boy whose dad had paid for the privilege at a charity auction.
By the way, he said his thigh was fine but it was too early to know whether he would be fit for the Test. My initial instinct is to say that he wouldn’t be risked but a win for England in this Test carries more value in rankings terms than some of the forthcoming ones in the winter so maybe he will play.
To call England’s practice simply a net session would undersell the whole circus. There were three nets – two for quick bowlers, one for spin – and plentiful net bowlers from Surrey. A whiteboard listed the batting order. On another strip quick bowlers worked with Saker, bowling at or between certain targets.
Richard Halsall, the fielding coach, had a bowling machine without its legs firing balls to the right and left of fielders who were standing only a couple of yards away.
Bruce French, wicketkeeping guru, sat atop the Merlyn spin machine sending balls down for Matt Prior to practise his glovework, with a batsman in situ deliberately playing and missing. Later Ravi Bopara would bat against Merlyn.
Everyone batted and everyone, apart from Anderson, bowled. Cook batted twice. Like the kid who refuses to acknowledge he’s out, he sat padded up after his first net waiting for, as it were, seconds.
In a rare moment of self-analysis, David Gower said to me once: “Talent times application equals achievement.” He had bags of the former but maybe not so much of the latter.
This England side applies itself like no other most people can remember and they are in a virtuous circle: they practise hard, with purpose, and they can see the collective and individual benefits.
To some extent this is a resource issue and you get what you pay for. The ECB, bankrolled by Sky TV, have invested heavily in Team England and are now reaping the rewards. The players are well remunerated, their every need, pastoral or professional, is attended to with full-time back-room staff for almost every eventuality. Yesterday’s practice session began with a team meeting on the outfield but not long after it started one of the coaching staff went over to the groundsman on the petrol mower and asked if he could desist for a few minutes. A watching photographer joked that the team now even had its own noise abatement officer.
The resourcing issue makes India’s performance all the more scandalous. The Indian board is the wealthiest in the world game but they choose not to move with the times, choose not to spend their billions of rupees on keeping their team ahead of the game. It remains beyond comprehension that despite there being around 50 print journalists and a host of television news stations following this tour from India, the board continue to resist having a media liaison manager. Instead they leave the team manager, who is simply a blazer appointed on an ad hoc basis rather than a full-time post, to deal with – or not – media issues.
In Australia it appears that increasingly desperate attempts to market the game have taken priority over rebuilding the national team. England have shown that all that really matters is on-field success and this cannot be achieved overnight. There really is no substitute for hard work.
John Stern is a former editor of The Cricketer.
Follow him on Twitter: @Cricketer_John