England are indisputably the best team in the world at two of the three international formats, having added the number one Test ranking to last year’s World Twenty20 title, but examination of what lies beneath is even more heartening.
Those selecting the second intake to the recently-formed England Development Programme speak enthusiastically of an outstanding year group of Under-16s.
The dozen best in the country had their induction meeting on Sunday, August 14 – they were given seven days to mull over offers – ahead of an intensive four-year cycle designed to shape them into the best players on the planet by 2022.
At a time when England are reaping reward for prolonged hard graft, the next generations of Cooks and Swanns have just completed a rigorous selection process merely to get into the recently re-structured system, and must maintain top-notch standard annually to remain there.
Former chairman of selectors David Graveney now fronts a scouting network of four, also including EDP head coach Tim Boon, who rate teenagers in distinct categories: technical, physical, fielding and psychological. It is a system designed to provide a more seamless link to the England Performance Programme and full England sides.
Young cricketers have never been scrutinised as intensely and one-dimensional ones no longer need apply. The best 120 hopefuls are whittled down to a shortlist taking into consideration their season statistics, scouting data, results in talent tests and even character traits.
Gone are the days when regional and national representative junior XIs are selected arbitrarily. The new model – put into place following a review into the Under-19 team’s performance at the 2010 World Cup by England managing director Hugh Morris – is remarkably similar to those in American sport.
This is no coincidence. When Simon Timson, the head of EDP, was entrusted to research best practice for selection following Morris’ report, his exploration led him to numerous sports teams in the United States.
One man Timson got to know was John Harbaugh, head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, and he was able to study the NFL team’s scouting system first-hand. He gained an even wider perspective when he secured an access-all-areas pass to American Football’s annual combine, which sees the best 400 college footballers take psychological, physical and personality tests, and undergo various medicals ahead of the NFL draft.
Cricket has traditionally relied on ad hoc, parochial, word-of-mouth selection; however, rather like the NFL, the ECB’s modern equivalent aims to allow hard evidence to make the decisions for them. In simplistic terms talent is now detected, selected, confirmed and developed throughout a central system with the intention being that a smooth passage is created from the EDP to EPP and on to the full England side, with the mission statement of producing world’s best players by the age of 27.
“If we can get really good at tracking the right talent through a system like this, and we have a period of six months to confirm that the players have the talent we thought they had, we should be concentrating on developing the most promising talent in the country. Providing, of course, you leave the room for others from outside that system, who have begun developing later, to come in,” explained Timson.
With this in mind, in addition to the yearly September intake, de-selection takes place every six months. Individuals are kept on their toes by aspiring to individual targets and only those who reach 80% of their goals remain on the pathway to the England Under-19s.
However, while squads are now very much a meritocracy, status symbols are no longer dished out. Gone are the England-branded tracksuits, caps, and clothing worn by previous generations. To rid the system of badge culture, EDP cricketers practise in their county colours, and are provided with one England shirt and one pair of England trousers for the year. Turns are taken to wash the team kit. Only when you are picked for an official Under-19 series do you receive the full clobber.
It all combines to send out a clear message: namely that the targets to which you should be aspiring are long-term.
And youngsters are being pushed harder earlier too. Fixtures against contemporaries from Scotland and Ireland are a thing of the past and the stretching process has seen mixed age EDP XIs pitted against Under-19 touring teams. Some days at Loughborough can begin at 6.30am and last 14 hours.
Twelve months ago, 10 Under-16s, five Under-17s, 11 Under-18s and five Under-19s were picked to begin the EDP cycle. This year 12 of the 15-strong shortlist made it and Timson says “the view of the selectors was that it was such an exceptional year group that all 15 might have been picked.”
And as Australia will testify through bitter experience, there is no better time to concentrate on the players of the future than when you are top of the pile.
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