Richard Gibson: NFL best practice shapes England’s future

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.

*Follow me on Twitter @richardgibson74

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6 Responses to Richard Gibson: NFL best practice shapes England’s future

  1. Simon says:

    Good article Richard, very insightful.

    My question to Simon Timson would be that given Cricket is a late specialisation sport within the Long Term Athlete Development framework why are England creating such a specialised programme for 15 year olds?

    Early specialisation within one sport prior to the age of 18/19 has proven in long term studies by Harre and Nagorni of a large population of children to produce the following results:

    Performance improvements are immediate, the best performances are between 15 and 16 because of early adaptation, there are performance inconsistencies within competition, by 18 many quit or are burnt out and the forced adaptation accounted for a high rate of injuries.

    Sound familiar?

    You may find it intersting to read an article Stephen Jones wrote on why the England Under 16 Rugby team should be scrapped – which contains some problems peculiar to rugby but also some broader themes that are applicable across many sports.

    • Richard Gibson says:

      Simon – I found your response interesting. I guess the answer to the question that you pose to Simon Timson is that the system in place is one primarily of selection, and it allows movement in and out of the elite year group.

      You have to start a national monitoring process at some age and 15-16 would seem about right to me, particularly as some overseas cricketers have played at full international level by that age.

      Interesting link you provided to Stephen Jones’ piece.


      • Simon says:

        Thanks for your reply Richard.

        I would question whether 15 is the correct age to be selecting and playing competitive matches just because other nations are doing it as the research shows that this leads to limited development and increases the rate of burn out and injury. I personally have witnessed this with 4 lads I know who quit professional sport at 18 and 19.

        It may work in one or two cases but it is misleading to use the exception to prove the rule. Looking at the bigger picture you will see many who are lost to the sport because of this early specialisation and focus on winning games rather than achieving physical literacy and learning how to train before learning how to compete.

        This will become a bigger issue as many kids are so inactive that their basic ability to run, throw and catch is never properly developed at a young age and going into specialised programs devoted to one sport may provide some immediate improvements but will ultimately prove problematic in the long run.

        The original model for Long Term Athlete Development came from the Eastern Bloc and as you can see from their sporting domination throughout the 60′s to late 80′s it works. The Australians have modified this to work outside the communist society.

        I think the governing bodies of all sports need to work together to produce a multi lateral approach so that when young athletes begin to specialise at 19 to 20 they have solid physical and technical/tactical base from a wide base of sporting experience.

        Ian McGeechan has some good views on this (he credits cricket for developing his tactical nous and mental strength) in his autobiography but notes that the vested interests of a few prevent us from being able to implement such an approach.

        Sorry for the long ramble!

  2. david cooper says:

    hello Richard you may be interested to know about the cricket coaching mat which develops talent at an earlier age and is considered by clubs and coaches as being one of the “best peices of kit they have ever used”
    The mat allows players to practice every type of cricket shot up to 10 times every minute and then allows match scenarios to be created placing the skill into a realistic context.

  3. Colin Roberts says:

    England have climbed to the pinnacle of Test Nations despite the system, not because of it. Now is the time for David Cameron to seize the initiative and appoint a Cricket Czar to bring together all of these disparate parts of the great game and mould an even greater future built on British, not imported talent. Would not a past County Chairman with a great enthusiasm coupled with extensive knowledge and connections be ideal. Need we look further than The Cricketer’s own Neil Davidson?