It was somewhere during the summer of 2000 where English cricket, underwent a paradigm shift in its thinking, its mindset and its approach to the game. It was a quiet revolution of sorts, spearheaded by the then Chairman of the ECB, Lord Maclaurin which today is being hailed as one of the more appropriate moments of English cricket. Part of this revolution included a thorough overhaul of the English cricketing system, both domestic and international, and coincided with the appointment of Duncan Fletcher, with due irony, as England's head coach, and Nasser Hussain, as captain. It was an equally tense period, where the clash between the powerful and selfish county-system and the newly-proposed country system was evident, but common sense prevailed, and eventually resulted in a solid roadmap that secured the future of English cricket.
And there are definitely lessons for the BCCI to learn and absorb from how England's (and this by no means is a knee-jerk reaction to their series win, or ranking) robust cricketing system abandoned prevailing mediocrity with heavily misplaced priorities and quietly pursued what can now safely be described as an unflinching desire to trigger excellence at the world stage. It is also important to understand that this change in mentality didn't happen overnight, for there have been many setbacks along the way (as critics of the English system might be quick to jump in). And as a disclaimer, by no means is the English system flawless or foolproof (as case in point being, its repeated condescending outlook towards one-day cricket) but it has given the dynamism and initiatives it has taken to supplement its national setup.
Indian cricket can safely try and emulate the best of what it offers to primarily improve its structures. Surely, England contradicts our very thought process in the sub-continent, that our cricketing progress is essentially in spite of the system and not because of it. By the way, these might have still held true had India won the series 4-0.
Here are some of the reasons why English cricket has given itself a template which have contributed to where they are today.
Firstly, the introduction of central contracts went a long way in taking the power away from the counties, who till then were almost calling the shots. It was almost as if the selectors picked 11 lads who came together every fortnight or two to represent England in a Test match, without gelling as unit, and go back to playing county cricket once their England duties were done and dusted.
The mentality was as though a player like Mark Ramprakash, who then played for Middlesex (before crossing over the Thames to join Surrey) was a Middlesex player first who was "released" to play for England. Or even worse, selection of England cricketers during this era was pretty much disorganized. You had blokes who played a couple of Test matches, or the odd one-dayers and shunted into oblivion - quite aptly demonstrated by the likes of Mark Lathwell and Richard Blakey. There was definitely some reason for the powers that be to do away with a system that believed in the primacy of county cricket over country.
As Lawrence Booth, one of England's well known cricket writers and Editor, Wisden told me, "Before central contracts came in, the counties were all powerful because of the control they wielded. They would essentially decide which of their players they'd release for England duties, and some of these cricketers would end up wearing county helmets and turn up for their country. There was no concept of a 'Club England' per-se."
The introduction of central contracts meant that the coach and the captain, Duncan Fletcher and Nasser Hussain respectively in this case, almost created a unitary chain of command and effectively had a greater control of the players they wanted and a greater say in their roles and how they'd use them in the national setup. As they were contracted to the England and Wales Cricket Board, it was now the ECB and now the counties who were in charge of the players' wages.
Financial security apart, this step meant that players contracted with the ECB could now focus as purely international or England cricketers and not worry about their county duties, and this change in mentality has almost paid rich dividends, where for example, a James Anderson thinks first and foremost as an England player and not as a Lancashire pro "released to play" for England. Most importantly, these contracts come under constant review and keep pace with the change in times and situations that govern the game.
The immediate benefit of the central contracts system was the sudden emergence of "Team England" (not the Team India type we prefer brandishing) or "Club England". or in simple words, it heralded an era where there was prioritization of the England national team. The England national cricket team was almost like "the" football club, and the county structure, was relegated to being the feeder system thereby playing a stronger academy-nursery type role as opposed to being the primary school it was earlier.
This meant a basic systemic reform, where three-day games became four-day games, providing batsmen with better opportunities to score runs, bowlers to skittle teams out twice and importantly, encourage teams to look for wins. To compliment this change, the introduction of an incentivized points system almost automatically created intent, with batting points (quicker runs) and bowling points (taking wickets regularly) up for grabs. This however, isn't a commentary of the standards of county cricket, much ridiculed by many in India. But in its own unassuming way, county cricket has ensured a productive supply chain of England and potential England cricketers, through a certain reward mechanism (England Lions, for example) absent in many countries.
From a national team perspective, it gave "Club England" a better opportunity to utilize county cricket as an enabling platform for its contracted cricketers, by sending out of form cricketers to regain form, to gauge match fitness and help iron out the rust in the pre-season (whereby they're required to play three mandatory championship matches before the international season). Also, during the English summer, when players weren't needed on Test duty, they would be released to play for their respective counties to ensure match fitness and form (Tim Bresnan was released to play for Yorkshire vs Lancashire during the Lord's Test v India).
And finally, the concept of Club England definitely helped in improving country-county relations. Or for that matter, Stuart Broad, whose place in the squad for the Test series came under intense scrutiny, was released after the 4th ODI to play for Nottinghamshire vs Somerset to guage his match form before selection for the Lord's Test vs India. As Booth said, "Earlier, it would be unimaginable to a lot of people to see Andrew Strauss turn up for Somerset ahead of a Test match, but this system has ensured much needed flexibility."
Another important component of this "Club England" is the introduction of England Lions winter-tours, which has been the backbone of ready/almost ready international cricketers.
It's a wonderful mid-level bridge programme/reward mechanism if you like, comprising of county performers and fringe players who play both during the English summer and go away on winter-tours to different nations. Over the last four-five years, the ECB has taken special measures to introduce these Lions' tours to the subcontinent and this, if anything has played a reasonably enabling role in enhancing English players and their ability to play spin bowling. This, if nothing else, is a must do for the BCCI (I know the quip might allude to the Indian Emerging Players who won in Australia recently), but more than a one-off, it has to be inculcated into the domestic calendar.
As a derivative of the Club England concept, the England setup has quite brilliantly demonstrated the benefits of micromanagement of its national team. This doesn't just include the amount of cricket they play (or scheduling as we like it here), but also what is called a "Central Conditioning Programme" - which specifically comprises of an injury management mechanism that includes monitored rest, fitness and diet regimes, databasing injuries to quote a few.
The likes of Dean Conway and Huw Bevan (more recently), as part of the English support staff have played a critical role in establishing this programme. The concept of monitored rest was introduced to help workload management with specific guidelines and concepts like work to rest ratio with fixed regiments. Also, England as a policy have refrained against fielding unfit players without complete recovery and full match-fitness as mentioned in their programme. According to Booth (and he's probably right here), there was no way England would have fielded Zaheer Khan at Lord's (with only 20 overs workload) and also rushed Virender Sehwag with virtually no match-practice.
Equally, England have identified specific tours where they believe some of the players can afford to miss, which doesn't just serve the conditioning purpose, but also helps blood younger talent with forward thinking - a case in point being the Bangladesh away series last year, where Alastair Cook captained England. Likewise, Stuart Broad and Paul Collingwood were rested for the home leg of the Bangladesh series last summer, and came out fresh for the Test series against Pakistan. Ditto for Andrew Flower now, who has been given a time out from the game, thereby initializing Richard Halsall (fielding coach) into the helm. What these specific approaches have done is enable England to develop a good depth about themselves. The bowling unit/squad with almost an instant recall of 10/12 names, and scarily almost, every fringe bowler with Test experience.
Lastly, the whole business of scheduling, which has created a belated furore in India post-this humiliation in England. One of the things, I believe India can learn from England is the way they sort out their annual schedules well in advance, thereby not just enabling better player management over the duration of the year, but also gives the setup an exact idea of their workload. And importantly, there is an active Professional Cricketers Association (PCA), which over the years has played a positive role in representing player concerns to the ECB, especially issues like burnouts, fatigue, suggestions which the parent body has taken on board while scheduling tours etc.
These are just some instances where I believe there is a strong case for the BCCI to approach Indian cricket in a similar manner. The national team must come first, over the IPL, which rather incestuously is owned, controlled and propagated by the BCCI.
The need of the hour is also effective management of the 'A' tours, which might possibly give the desired international exposure to younger cricketers along with a complete overhaul of the domestic system in place today, which has sadly, outlived its time and utility. And finally, creating a system of accountability - both from the player and the board, about issues of fitness, injuries etc will only help manage them better and more efficiently. England have quite set the pace as far as systemic reforms are concerned, not now, but ten years ago. It's time we follow suit.