This is now the era of the cricketing specialist - England should embrace it
Cricket is a team sport played as individuals. It relies less on team cohesion and unity than other more collaborative sports, which is why talented individuals, like Kevin Pietersen, or Jofra Archer, can be parachuted into an existing outfit and immediately thrive.
The idea that we need a settled XI is, therefore, an outdated default. And if the recent Ashes series taught us anything, it is quite simply that specialisation works.
David Warner can do it on shiny decks against a white ball in Chennai, but can he do it on a rainy day against a red one in Manchester? Warner is just one example, but simply, the answer is no.
There are exceptions but they are minuscule elite, featuring the likes of Ben Stokes, Pat Cummins, Archer, Steve Smith and Virat Kohli. Their natural ability, adaptability and mentality will see them excel in any cricket, anywhere and in any format. There is maybe one batter and one bowler per country who sits within this exclusive gang. And once a player understands, concedes even, that they sit in the bracket below, then specialisation is key to their performance.
So why are international sides not being more ruthless about picking players for each format, and according to conditions? Jason Roy, picked on white ball form with the brief to play his shots, made marginally more runs than Warner, the man he was picked to replicate.Credit: Tim Goode/PA
Both were reared in white ball cricket, the intention being to mould them over the years into red-ball openers. Only, in Warner’s case, after eight years in the longest format, he remains a certain type of Test opener for a certain type of pitch - namely, flat ones. His average in countries traditionally more conducive to up and down decks, true to bat on, exceeds 60. In England, India and New Zealand it drops to 25.
Roy, similarly, has struggled to transition. Muddled shot selection, cricket fatigue, a one-day mentality — whatever it might be, unless you are a calibre over and above, the effort is almost futile.
Last year, Cheteshwar Pujara, the disciplined, restrained batsman of yesteryear, shunned by the IPL and now committed to red-ball cricket alone, batted for five hours for his first Test century in England. After Kohli, Pujara averaged higher than any other and faced the most number of balls across the series. And this despite not being selected in the first Test. Years honing his skill in the cold confines of Yorkshire paid dividends.
Rory Burns is of a similar mould. While Surrey’s club captain plays across all three formats in county cricket, it is to the longest that he is invested, internationally at least.
This is evident in technique and his attitude at the crease. Like Alastair Cook, Burns has a stance and stature so awkward, so unorthodox, so eccentric that it could only succeed in a shorter format if you were, well, Steve Smith. But even Smith’s white ball cricket pales in comparison to the red.
Josh Hazlewood, out of favour for Australia’s World Cup campaign, was consistently excellent since he was picked for the Lord’s Test. His bowling average, of 21.85, was only marginally higher than Cummins.
Hazlewood was fuming at being omitted from the World Cup squad, so much so that he was not even able to watch his team during the tournament. It led to calls in retrospect that Australia missed him with the white ball. But that is the wrong mentality: if he had been deployed during the World Cup, it is unlikely he would have been at his best during the Ashes.
The numbers are compelling. Subtract Smith and Stokes, and the batters who played both the World Cup and the Ashes average more than 10 less than those who played in the Ashes alone (19.41 compared to 29.60).
The bowling tells a similar tale. Take Archer and Cummins out and the bowlers who have played in both events average far more with the ball than those who have specialised in the Ashes (35.05 to 27.96).Credit: Gareth Copley/Getty Images
The evidence has been there all along, with Stuart Broad and James Anderson providing a ready-made precedent. It has been more than three-and-a-half years since either represented their country in white ball cricket. And in that time they have arguably been at their best. Since the 2015 World Cup, the last time either played regular white ball cricket for England, both have seen their bowling average decrease and both have delivered their best bowling in an innings.
As for specialisation according to conditions, Chris Woakes averages 35.23 with the bat and 23.45 with the ball in England. Overseas these numbers alter dramatically, to 20.25 with the bat and 61.77 with the ball. Despite a decent Ashes return, does he merit a place on the Test squad’s plane this winter?
Conversely, there is Dawid Malan, out of favour in the middle order this summer in England, but who - in the last eight years - averages only behind Root in Tests played in South Africa, Australia and UAE. Is he a flat track bully? If he is, fine - use him as one.
Remember the ridicule which greeted those players who specialised in white-ball or red-ball contracts in county cricket not so long ago? Perhaps, in hindsight, we should temper that reaction. Considered application, when the time is right, is surely the future.