England’s rotation policy debatable, but definitely not no-brainer

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Tue, 14/12/2021
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James Anderson (left) and Stuart Broad.
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IANS

For making decisions and choices, we often let our thoughts just go with the flow, rather than fully understand the situation. The same thing happens when fans and experts start discussing the rotation policy in cricket, invented by England’s selectors and team management late in 2020.

Players have lived in challenging times since cricket resumed after the Covid-19 outbreak last year. They have been moving from one biosecure bubble to another across the world to play international games as well as franchise-based T20 leagues.

Acknowledging the fact that the English cricketers now need to be rested more than ever, the ECB decided to rotate them, sometimes risking the outcome of the match in question.

The rotation policy came under the spotlight multiple times, most recently after England lost the first Ashes Test match, against Australia in Brisbane. They left out James Anderson and Stuart Broad – who boast of 1,156 Test wickets between them – from the playing XI.

Instead, they included Jack Leach, who had not played a Test outside Asia and England since 2019. And Mark Wood, whose ability to extract bounce came in handy at the Gabba.

Anderson was reportedly suffering a minor calf injury, and was not mentioned in England’s 12-member squad. His record in Brisbane (seven wickets at 75) is particularly ordinary. However, the decision to leave out Broad for Leach, who spent two successive home seasons running the drinks for England, raised many eyebrows.

Leach received chastening treatment by the Australian batters in the first Test. He returned 1-102 in 13 overs. On the other hand, Wood finished with match figures of 3-89, and was unlucky on numerous occasions: he beat David Warner’s bat nine times and had Mitchell Starc dropped in the final over on Day 2.

England lost the match by nine wickets with almost four sessions remaining in the match. This was their 10th defeat in the last 11 Tests in Australia. While Travis Head’s assault was a valid reason, they were largely let down by their batters. Apart from a 162-run third-wicket stand between Joe Root and Dawid Malan, they never looked comfortable against an incredible attack, led by Pat Cummins, the top-ranked bowler in the world.

England now have a mountain to climb to win an overseas Ashes series. The last time they won a series after being 0-1 down was in 1954/55, when Frank Tyson took 28 wickets at 20.82 to inspire his side to a 3-1 series triumph. For perspective, England lost 0-4 in 2017/18 and 0-5 in 2013/14, their last two Ashes tours.

To make things worse, England’s next challenge is in Adelaide, under floodlights. Australia hold a perfect home record in day-night Tests, having won all eight games.

With every recent statistic against their favour, it is not difficult to fathom what is going through in English cricketers’ minds.

Only time will tell whether England can script history. However, one thing that is going to stay in their camp, at least until the bubble-hopping life ends, is the continuation of the rotation policy, even if they get punched in their face again and again.

After the Brisbane Test, Root admitted to having picked Leach ahead of Broad to have a ‘balanced attack’. With both Broad and Anderson returning, a place for Leach or even an unlucky Wood is in jeopardy.

In March, after suffering a 1-3 defeat in India, England head coach Chris Silverwood backed the rotation policy: ‘We talk about working our way towards the Ashes and I want the squad to arrive there fit and in form.

Two months later, after England lost to New Zealand 0-1 at home, Silverwood almost repeated his words: ‘We want to travel to Australia fitter, faster, leaner, more ready than ever before.’

Given their horrendous start, Silverwood knows they are not on the right track to turn his words into reality.

England’s rotation policy is slowly building a army of amazing cricketers.
We may criticize it now, but with 8 ICC tournaments scheduled for the next 8 years (basically 1 a year, so I’m told) they really not gana struggle for international experience when picking teams. #goals

— Dale Steyn (@DaleSteyn62) February 20, 2021

Nevertheless, avoiding fatigue is not the only reason in the English camp to stick to the rotation policy.

Four months ago, Ben Stokes had taken an indefinite break from all cricket to focus on mental health and to heal his left index finger. He did not feature in the T20 World Cup, and was initially not considered in the England set-up for the Ashes.

Jos Buttler would make himself unavailable as well, had CA not allowed English players to travel with their families.

What would happen if both Stokes and Buttler pull out of the Ashes?

ECB’s policy is based on reason. It was the rotation policy that allowed Chris Woakes to play as often as he did. With one strong all-round performance after another, Woakes is now the strongest candidate for No. 8.

In Buttler’s absence this year, Ben Foakes or Jonny Bairstow donned the big gloves behind the stumps. They average just above 30 with bat, roughly the same as Buttler’s.

Thus, even if England did not have Stokes or Buttler, they had options to replace them. These options only come from the flexibility they have got in the squad, and they will keep coming till the rotation policy remains.

The rotation policy also aids in England not having to work hard for immediate replacements if two or more senior players decide to retire at the same time. Australia struggled in 2007 when Damien Martyn, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Justin Langer retired earlier that year. They faced the same eight years after, when Michael Clarke, Chris Rogers, Shane Watson, Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson quit at the same time.

Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara announced their retirements that same year, 2015. Tillakaratne Dilshan followed soon, and Rangana Herath left a couple of years later. SLC continue to pay the price for not grooming like-for-like replacements of them.

South Africa are facing the heat as well, following the departures of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel, Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers, and the curious absence of Faf du Plessis.

None of these sides would have faced these issues, had they started nurturing their young potential talents when their senior players were on the wrong side of 30.

England have received widespread criticism for benching Broad, 35, and Anderson, 39, in the first Test match. It may even increase if the duo produces an excellent show in Adelaide. But whatever happens in the Ashes, they will not be in turmoil whether their senior pros decide to retire in a phased manner or not in the next few years.

This is only happening due to England’s rotation policy, which allows plenty of their cricketers to perform at the highest level.