Monday 6 January 2014

Unthinkable? An England team without managers

If the Ashes mega-series taught us anything, it was that management was absolutely right until it was wrong. That Andy Flower's professional, marginal-gains micromanagement was superior to Darren Lehman's more old-fashioned, tell-a-joke; be-a-bloke style. Until the opposite was true.

As England now decide on what to rescue and restore from their wreckage of a winter, there will be much focus on Flower and his squadron of backroom assistants. But where does responsibility lie? Are the players accountable for their own performance or does the environment they're in matter too?

Andrew Strauss articulated the puzzle perfectly when trying to defend England's management team. Flower, he said, deserves support because he has overseen so many successes. Equally he shouldn't be blamed for this series, because it's the players who take the field.

Management science relies on the myth that results can be achieved if the correct processes are developed. The moral of the Moneyball story was that there are no barriers to success. Given enough information and enough analysis, strategies can always be found.

Team England seem staunch believers in the management ideal. It means they place enormous importance in their pre-cooked plans and enormous faith in their ability to control. So better young players develop under their tutelage at Loughborough than out of view with the counties. Better menus are determined by the experts than let individuals decide what's good for them.

Players are required to be automators, delivering the agenda developed by the centre.

It made England incredibly proficient against middling teams. As long as there was no outlier x-factor that could elude management planning, England were ruthless. But whenever mystery struck – a doosra, a counter-attack, Mitch - England got derailed. 

It's not that players took the field and unthinkingly performed Gooch or Saker's instructions. But they imbued a culture of management control that drained them of autonomy, accountability and the ability to think on their feet.

Though England are more extreme in their fondness for managerialism, they aren't unique. It's the direction all teams are moving. But it wasn't always this way.

The plethora of coaches is a fairly recent development in the sport. As Michael Atherton wrote recently: “On my first Australian tour, in 1990-91, we travelled with a manager, whose job it was to sort out travel arrangements and hand out disciplinary fines, a coach, a scorer and a physiotherapist.

“A player... could ask the coach or captain for advice; he could ask a senior player to have a watch in the nets; he could ring home and speak to a trusted adviser; or he could sort things out for himself. It meant that there was no less advice available than now, but it was less structured, less formal.”

The great West Indies and Australian teams got by without the dense layers of management England use. As recently as 2007, an Indian side led by Rahul Dravid and packed with senior pros secured a historic series win in England without a coach.

It won't happen now but as England ponder their new era it's worth wondering what would happen if they did away with a management team altogether.


Anonymous said...

I'm far from the centre of action, so it's hard to know what's really been going on. As you describe, England clearly have plumped for a managerialist route. But how pervasive is it? The team has had its free spirits. Matches have been won by KP's unorthodox brilliance. Swann never seemed well-accommodated to authority. Anderson's career flourished despite the efforts of coaches to remodel his action when he first broke through. Just as it was a handy narrative to push when England were successful (Steve James' 'The Plan'), so it's a target now they're on their knees. Of course it was a feature of this England team, but was it the defining feature?

Sahil said...

Yeah it's always guessing from our bloggers' distance. I think the main point is that managers doesn't really have as much of an effect as the management ideal would have it.

But there is a more loose culture that develops. And England's seemed very intent on control. That spirit fed even into the way they played. So much so that when opponents took the game to them and loosened their control they responded quite badly.

KP's brilliance never seemed accepted because it was uncontrollable. Swann I think seemed to talk followed Strauss and Flower's ideals.

If they now sacrifice their best player for the sake of Flower maintaining control I think will tell us all we need to know.

Subash said...

Is it the system or is it the players? Who gets the blame when things fail and who gets the credit when things go well?

I don't think it is Andy Flower's (or for that matter any of the Moneyball based approaches) goal to make the players in to automatons but trying to identify areas that can give their players that slight bit of edge. After all, it is still the players that have to get on the field and play the game.

Even Moneyball approach cannot guarantee World Series rings but what it can do, according to Billy Beane, was that it can get the team to get to the post season. Once you get there, winning the playoff series and getting to world series is a combination of skill, set of players and some luck, as the opposition you are gonna face is that much better and the margins are that much slim.

And so, when a Mitch happens, you've got to doff your hat and move on. England lacked a genuine express pacer who could have gone headhunting which could have evened out the playing field. Since they didn't, they lost the early Tests. Once you get on a losing roll, it is hard to stop it. Not to mention, your #3 leaves the tour after 1 Test, and you have to rejig the order.

There is place for the 'free spirits" in a managerial styled team. I think Gideon Haigh mentioned in a recent post about Duncan Fletcher's thoughts on this: 8-3. Meaning, you can accommodate 3 players with free reign but the other 8 have to stick to their roles.

Sahil said...

Thanks for commenting, Subash.

It's tricky because the point I'm trying to make is that the layers of management muddy responsibility. And there is no real way of assessing the impact of management because it relies on a counterfactual (what would England be like without, say, Gooch, Mustaq etc?)

I agree that Flower doesn't want automators - who would? But perhaps an unintended outcomes of a very managerial regime is to dent responsibility and the ability to react on your feet.

Similarly it's an ideal of management (more widely) that all outcomes can be imagined and controlled with the correct processes. Or at least an "edge" developed. But clearly this isn't the case. Like most things it's impossible to control an in-form Mitch, a world-series play-off, a ill No. 3.

Which is why I question should sports teams be so keen to appoint managers and coaches and technocrats? Can they really help? How would we know if they do?

Has the game become more complex now - so that it demands these people - or has managerialism as an ideology grown (as it has in the corporate world and in government) and affected sports teams? Or is just because, say, ECB has a lot of money now, it can afford to employ lots of experts in a way it couldn't previously.