Does a cricket selector have to be unpopular? “Sometimes,” laughs Ed Smith, the most recent man to take over for England. “I wouldn’t put too much pressure on it – it doesn’t have to be a desire. You have to be willing to do what you believe in. Most people know that choosing is a difficult task.”
For three years, from May 2018, Smith served as a national selector, a period he spent writing his new book, Making Decisions: Putting the Human Back in the Machine.
As at any time in English cricket, this era had profound challenges – the difficulties of a saturated schedule and competing in all three formats, compounded by the stress of Covid and bubble life – and controversial choices. But, across all formats, England won 71 matches and lost 36. In Test cricket, their least successful format since 2015, England won 21 matches and lost 12.
In many ways, it could be argued, that being an England selector has never been more challenging. Where traditionally the role was simply to pick the best team, now it is about picking the best teams across all three formats and managing a consistent schedule.
County cricket adds to the challenge by giving little indication of how well a player will perform on the Test field. Four members of the England XI that became Test No. 1 in 2011 scored centuries on Test debut. The batsmen’s “international averages mapped their county averages very closely”, observes Smith.
In recent years, this link has been broken. “If the domestic system is more different than the international system, then more thinking is needed,” says Smith.
Since the start of 2015, 16 specialist batsmen have made their debut for England. The highest average – 30.3 – belongs to Rory Burns, who was dropped in Australia last winter. To Smith, it underscores how “the world is not as you would like it to be” – England’s lack of top-order Test-class batsmen, and how difficult domestic conditions have been.
This informed Smith’s thinking in two ways. First, he stuck with Burns, Joe Denly (Test average 29.5), and Keaton Jennings (25.2) for long because he was not convinced there were better alternatives. Second, the absence of a proven scorer, combined with an unusual supply of multi-skilled players, keeper batsmen, and all-rounders, led to England fielding, unusual-looking teams. During 2018–19, England chose two or three wicketkeepers in their XI, usually with three all-rounders.
Essentially, Smith believed that this all-around talent offered the team more than the “next-rate” top-order batsmen – whose track record suggests, would have averaged only in the 20s anyway. This decision was not theoretical but “very practical”.
“Unusual formations usually result from uneven distribution of talent. If you have Hayden, Langer, Ponting, Waugh, Waugh, Martin, Gilchrist – you’re probably going to line up like that. If you don’t If so, you have a choice. Do you line up the way teams ‘normally’ line up with considerations about whether they are the best players? Or do you want to catch an eye? “Wales and therefore dangerously lined up, but in a way that adds talent to the field?”
The most impressive streak of Smith’s tenure, a run of eight Test wins from nine during 2018, came while packing the team with multi-talented players.
During England’s 3-0 second Test win in Sri Lanka in 2018, England also had a flexible No. 3: Stokes lined up at three, but Jos Buttler would have batted there if Stokes had a heavy bowling load.
In his book, Smith notes England’s excellent record when selecting teams with six bowling options. England picked nine such teams during his tenure, largely because of the uncertainty of how much Stokes could bowl, winning seven and drawing twice.
In 2018, Smith picked a left-arm seamer in Curran, and a wrist-spinner, Adil Rashid, for a more versatile attack. He sees it as particularly important away from home – a lesson that wasn’t understood in Australia last winter, when England had five right-farmers working at just over 80mph in Adelaide. Couples were made. “The harder the pitch for seamers, the more different attacks are called for,” says Smith. During his tenure, England won 10 Tests – five in Sri Lanka, three in South Africa, and one each in India and the West Indies – and lost seven. In the last three years, England has won only three away Tests and lost 13.
While Smith speaks warmly of both Trevor Bayliss and Chris Silverwood, two head coaches he worked with, Bayliss’s more aggressive style compared to Silverwood’s preference for a more traditional team structure. Looks better with his instincts.
“If I were to describe my philosophy about cricket, these teams had some of that in the second half of 2018. There was a lot of all-around talent who could turn a game very quickly. But Equally, I won’t distance myself at all from the teams selected later