England and Australia VI teams set to write new chapter in old rivalry
England and Australia’s cricketing rivalry stretches back to 1877 when the first Test match between the two countries was played in Melbourne. There have been many chapters since then and this month, the England Visually Impaired side will add another as they travel to Australia to play five One-Day Internationals and three T20 matches.
For all the criticism the ECB receives, its support of women’s and disability cricket should be applauded. Their stated aim is to become and remain the world’s leading governing body in providing access to cricket for people with disabilities. They are making good on that vision.
In 2014, the ECB spent over £3 million on the various England women’s and non-professional, including Deaf, Visually Impaired, Physical Disability and Learning Disability, sides. Together with further spending on the recreational game, it is a significant financial commitment which has helped transform disability cricket over the last decade, including the level of professionalism of the England teams.
There has been plenty of success at international level over the past year. The highlight came in September when England’s Physical Disability side won the inaugural ICRC International T20 Cricket Tournament for people with physical disability in Bangladesh. Earlier in the year, the Learning Disability team beat Australia comprehensively 5-1 in Melbourne.
The Visually Impaired side had a tougher 2015 after reaching the semi-final of the 2014 World Cup in South Africa. England hosted India during the summer but lost the one-day and T20 series 2-0 and 3-0 respectively. India are world champions in both formats and are the most dominant team in the international game.
Despite the results, England’s Head Coach Ross Hunter saw signs of progress: "The team are in a very good place.
"They have worked incredibly hard over the last 12 months and have constantly looked to improve and play better cricket.
"The results against India, the current double world champions, didn’t reflect the achievements of this group of players.
"They became the only team apart from Pakistan to bowl India out in the recent years. They got themselves into a position to win every game in that series which has never been said about an England Visually Impaired side before.
"With some more belief and clinical finishing the score line may have been different."
The highlight for the side was the T20 at The Oval, where England scored over 200 against the world champions and the game went into the last over. Luke Sugg, England’s T20 captain, says, "The T20 series against India was a tough one for the team.
"The game at the Oval, scoring over 200 against the world champions, was a phenomenal effort. No other team apart from Pakistan have ever done that so I am proud of the team."
Visually impaired cricket has a set of specific laws. Players are categorised by their level of sight over 60 metres into three categories, with B1 being the least level of sight, followed by B2 and B3. The bowling is underarm and the ball, containing ball-bearings to help the players hear it as it moves, must bounce twice before the batsman. Each side must be made up of four B1, three B2 and four B3 players with one player from each category batting in each cycle of three in the batting order.
Matt Dean, a B2 category player, has been in the England set up for a decade and is captain of the ODI team. He has to manage not only tactics and selection but also the differing levels of sight within the team.
Dean admits it can be a challenge: "Dealing with sight loss affects people in different ways…being adaptable to changes both physically and mentally to ensure I get the best out of the team has been the biggest challenge."
Sugg, who plays for Warwickshire and made his England debut against Australia in 2004, is a B3 category player meaning he is partially sighted rather than partially blind.
He is England’s current Disability Cricketer of the Year after scoring over 500 runs in the World Cup, which included four centuries. He received the award alongside winners from England’s other sides at a ceremony in the Long Room at Lord’s.
"This award was something special," says Sugg. "I’d been beaten before at the awards, and to finish as runner-up twice, really pushed me to succeed further.
"To be recognised among players such as Charlotte Edwards and Joe Root was a fantastic achievement for me, and it just shows that hard work does eventually pay off. It’s one of the proudest moments of my life, let alone my career."
The disability programme is a professional environment worthy of any international cricket team. England’s disability sides have access to high class coaching and support staff including strength and conditioning coaches and nutritionists. They wear the same kit as England’s professional men’s teams and the visually impaired side will travel to Australia aboard a flight with the ECB’s airline partner. Small details perhaps, but it emphasises that this a high performance team representing their country in the same way as Alastair Cook’s Test team.
"Without the ECB we would not have the access to the level of coaches and support staff that we have," Sugg adds.
"This enables us to perform and develop to our full potential. The work that Ian Martin (ECB’s Head of Disability Cricket) and the ECB do for disability cricket is priceless for the disability teams.
"It allows our games to grow, gaining more exposure which in turn leads to an increase in players playing disability cricket."
Hunter, a former England U17 wicket-keeper batsman, has been coaching the national team since 2013 and believes disability cricket is going from strength to strength.
"It has been an incredibly successful 12 months for England Disability Cricket under the support of the ECB.
"The link between grassroots and performance cricket is growing and more disabled players than ever are turning to cricket as a sporting option."
There are now six ECB regional development centres which take the most talented cricketers and offer them coaching and assistance in the hope of producing a conveyor belt of quality cricketers for the England disability teams.
Over 100 cricketers attend these centres, an 84 per cent increase on last year. The entry requirements are demanding and the centres expect commitment and focus but they offer the players a clear pathway to international cricket.
England are favourites for the upcoming series in Australia having beaten them in the World Cup. The tour begins with a T20 on January 22nd and the sides will play eight games, all in Adelaide, in 10 days.
"It's been a long four years since we last played a series against Australia," says Dean. "The aim is to win, while playing the best cricket we possibly can."
Hunter will be hoping his side can emulate the performances, if not the results, they displayed against India. There is also the small matter of a T20 World Cup later this year to prepare for.
"This is the strongest team that I have had the pleasure to select," says Hunter.
"The players have been chosen based on the quality of their skill, their commitment to self-improvement and their devotion to the team. A series between England and Australia is always going to be tough, the players are looking forward to the challenge."
It should be some contest. Just as England against Australia always is.
© Cricket World 2016