Your pre-season planning will be well in hand, now, I’m sure. Winter nets in full swing, working parties planned to spruce up the pavilion and repair the sight screens, grant applications in place.
It will soon be time to think about selecting the team for the first fixtures. How many players do you need? The obvious answer is 11, of course. But how many of them do you need to be in form and making a contribution each week?
In a typically insightful article last year, Ed Smith quoted Sir Alex Ferguson as saying that he needed only eight players performing well to win a game.
Just eight. And Smith gives examples of teams that have been successful with contributions from an even smaller proportion of their players.
Which is not to say that Sir Alex would ever have sent a team onto the pitch with only eight players, nor that the other three simply stood around for 90 minutes and did nothing.
We do definitely need 11 players. But what should we expect from the three or four who won’t be scoring runs or taking wickets, and how do we prepare them to play that role?
Off-season practice, and pre-season, should largely take care of technical preparation, perhaps supplemented by a friendly game or two before competitive matches start (pitch availability, fixture list, and weather allowing).
But the player who pulls off a stop on the boundary (or who simply stands still and lets the ball hit him, rather than jumping out of the way), or who stays at the crease long enough for someone else to make the winning runs, will be making just as important a contribution as the in-form player.
Don’t neglect your “bit part” players – they could win you more matches than you think!
And that is where a club’s “culture” comes into play.
Culture – the ideas, customs or social behaviour of a particular people or society
Every club, every team, will have its own distinct culture, be it positive or negative, thriving or decidedly unhealthy. For the Club Captain, or the Chairman, or the Cricket Committee, getting that culture right matters.
Because it is culture that defines what a Club expects from its players, and what they expect from each other.
Culture can’t be top-down. “This week, we will all play with a smile on our face…” – sorry, skip, only if we are happy! But by agreeing standards of behaviour beforehand, you can avoid a lot of heartache and misunderstanding as the season develops.
What time to players turn up before the game? How often do they practice? (Do they practice at all?) Do you apply Aussie-style mental disintegration tactics, or something more subtle?
Want your no. 11 to hold up an end in a tight finish? Will it help to pair up with a specialist batsman to work on technique and confidence? A team’s culture will define this type of interaction, if you want it to.
When culture goes wrong – buy-in vs. compliance
There is a fascinating insight into team culture on the 2014 edition of the ECB Coaches Association Wings to Fly DVD . Recorded before Andy Flower stood down as England Team Director, and the fall-out over Kevin Pietersen, the England management team for the recent Ashes tour (Flower, Ashley Giles, and Alistair Cook) all emphasise the importance of buy-in to team culture – that everyone can contribute to establishing the culture, but that once it has been agreed it is non-negotiable. Everyone toes the line, and begrudging compliance is not good enough – players are expected to “own” the culture.
This level of engagement and ownership is itself a part of the culture, perhaps, and even successful teams might not achieve it, all the time.
According to Casey Stengel, long-term manager of the various New York baseball franchises: “The secret to success is keeping the guys who hate you away from the guys who haven’t made up their minds yet.”
Clearly, Stengel did not expect buy-in…he just hoped to be able to find enough clear air for the players and coaching staff to get on with playing the game.
But is that good enough for your club?
 Wings to Fly, XI: Culture Matters (DVD – ECB Coaches Association, 2014). Best to speak to your club coach about this – if you are in England or Wales, he should be a member of ECB CA, and the DVD was sent to all members.