Episode 105: A select offering from Ed Smith

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

Ed Smith played cricket for Kent, Middlesex (as captain) and England, was an incisive commentator on Test Match Special and was England’s Chief Selector from 2018 to 2021. In that role, he drew on learning from many different fields as well as those of cricket, as he reveals in his recent polymathic book, Making Decisions. He is the latest guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their cricket-themed podcast.

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Ed begins by describing his childhood training for the post of Chief Selector, in role play in the classic game of Owzat. He suggests that selecting is simultaneously highly complex and highly democratic: all cricket-lovers have views, if not votes, and never hesitate to express them. Social media have opened up new and often unusual perspectives on selection and strategy. 1-3 minutes

Current form and a past record in county cricket were once the sole basis of selection of England’s international players, but he and his panel looked at other factors as well. He suggests that the gulf in playing standards has widened between county and international cricket. 14-15 minutes The dramatic and successful selection of Jofra Archer for the 2019 World Cup was based on IPL evidence.  IPL games are not only highly competitive but rich in detailed televised data. 4-8 minutes

He cites some players who made inauspicious starts in international cricket but whose evident quality demanded their retention, especially Jos Buttler in England’s one-day cricket. Selectors face a constant dilemma of when to over-ride data and rely on their personal assessments of players, as Duncan Fletcher had done with Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan. Decision-makers who always play safe and follow conventional wisdom never add value to the decision process – and not only in cricket. Although cricket has no transfer market, like football and other sports, it is still imperative for selectors to find undervalued players (by reputation) and offload overvalued ones. 8-12 minutes

He cites the guidance of the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott on how to choose among the runners in the Derby and other classic horse races: “there are no precise rules for selecting the winner and some intelligence not supplied by the rules themselves is necessary.” Scientific systems can filter out obvious losers, but human judgement is needed to identify the attributes of a winner.  Sam Curran would never have been selected by scientific algorithm: he was picked after a human assessment of his personality and his ability to add variety and enhance team performance. 13-19 minutes

He argues strongly that selection must always aim to create the best possible team from the resources available for the contests ahead. The team’s needs will sometimes entail omitting a fine individual player and giving a long run to players whose figures appear unexceptional: he gives three examples of this by his panel. In T20 cricket it is especially important to get the maximum value from the best batter in a limited span of overs and to surround him or her with the players that contribute the most to achieving this. A strong team culture will overcome the disappointment of the individuals passed over for particular matches and remove their fear of being discarded and forgotten. 19-26 minutes

He suggests that the best selectors are those whose teams out-perform expectations – which entails establishing those expectations in the first place. England selectors have been persistent victims of unrealistic assumptions of England’s cricket primacy. It is much easier for selectors to replicate a winning team formula when there is an abundance of talent for each specialist position than it was for his panel to select from a surplus of fine wicketkeeper-batters  and seamers and a shortage of specialist batters. 27-30 minutes

Turning to captaincy, he again argues strongly for choosing the greatest contributor to team performance in the role, who is not necessarily the best player. This approach is beginning to recede in modern cricket. Cricket, he suggests, is unique among modern team sports in requiring so many on-field decisions to be made by the captain. 31-36 minutes

It is also distinctive in entrusting international selection to a panel backed by a network of scouts and assessors. He is grateful to his network of scouts from several generations of cricket for giving him trustworthy information and reliable predictions of future form – notably over Ollie Robinson. He contrasts the process of “Talent ID” (identifying talent with potential) with that of selecting which of those talents is right for the team’s immediate assignments. 37-44 minutes

He has a heartening conclusion for sports-lovers afraid of the growing use of data-driven algorithms. They are brilliant at creating the best possible defensive and stifling strategies for teams – but for that very reason offer the greatest rewards to attacking innovators who can outwit them. “Great teams,” he says, “have always had a slightly mad streak.” 45-48 minutes


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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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