Mohammed Siraj and Rishabh Pant are among the recent illustrious alumni of India's A-team programme
Mohammed Siraj and Rishabh Pant are among the recent illustrious alumni of India's A-team programme
The WTC final was contested by the two teams with the best A programmes, and that's no coincidence. A tours are more important than ever before
In his first year in Test cricket, Mohammed Siraj played a crucial role in victories in Australia and England, and contributed to one in South Africa. Nothing could guarantee that Siraj would be so effective in some of the most onerous challenges that face an Indian Test cricketer, but the selectors had an excellent guide: he had already thrived for the A team.
Before his Test debut, Siraj had played 16 first-class games for India A, taking 70 wickets at 21.9 apiece. He had represented India A in South Africa, England, New Zealand and the West Indies. When he was handed his Test cap on Boxing Day in 2020 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Siraj claimed Marnus Labuschagne as his maiden Test wicket, and took 5 for 77 in the match in India's victory.
"He had travelled across the globe," recalls MSK Prasad, India's chief selector between September 2016 and March 2020. "Usually Indian pitches don't assist fast bowling so much, but this boy looked something different." Playing for India A and working with Paras Mhambrey, the bowling coach of the National Cricket Academy, Siraj "learned the tricks of the trade".
Siraj's tale embodies the trend of a growing emphasis on A-team cricket. The 2021 World Test Championship final featured the two nations to play the most A-team cricket over the four previous years: India, the clear leaders with 25 first-class A games from June 2017 to June 2021, and New Zealand, who played 14 in this period, tied second with the West Indies.
While New Zealand's A-team programme has been altogether less lavish than India's, it has a newfound strategic importance for them: from 2018, they reduced their domestic first-class programme from ten rounds to eight to increase investment in the A team. The upshot is that New Zealand's A-team programme is no longer spasmodic (they did not play any first-class A-team matches at all in 2002, 2003, 2006, 2007 or 2011). "The realisation is that A-team cricket is not cheap," says Bryan Stronach, the high performance manager for New Zealand Cricket. "But now we realise the importance of it, so it becomes a priority for us."
What is an A team for? Mo Bobat, the performance director for the England and Wales Cricket Board, says that a good A-team programme should essentially do two things. First, it should give the national selectors useful information when picking squads for the senior side by helping identify the country's next best players. Second, it should improve the players in the second string, by exposing them to the types of conditions, and opponents, that they will have to confront if they make it to the national side. Siraj's development with India A while bowling in overseas conditions is an instructive example.
Selection for an A team, or an equivalent like England Lions or Pakistan Shaheens, involves a balance between picking the next-best players - those who would get into a Test squad in case of injuries, or even players already in the senior squad who would benefit from new experience - and players for the future.
When New Zealand picked their squad for an A tour against Pakistan in the UAE in 2018, they selected someone who had never played a professional first-class, List A or T20 match: Rachin Ravindra. While Ravindra had played two U-19 World Cups and impressed in the 2018 edition, his elevation to the A team was accelerated because he is a batting allrounder who can bowl left-arm spin - the sort of cricketer New Zealand produces relatively few of, and so has greater prospects of quickly transiting to the national side.
Eyes peeled, ears to the ground: Mo Bobat (left), England's performance director, with chief scout James Taylor
Gareth Copley / © Getty Images
Eyes peeled, ears to the ground: Mo Bobat (left), England's performance director, with chief scout James Taylor Gareth Copley / © Getty Images
"That was just looking at our talent identification system," Stronach explains. "There's that distinct difference in our A programme where we look at what we think are our next best potential players - and not our best players right now."
England now use depth charts to map the development of their side. This concept, imported from US sports, entails ranking players for each position, enabling selectors to see, for instance, who their fifth-choice spinner is. Depth charts are an easy way to illuminate relative gaps in the production of specific types of players. These - and, by implication, the A team set-up that informs them - have become more important because of the saturated calendar, which forces countries to dip into the talent below their notional first XI with greater frequency.
When England toured the West Indies for a T20 series in January, weakened by injuries and the absence of multi-format players who had just been involved in the Ashes, the squad included, according to their depth charts, their 15th-choice batter and 18th-choice pace bowler. And this is T20, where, because of the growth of leagues around the world, replacements are easier to find than in Test cricket - the format that makes an A-team programme today imperative.
Arranging matches outside the normal domestic season to prepare players for the international level is not new. From 1911 until 1976, England scheduled Test Trial matches, pitting their first-choice XI against Rest of England - the A team, in modern parlance. Yet these matches were played too sporadically to serve their purpose: only 20 games in 66 years.
Rachin Ravindra was fast-tracked into the New Zealand A team after he did well at the 2018 U-19 World Cup
© ICC/Getty Images
Rachin Ravindra was fast-tracked into the New Zealand A team after he did well at the 2018 U-19 World Cup © ICC/Getty Images
International matches, too, could double as exercises in exploring a team's bench strength. After the first wave of Test expansion - West Indies, New Zealand and India all gained Test status between 1928 and 1932, doubling the number of Test nations - Australia and England frequently sent under-strength sides to tour these countries, using the chance to bring up-and-coming players into the international game. In 1930, England even sent Test teams simultaneously to New Zealand and the West Indies. Australia only deigned to play New Zealand once in New Zealand's first 43 years with Test status, but tours by sides of "Australians" - akin to A teams - were common.
In 1970, the West Indies Young Cricketers visited England. The side, comprising players in their late teens, returned to England every four years until 1982. Future Test players Larry Gomes, Wayne Daniel, Jeffrey Dujon, David Murray, Richard Austin, Courtney Walsh and Phil Simmons were among those who went on these tours. England Young Cricketers, who first played against the West Indies Young Cricketers in 1970, themselves began to undertake a foreign tour every few years from 1972 on.
Still, countries were generally slow to take to the idea of A tours. The first one by an official A team appears to have been by Pakistan A in 1964 to what was then Ceylon. Yet Pakistan A would not play again for another 27 years. England's first real A-team match was not fought by an A team at all. In 1982, a team called England B - essentially, the best players short of the Test team at the time - faced the touring Pakistanis in a rain-affected draw.
It was not till early 1986 that England B assembled for their next tour, in Sri Lanka. England largely picked players on the fringe of the Test side - there were several who had already played Test cricket, including Derek Randall, who turned 35 during the last game, Norman Cowans and Derek Pringle. Mark Nicholas, who had led the English Counties XI to Zimbabwe the previous winter, captained the side.
That tour immediately showed one of the handy by-products of these matches: ensuring that those next in line for the senior squad were match-ready if suddenly needed on international duty. After Malcolm Marshall broke Mike Gatting's nose in the West Indies, Nicholas recommended Wilf Slack as the B-team batter who should go to the Caribbean as cover.
Of the India A team that toured South Africa late in 2021, Krishnappa Gowtham, Prithvi Shaw, Ishan Kishan, Hanuma Vihari, Deepak and Rahul Chahar, Navdeep Saini and Devdutt Padikkal have played for India
Charles Lombard / © Getty Images
Of the India A team that toured South Africa late in 2021, Krishnappa Gowtham, Prithvi Shaw, Ishan Kishan, Hanuma Vihari, Deepak and Rahul Chahar, Navdeep Saini and Devdutt Padikkal have played for India Charles Lombard / © Getty Images
During the tour, Nicholas took the view that the English side were there to win. Before the third match, short of spin options on a wicket that would clearly turn, he spied an unlikely solution: the tour manager, slow left-armer Norman Gifford, who was 45 but still playing for Worcestershire. To check if he could pick Gifford, Nicholas rang Peter May, the chairman of selectors, who told him: "Mark, you're the captain. You make the decision." Gifford played and took 7 for 128 in the match, though like all of the games in the five-match series, it was drawn. Writing his tour report, Nicholas advocated for a name change. "We were called England B but I said it diminished the players - I thought B sounded second-division stuff."
Due partly to a lack of money, and even more to a lack of foresight, it would be another four years until this team - now called England A - was fielded again. "I was a strong advocate of having an England second team tour every winter, particularly if you could find a place for a couple of really talented young players," Nicholas recalls. "No one clicked about the value of playing abroad. I reckon I learned more about playing cricket and life playing abroad than playing at home."
While England meandered, their oldest rivals advanced. In 1983, Young Australia toured Zimbabwe. The squad included David Boon, Dean Jones and Wayne Phillips, who would all make their Test debuts by the end of the following year. Young Australia returned to Zimbabwe in 1985, and toured England in 1995, but were effectively replaced by the Australian Cricket Academy, who first played matches in 1988. While members of the Australian Cricket Academy were too young to make up a genuine 2nd XI, their illustrious intake - graduates have included Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting and Jason Gillespie - made these matches the perfect laboratory for talented young players to develop.
During the 1990s, A-team cricket became commonplace, with eight of the nine Test nations playing their first official A-team matches (all bar Pakistan A, which had undertaken that 1964 tour). England, in a decade noted for their selectorial chaos, played 63 A-team first-class games; no one else played more than 26. Perhaps it shows that an extensive A-team programme can only take a side so far.
Australia flexed their bench strength in the 1995 Benson and Hedges World Series, when the national side and Australia A contested the finals. Here, in the second of those games, in Melbourne, Greg Blewett bowls to Mark Taylor
Ben Radford / © Getty Images
Australia flexed their bench strength in the 1995 Benson and Hedges World Series, when the national side and Australia A contested the finals. Here, in the second of those games, in Melbourne, Greg Blewett bowls to Mark Taylor Ben Radford / © Getty Images
In the 1994-95 World Series quadrangular, Australia A famously played the senior team in a one-day international tournament. That led to the extraordinary sight of the home crowd supporting Australia's opponents. "I didn't enjoy the game," Australia's captain Mark Taylor said after the first clash with Australia A. "I don't like playing against my own players. I don't like it when the crowd doesn't support us when we play at home." When Australia A - who defeated both England and Zimbabwe - met Australia in the final, their star bowler, Paul Reiffel, was called up into the Australia first squad but left out as 12th man. The Australia A experiment was widely popular with local fans but less so with players, and it was not repeated.
As well as reflecting the influence of money and professionalisation in the sport, A teams can be seen as a response to the problem of how to develop Test-ready talent in the 2020s. In the long-form game, the gulf between domestic and international cricket has increased in recent years, in part because of how T20 leagues have hollowed out the quality in the domestic first-class game by reducing the number of domestic matches that leading players play. Meanwhile, standards of Test bowling have surged to new heights.
"Earlier it was straight from Ranji Trophy - if you have a good season, you'll get into the Indian team," says Prasad. "Because there is a huge difference between Ranji Trophy and international cricket, they got a little panicked when they got into the side. What India A cricket has done is bridge the gap between first-class cricket and international cricket. That has helped a lot of Indian cricketers to straightaway get used to internationals - you take Mayank Agarwal, Hanuma Vihari, Rishabh Pant, Mohammed Siraj, Shubman Gill or Prithvi Shaw."
India have a policy, Prasad explains, that players selected for the A side generally get at least a year in the team. Such continuity militates against one of the dangers of A teams: players prioritising their own interests ahead of their team's. And the development of the A team goes hand in hand with the needs of the senior team. Prasad says that the selectors have identified 10-12 fast bowlers of interest to the national side. India A's bowling coach - previously Mhambrey, who has now been elevated to the role with the national side - keeps track of their overs in domestic cricket, to "ensure that they are not overused".
In his time as India A's bowling coach, Paras Mhambrey worked closely with Mohammed Siraj, who went on to make a historic Test debut in Australia
© ICC/Getty Images
In his time as India A's bowling coach, Paras Mhambrey worked closely with Mohammed Siraj, who went on to make a historic Test debut in Australia © ICC/Getty Images
A tours allow future Test cricketers to get a glimpse of one of the most demanding aspects of the format: playing the same opponent week after week in a multi-match series. To simulate the experience, sides like India A share player footage with opponents, encouraging the sort of microscopic dissection of a player's technique that is de rigueur at international level.
For all the emphasis placed upon their A team in the longer format, India A have only ever played three T20s. Since 2018, Ireland are the only Full Member who have organised T20 matches for their second-string. Countries largely trust the global franchise circuit to prepare players for T20Is. "High quality red-ball opportunities add value because they can't be gotten elsewhere," Bobat, England's performance director, has explained.
India A tours now predominantly fall into one of two groups: touring countries where the Test team will go about a year later; and touring immediately prior to, and even concurrently with, an international tour. The latter is an easy way to ensure that, as in the case of Slack on the England B tour, there will be a match-ready replacement player - only without needing to fly the player halfway around the world.
A-team cricket is also used strategically to make up for shortfalls in the domestic system. For India, this means ensuring second-string players get as much experience on fast and seaming wickets as possible, in countries like Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa. Conversely, New Zealand's A tours have generally been to Asia. For New Zealand, the cost of such tours is far more than that of going to Australia, but they are more beneficial because of the importance of developing players in spin-friendly conditions. A successful A-team programme, then, is not just about the quantity of games but also the quality and the variety.
Australia opted for an intra-squad warm-up game in the lead up to the 2019 Ashes after their experience on their previous visit, in 2015, when the county sides they played fielded below-strength attacks
Anthony Devlin / © PA Photos/Getty Images
Australia opted for an intra-squad warm-up game in the lead up to the 2019 Ashes after their experience on their previous visit, in 2015, when the county sides they played fielded below-strength attacks Anthony Devlin / © PA Photos/Getty Images
A notable recent innovation is getting A teams to accompany the senior side on a Test tour, and playing matches against them - replacing the old warm-up games between local domestic sides and the tourists. To understand why, go back to Australia's tour of England in 2015. To prepare for the opening Test, Australia played two first-class matches against Kent and Essex, who rested virtually their entire first-choice bowling attacks.
Such inadequate preparation for Ashes cricket led Australia to shun traditional warm-up matches altogether in 2019. Instead, they organised a first-class match between their best 22 players, divided evenly between the teams. Marnus Labuschagne's display led to him being picked in the XI; for the first time in five Ashes series in England, Australia returned home with the urn. Even before the pandemic, England had planned to prepare against the Lions on the 2021-22 Ashes tour. But rain limited them to a day-and-a-half's worth of cricket across two games.
Despite England's calamitous tour, taking enlarged squads could become more common for those who can afford it, because no one has found a way to guarantee that warm-up games are sufficiently competitive. One radical solution could be boards putting a certain amount into a winner-takes-all pot for matches between the tourists and the home side's A team.
As the cricket calendar has become more relentless, so the possibility of tensions caused by A teams has increased. Since 2017, England Lions have played just two first-class games at home. The ECB would like to play more, but counties are loath to give up their players while the domestic season is on. With the logic of bilateral tours, if England doesn't host A teams, they are unlikely to get hosted in return. This might explain why England's recent Test batters have floundered. At the time of their Test debuts, their last ten new players picked as specialist batters had only played a total of 18 Lions matches between them.
Ireland's A team, Wolves - seen here during a game against Zimbabwe A in Belfast - are targeting playing 30 A games a year so Ireland internationals do not have to learn by playing at the highest level
© Getty Images
Ireland's A team, Wolves - seen here during a game against Zimbabwe A in Belfast - are targeting playing 30 A games a year so Ireland internationals do not have to learn by playing at the highest level © Getty Images
For emerging teams, proper investment in the A team is essential if players are to adjust to international cricket. Ireland have increased their programme for Wolves - their A team - since becoming a Full Member in 2017, but not as much as they would like. Since the Wolves team was created, also in 2017, they have played 41 matches; Richard Holdsworth, the high-performance director of Cricket Ireland, says that ideally they would play 30 a year, and that not playing as many causes gaps in player development. "Several of our current international team are learning whilst playing international cricket," he says, "not developing and learning through the A team, as they didn't have much opportunity to do that."
The heightened importance of A teams could allow the wealthiest cricket nations another chance to open up a gap with the competition. Could teams set up A-team hubs overseas to help rectify specific weaknesses - for instance, as Jarrod Kimber has suggested, might Australia and England set up academies in Sri Lanka to teach batters how to play spin? There are opportunities for mutually beneficial arrangements too. While countries would love to host a full-strength India side, if they host a de facto A team in an official international, it can still be lucrative, as was the case for India's tour of Sri Lanka last year and is likely to be for their limited-overs tours of Ireland and Zimbabwe this year. Full-Member A teams could also help develop emerging teams, just as happened in the 1980s and 1990s with tours to Zimbabwe and Kenya.
At a systemic level, countries could use their A teams to encourage players to rebalance their priorities. England's Test players, for example, are handsomely rewarded. But while their 30th best T20 player now has ample earning opportunities in foreign T20 leagues - even if they never win an England cap - their 30th best first-class player will not receive any extra rewards beyond their county salary. Expanding the pool of contracted players - so that players can be well remunerated simply for being staples of the A team, even if they never play a Test, and are financially better off going on an A tour than playing in a foreign T20 league - would be a pragmatic way to encourage cricketers to pay greater heed to the first-class game.
If A-team programmes widen and deepen, they will present an opportunity to rectify a common problem: appointing captains who have scarcely done the job in the first-class game. Unlike in previous generations, there has been scant time for a player to captain their domestic first-class side while also playing international cricket.
"If you find some kids with leadership qualities, then you can you can refine them - the way you carry yourself, the way you look after your players during the tough times, or the way you handle the media," Prasad says. A domestic captain will captain a completely different set of players at international level; an A team captain might soon find himself captaining the next Siraj for the national team.
Tim Wigmore is a sportswriter for the Daily Telegraph and the co-author of Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution
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