England's less-is-more mantra will be tested like never before, but the pressure-off approach has worked so far
England's Test team have adopted a simple, three-word mantra when it comes to their preparation: less is more.
While Australia were getting ready for Friday's first Ashes Test at The Oval, by thrashing India to win the World Test Championship, England's players and management were playing golf in Loch Lomond. Under Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum, there is no training just for training's sake.
"It was perfect, trying to get away from cricket for a week or so," Harry Brook told the BBC. "Then we've come back, hit the ground running and go hard at training. There was a bit of alcohol involved... it was more of a team-bonding week, and we all bonded very well."
The squad is full of golfers, with Zak Crawley - who plays off a handicap of one - said to be the pick of the bunch. McCullum is a tournament ambassador for the New Zealand Open and a regular in the annual Pro-Am event; his own handicap has dropped significantly since he took the job.
Brook is not far off Crawley himself, and became partners with his Sunrisers Hyderabad coach Brian Lara in India. They took pride in an unbeaten record for the first half of the IPL, but were eventually beaten by Marco Jansen and the professional at Hyderabad Golf Club. He views golf as an opportunity to get away from cricket.
"When you're training, you hit it hard and train your nuts off," Brook said. "Other than that, you get away from the game - and golf is a very important part of that. It takes you away from cricket. Professional sport as a whole can be very draining and tough, so to be able to play another sport and take the mind off it is perfect."
England cricketers have always loved golf, but some have feared the repercussions of being seen to play too often. "I used to play once every two weeks," Graeme Swann said. "There was always the feeling that if I'm playing golf four times a week and I'm not performing, that's an easy target; it's going to get pointed out."
There is now a culture of individuals taking personal responsibility for their preparation, rather than being dictated to. Training sessions are optional; McCullum blares out an eclectic playlist over his speakers as batters swing as hard as they can. Players' availability to play county cricket is largely left up to them, as is the final call on participation in franchise leagues.
Take Joe Root. He has not played a County Championship match in over a year, and decided to enter the IPL auction at a low base price (INR 1 crore/£100,000) in order to maximise his chances of being picked up. He spent the vast majority of his two-month stint with Rajasthan Royals running drinks, but justified his decision to ESPNcricinfo during the tournament.
"If you want to, you can look back at anything and say, 'well if you didn't do that then you might've done better here'. It doesn't make any difference," Root said. "It's about how you turn up and you perform when those big games come around and that's what you should be judged on, not the decisions you make prior to it, especially when you're an experienced player."
Root has batted once in a first-class match in the last month, making 56 in England's one-sided Test against Ireland. Brook's only innings lasted seven balls. Jonny Bairstow last faced a red ball in a match a month ago; Stokes has not done so since February, and Moeen Ali since September 2021. McCullum had no qualms with Moeen missing training on Wednesday to collect his OBE from Windsor Castle.
ESPNcricinfo's data suggests that recent red-ball practice makes a slight difference in England - or at least, that it has over the last 15 years. Since 2008, England's top-seven batters who have played at least one first-class game in the month before a home series have averaged 40.1; those who have not have averaged 38.1. England bowlers who have played in the month before average 27.0 in the series itself, compared to 28.3 for those who have not.
But the differences are marginal, and for every example of a player who has struggled with minimal match preparation, there is a counter-example of one who has flourished. Much of the build-up to England's first Test of the Stokes-McCullum era focused on Bairstow's late arrival from the IPL, where he was short on runs; he responded with one of the all-time great summers by an England batter.
"Every Test match I've played so far, I've felt like I'm ready two days out - and that's the same today," Brook said on Wednesday. "We've got another training day tomorrow so I'll top up and see how I am before then. I haven't not played any cricket... I've been playing IPL cricket and playing against the best bowlers in the world anyway. I feel like I'm ready and I don't feel short of cricket at all."
The minimalistic approach to preparation stems, at least in part, from a recognition of Test cricket's parlous state. "You can understand why people don't want to play Test cricket," Brook added.
"There's so many franchise competitions out there and there's so much money you can get; it's like being a footballer."
And so, England see no point ramping up the pressure in the weeks leading up to a Test match by turning them into an intense endurance test. Instead, they fall back on that simple mantra: less is more. – Cricinfo