The recent announcement of Alastair Cook resigning as England's test captain has resulted in much debate around a suitable replacement for him as well as the inevitable musing about his eventual retirement from the international arena. His former deputy, Joe Root, was the obvious choice for succession and ensures a level of continuity in terms of leadership style and approach to captaincy. While there are no guarantees for success, this scenario can be applauded from a succession planning perspective in that Root appears to have been earmarked as a potential test captain a number of years ago and as such, will be well prepared to take over the leadership role.
Few would have admonished Cook should he have continued in his captaincy role. However, a recent dip in form coinciding with the emergence of talents like Haseeb Hameed and Keaton Jennings, has made for difficult decisions for England's selectors. It’s hard enough dropping a chap with 11,000+ test runs under his belt, let alone the captain of the national team.
This highlights one of the real conundrums facing modern day selectors and coaches – hanging on to the tried and tested performers whilst needing to unearth and blood new talent for the future.
In the age of professionalism, modern sportspersons' workloads are ever increasing, arguably shortening careers and thus highlighting the importance of developing new talent.
A great example where this balance can be found is in Under 19 Cricket where there seems to be a dual emphasis on excellence and development. In fact, India Under 19 coach Rahul Dravid recently commented on the importance of young players focusing on a career as opposed to results.
At the highest level however, teams are expected to perform week in and week out and this can create a reliance (sometimes an over-reliance) on proven, experienced hands to remain in the mix to get the job done. This approach, whilst potentially successful in the short term, can delay the introduction of hungry young players which will form the backbone of the team in years to come. Imagine, for example, what Mike Hussey could have achieved for Australia had he been selected five years earlier?
On the other hand, the 2011 World Cup winning Indian side had 4 key players on the wrong side of 30, including a certain Sachin Tendulkar at 37. What is important to note is that this same player was given the opportunity to first play for India at the tender age of 16. That in itself indicates not only the ability to discover potential but also the willingness to harness it.
For perhaps the best example of succession planning, we need to look outside of the game of cricket and turn our attention to New Zealand’s All Blacks, arguably the most successful international sports team ever. Both from a coaching and player development perspective, the New Zealand Rugby Union have a proven formula that delivers results. In early 2016, the All Blacks had a mountain to climb. After being the first team in history to win two successive world cups in 2015, they lost over 800 caps of experience, including arguably two of the greatest rugby union players in history in Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, to retirement.
The only way to go was down and yet at no point was there ever a discussion about ‘rebuilding’. The All Blacks had existing systems in place, ensuring that the wider pool of players could provide able replacements for those who had departed. 2016 was almost flawless for this ‘young’ team, breaking the world record for most consecutive tests won with 18 in a row.
The fact that the 2015 World Player of the Year (Dan Carter) was replaced by Beauden Barrett who won the same accolade in 2016, speaks volumes.
From Dravid’s U19 philosophy of excellence and development, to the All Black’s proven formula of creating the environment of excellence by combining new blood with key veterans, succession planning has proven to be the centre from which sustained, long term success revolves.