In December 2020, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) introduced the now-infamous ‘rest and rotation’ policy, a strategy that was initiated with the intention of keeping players physically and mentally fresh at a time when the sport demanded individuals to spend an immoderate amount of time inside strict bio-bubbles.
The end goal was simple: in a year where England were scheduled to play an unreasonable number of international matches, the ECB wanted all the key players to be fit and firing for the two marquee showdown events at the end of 2021, the T20 World Cup and Ashes. And thus to prevent individuals from getting burnt out, the board planned to ‘rest’ players all through the year to realize its objective.
What started off as a progressive move soon created furor and divided the public after the team’s Test results took a hit. It was eventually shelved just weeks into the commencement of the home summer, with even skipper Joe Root publicly stating that it was time for the rest and rotation policy ‘to be put behind’.
10 months on, we look back at how the policy collapsed and wonder if the failed strategy should serve as a lesson for not just the ECB, but boards across the world.
The Timeline of Events
England rest Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer for the tour of Sri Lanka
The ECB had given both Stokes and Archer a ‘mini-rest’ in the tour of South Africa by not naming them in the ODI squad (only T20Is), but for the first time the board fully implement the rest and rotation policy as the two players are allowed to spend time with their family back home.
Both Stokes and Archer had played non-stop cricket prior to the rest (IPL included), and the idea was to have them fit and fresh in time for the India series in two months’ time.
ECB rest Bairstow, Wood and Curran for first two India Tests, announce Buttler will be flying back home after first Test
The first controversial resting takes place as the ECB announce that Jonny Bairstow, renowned as one of the better players of spin in the English side, and someone who was asked to cancel his BBL stint so that he could play Tests in Sri Lanka, will not be playing the first two Tests against India.
He - along with Wood and Curran - is sent back home to England, while the board also confirm that Jos Buttler will not be playing the last three Tests.
“We’re resting in the best interests of the player and equally to get the best out of them long term,” England head coach Chris Silverwood says.
“What can you say? We’ve decided to rest and rotate, we’ve decided we need to look after the players and I do believe we have to be proactive in looking after them, rather than wait until there’s a problem.”
The decision does not go down too well with fans and ex English players.
"Should you be resting or rotating for India or do you turn up to the first Test of that India series, an iconic series, and pick your best side?,” asks Nasser Hussain, while Kevin Pietersen terms England’s decision to rest Bairstow ‘disrespectful’.
England send Moeen Ali back home after getting obliterated in the second Test in Chennai; confirm all ‘rested’ players will be available for T20Is and IPL
Moeen Ali plays his first match of the winter and takes 8 wickets in the second Test in Chennai, but the all-rounder is sent back home as a part of the rotation policy despite playing only one game. The move infuriates English fans and experts alike, but the ECB claim that the plan was ‘always’ to send Moeen back home following the second game.
The ECB are also chastised for prioritizing T20Is and ‘giving in to the BCCI’s demands’ after the board confirm that all the first team players will be featuring not just in the five-match T20I series, but also the IPL.
Rest and rotation policy comes under more fire after 3-1 series defeat
India wipe the floor with England in the final three Tests of the four-match series and emerge as 3-1 winners, and the result is used as a stick to beat the ECB and their rotation policy.
"England messed up with the rotation policy in India and must stop treating players in a namby-pamby way," writes Geoffery Boycott for The Telegraph, while adding that “I bet you will not see any of our players leaving the IPL because they miss their wife, girlfriend or kids."
Vaughan, meanwhile, suggests that Root, despite being the Test captain, is a powerless man in English cricket, claiming that the ECB wouldn’t dare rest key players during an important limited-overs series.
"It is very clear where the leadership power lies in English cricket. It is with Eoin Morgan and not Joe Root. I am pretty sure that Morgan went to the selectors and Ashley Giles and said he wanted his best team at all times this year in Twenty20, so he could build for the World Cup in India in October. He has his wish.”
The players continue to defend the policy, and say that playing in the T20Is and IPL will bode well for the team months ahead of the T20 World Cup. Morgan echoes the same sentiment and says that spending two months playing in India will be invaluable practice for his side in a T20WC year.
Archer ruled out of IPL, Silverwood confirms IPL-bound players will miss New Zealand Tests
Archer, who played in 3 of the 4 Tests and in all five T20Is, is ruled out of the IPL with an elbow injury.
Meanwhile, Silverwood also confirms that the players part of the IPL will not be considered for the two-Test series against New Zealand due to logistical complications.
More IPL vs Country debates emerge, and both the players and the ECB are criticized for being ‘okay’ with a franchise competition taking precedence over Test cricket.
IPL gets canceled but ECB stick with original plans
A Covid outbreak brings a premature end to IPL 2021, but the ECB stick with the original plan of resting players for the two-Test series against New Zealand.
The absence of Buttler, Bairstow, Woakes, Curran, Ali forces the Three Lions to field an inexperienced side against the Kiwis, and they pay the price for it as they end up losing a Test series at home for the first time in seven years.
The rested players, however, feature in the Vitality Blast, and a full strength team is named for the limited-overs series against Sri Lanka. This reinforces the belief that the board are prioritizing T20I cricket.
A full strength team is also then named for the limited-overs series against Pakistan, but a major Covid outbreak forces a change of plans for the ODIs.
But the ECB once again make it clear that T20Is remain their priority by immediately naming a full-strength squad for the twenty-over games against Pakistan.
Silverwood takes selection u-turn that ends up causing a cascading effect
The commencement of ‘The Hundred’ makes everyone believe that England will only pick Test regulars for the India Tests, letting the marquee white-ball stars feature in the experimental competition, but head coach and chief selector Silverwood springs surprises.
Captain of Welsh Fire, Bairstow, is called up to the Test side from game one, while captain of Birmingham Phoenix Moeen Ali is asked to join the Test squad from the second Test onwards. Dawid Malan, who last played a Test in 2018 and is an integral part of the T20I side, is also pulled from The Hundred and is drafted into the Test side.
This ends up having a cascading effect. Having spent large amounts of time in taxing environments, both Malan and Bairstow announce that they will be withdrawing from the second leg of IPL 2021 to be held in the UAE. The duo see the IPL as the only window to ‘rest’, knowing that they would also, in all likelihood, be picked for The Ashes that will follow the T20 World Cup.
Where England currently stand; what the aftermath means
With Jos Buttler also having pulled out from the second leg of IPL 2021 due to family reasons, the withdrawals of Malan and Bairstow will mean that three of England’s potential top four would not have played a single game in the UAE in the lead-up to the T20 World Cup.
Given Jason Roy, too, is expected to warm the bench for SRH, there is a good chance that the game against West Indies on October 23 might be the first match in the Middle-East for each of England’s Top 4.
It is ironic because such a scenario is precisely what the ‘rest and rotation’ policy aimed to avoid. England’s multi-format stars were rested from the India Tests in February/March so that they could play in the IPL and get used to conditions, but some haphazard planning has put England in jeopardy ahead of the T20 World Cup, with there now being a good chance of a majority of the side entering the tournament undercooked.
Having given precedence to T20 cricket all year, it is a scenario that Morgan would never have imagined.
The rest and rotation policy - a lesson for boards to never think too far ahead
Whilst undoubtedly a move that is super-progressive, England’s botch-up with the rest and rotation policy should serve as a lesson for boards across the world to never plan too far ahead. For there will always be intangibles and uncontrollables that will put plans off and demand flexibility.
The ECB thought they’d charted out a genius plan but fate ended up having other ideas. They could not have foreseen the long-term injury to Archer, nor could they have predicted Stokes to take a mental health break. Or for the pandemic to force a scheduling rejig. They believed that making ‘sacrifices’ along the way would result in a glorious pay-off, but seldom in sport are things so straightforward.
They could still have salvaged the situation had they stuck to their original plans by keeping white-ball specialists out of the Test side, but desperation forced them to finally give in. What it means that all the ‘resting’ they did eight months ago was, well, really for nothing: half the squad will be under-prepared heading into the T20WC, and a sizable chunk will be burnt out by the time The Ashes beckons.
The ECB thought they were being smart, but, as it turned out, they ended up outsmarting themselves. Sometimes in life it is just better to go with the flow; ECB have learnt this lesson the hard way.