So there was no miracle this time. Just inevitability. Our batsmen did their best but the mountain was insurmountable. Another team, with another batting line-up, might have saved the day. But our guys were ultimately undone by their own frailties. They showed tremendous fight, and made Australia work hard, but unfortunately they weren’t good enough.
Jason Roy’s innings yesterday summed it up really. He battled hard. One can’t fault his effort. But eventually technical flaws get exposed in test cricket. It was only a matter of time until a ball nipped back through his porous defence. The same might be said about his ODI opening partner Jonny Bairstow. He’s a talented player too. But he can’t defend well enough for long enough. There’s always a ball with his name on it.
The fact that Craig Overton and Jack Leach batted for so long showed what was possible on that pitch. Paul Collingwood might have batted for two days on it. But England aren’t particularly adept at batting time these days. They can’t defend like teams of old. Jos Buttler showed admirable resistance once again – he’s batted for longer than 100 balls on several occasions since his recall – but one always sensed that the defiance was impermanent. And so it proved. Australia’s bowlers are better than our batsman. And nothing can disguise this sorry fact.
Unfortunately England have been fighting a superior force in this series. Our squad is inadequate, largely because our county schedule doesn’t facilitate the development of quality red ball cricketers anymore. What’s more, we haven’t even been able to experiment with fresh players once Roy and Co were exposed because – you guessed it – the county schedule essentially prohibits it.
The debates on social email (and this blog) about team selection are all great fun. But they’re always glazed in futility. There’s little point parachuting in a Sibley, Crawley, or Northeast mid-series when all they’ve been playing for the last month are T20 slogfests. Our domestic schedule is a ham-fisted embarrassment. And it’s only going to get worse when Harrison’s Harebrained Have A Hit starts next summer. How on earth have the ECB allowed this shameful situation to arise? They really couldn’t organise a booze up in a brewery.
As Australia celebrated on the outfield at Old Trafford we should never forget who did this to us. The Ashes were sacrificed for the 50 over World Cup – a format the ECB have now bizarrely undermined at domestic level – so English cricket deserves this horrendous result. When the chickens came home to roost in Manchester yesterday we can hardly say their arrival was unexpected.
Many people will blame Ed Smith. I blame Ed Smith too. We said at the very start of his tenure that his test philosophy was completely wrong and would eventually lead to disaster. The problem with clever people is that they sometimes have absolutely no common sense. And this particular cap fits Big Ed rather nicely.
Smith was incredibly arrogant to assume that conventional wisdom – that test matches are generally won by specialists and that technique matters more than the ability to hit sixes in T20 tournaments – was flawed. He thought he knew better than everyone else who has played the game and watched it for even longer than him. He was a mistaken. He’s not a genius maverick. He’s just a common contrarian.
However, Ed Smith is a culprit not the culprit in all this. After all, who was it that appointed him? What’s more, Smith’s England have been hamstrung not only by the scheduling problems identified above (which have left the cupboard of quality red ball cricketers rather bare) but also by a series of cruel injuries. Losing Jimmy Anderson for the whole series was particularly sadistic. And then there was Mark Wood, who transformed England’s attack in the Caribbean earlier this year, and Olly Stone too.
Many people wanted England to play Australia on green tops this summer but I always doubted this strategy. It would’ve helped Cummins, who is brilliant on all surfaces, and the metronomic Hazlewood (not to mention the likes of Siddle and Pattinson who were taking championship wickets for fun during the World Cup) just as much as our bowlers. What’s more, it would’ve given our fragile batsmen even less of a chance to post competitive totals.
I would’ve preferred England to prepare flat wickets with a bit of pace, which might allow our white ball specialists to hit through the line and play attacking cricket, whilst peppering Australia’s batsmen with a pace attack that included the likes of Archer, Wood (with Stone in reserve) bowling in tandem. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be.
Whereas there was no weak link in Australia’s attack at Old Trafford, Root was unable to keep the pressure on once Broad and Archer became weary. Paine could chuck the ball to Starc and Lyon. England only had Craig Overton left standing. It was a similar story in previous tests too as Chris Woakes didn’t look one hundred percent fit either.
However, moaning about England’s misfortune does Australia a disservice. The Aussies have been comfortably the better team this summer. Had it not been for Ben Stokes’s brilliance, some poor umpiring, plus a Nathan Lyon’s inability to gather the ball and remove the bails at Headingley, they’d be 3-0 up heading to The Oval. England might have pulled one back at Lord’s (weather permitting) but Australia have been all over us for most for the series.
What’s more, Australia have triumphed without even picking their best side. It’s taken them until the 4th test to field their best attack, they curiously preferred Wade and Head to Khawaja at Old Trafford, David Warner can’t buy a run, and their captain is essentially a passenger. One could argue that the Aussies have beaten us ten men plus no contribution whatsoever from one of their two star batsmen. It’s a remarkable achievement really, especially when one considers that Nathan Lyon hasn’t been at his best either.
What worries me is that England don’t seem to realise how badly they’ve been beaten. Yesterday Joe Root was still talking up the positives, praising his side’s resilience, and emphasising what a great series it’s been. Earth calling Joe! We’ve played poor cricket all series and been thoroughly outclassed. Your team would be better served by admitting its glaring inadequacies and taking remedial action. You’re not pulling the wool over this long-suffering supporter’s eyes.
One wonders whether this is the end of the line for Root the captain. I personally wouldn’t cry for him if he stood down. I miss Root the world class batsman. Yes he’s been unlucky to receive a few jaffas in this series but he still doesn’t look like the confident free-scoring talent he was a couple of years back when Alastair Cook was the team’s lightening (iron) rod for criticism.
I’m afraid that Root neither looks like a natural leader nor an astute tactician. Burdening him with the captaincy does neither him nor the team any good. England should probably look elsewhere now. But who should step into the breach?
I’ve heard people suggest that Ben Stokes is the man but I’m wary of simply anointing the next best player. I’d look for a senior statesman with brains and brawn who’s form isn’t likely to suffer from the extra responsibility. The only player who currently ticks those boxes is Stuart Broad. It wouldn’t be a long-term appointment but I’m all out of other ideas. Possible alternatives like Jos Buttler and Rory Burns still have too much to prove at international level as players to be viable candidates as captain.
I’d be interested to know where you think England should go from here. It has been a strange summer. We won the World Cup – yes that’s true – and the excitement generated by a series of close finishes has reignited broader interest in the game. This is fantastic news.
However, without that flukey deflection off Ben Stokes’s bat on 14th July at Lord’s, this summer would have been an unmitigated disaster for the England cricket team. We would’ve sacrificed everything to win the World Cup, failed to achieve the board’s primary aspiration, and then meekly surrendered the Ashes to boot. What’s more, with the widespread (almost unanimous) discontent with The Hundred simmering in the background, cricket’s authorities have never been so at odds with its fanbase. This is terrible news.
We live in strange times my friends. The next couple of years could be very interesting indeed. And I doubt the England test team is going to improve one bit during this period. God help us in the 2021-22 Ashes. They’ve already got 0-5 written all over them.