I have a confession. Like most of us, I was suckered in by the various predictions and previews in the weeks before Brisbane.
Fatalism and optimism seem mutually inclusive for followers of the England cricket team. We know the circumstances are stacked against them these days, but still believe victory can somehow be pulled out of the fire. Why else was the English Cricket’s social media team pumping out the footage of Ben Stokes’ match-winning Headingley innings and Joe Root’s glut of 2021 runs on almost a daily basis in the lead up to this series
We all seemed to forget that Australia are superior in nearly every department, half the England team wereplaying T20 cricket for the past six weeks and (courtesy of an impromptu rainy season) none of the players had any meaningful match practice before that already infamous first ball at the Gabba.
And yet, I have woken up with precarious anticipation in the darkness of each December morning. Taking my phone off sleep mode and turning on the radio, I am reminded of how misplaced my expectations have been. Whether it’s the latest BBC Sport alert flashing up on my screen (WICKET: Australia v England (1st Test), Buttler, c Carey, b Hazelwood, 23, England 268-7), or a message coming through to our club’s WhatsApp group (“Can’t believe Root chose to bowl first, is he a moron?”)
The façade of hope came crashing down after the nine-wicket defeat at Brisbane and there is no sign of it being rebuilt in Adelaide. As we descend into what seems like another winter of long nights and batting collapses, it is clearer than ever that the England team have neither the structure nor the players to produce a competitive test match team.
The players are a product of the system overseen by the ECB, and the year leading up to this series has shown more than ever that the ECB’s house – if we are to call it that – is creaking on rotten foundations. How could we expect it to prepare a squad for Australian Ashes success?
If this series is as big as both teams, the media and even the Radio 1 breakfast show’s Greg James tell us, then why does it increasingly feel like there was no preparation and there is no plan? Remember, Root and Silverwood have repeatedly said they were building towards the Ashes since the start of 2020.
Shortly before these ‘preparations’ began, the story of thelast great England team’s meteoric rise and catastrophic fall from cricketing greatness was laid bare with the release film “The Edge”. One of the fatal hallmarks of that team was how it mismanaged so many of its players. The likes of Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott and Steve Finn openly spoke of their struggles and how were notsupported by England’s coaching staff.
This team is scarcely any better in how it manages its players. Test match cricket in the Covid era has its own challenges but the ECB has fallen far short of the mark.
After the second test in India in February earlier this year, Moeen Ali was due to return home, along with a number of other players, for a planned squad rotation of the England team bubble. Yet Joe Root told the media that Moeen had “chosen” to leave the squad. His Head Coach, Chris Silverwood, had hastily reconvene the media and clarify that it had always been the plan for Moeen to return to England after the second India test, but that it had been asked whether he wanted to stay on and play the third match, having spent the earlier Sri Lanka tour in Covid isolation. Fast forward to the summer, and the 33-year old all rounder was recalled mid-series, having not played a home test match since the first of the Ashes series in 2019 and against the back drop of skippering The Hundred’s Birmingham Phoenix. No wonder Mo called it a day in test cricket after another England batting collapse at the Oval in September.
The ever present but rarely bowled Jack Leach must also be wondering whether Silverwood or any of the England support staff have his back either. The Somerset spinner wrote revealingly in Wisden of life in the 2020 test match bubbles for the West Indies and Pakistan series. As a sufferer of Crohn’s Disease, none would have begrudged Leach’s absence during last summer, but he still donned the PPE and carried the drinks across the Rose Bowl outfield.
In return, he didn’t bowl a competitive test match ball the entire summer. After a successful winter tour, when he took 28 wickets in 6 tests against Sri Lanka and India, Leach was promptly dropped again for the test schedulethis summer. His next ball in test match cricket would beon a hot flat day 2 pitch at the Gabba last Thursday.
We do not know if Leach would have played against India in the cancelled fifth test at Old Trafford but it is simply not fair to ask a player who has not played an international match in ten months to then turn it square in unfavourable conditions. Far from coming to Leach’s aid, Silverwood has now dropped him for an Adelaide pitch that has always taken spin.
The likes of Leach are symptomatic of a mismanaged and underprepared team, but winning solves everything and the players are generally not good enough to cover up their managers’ failings.
We might still be deluding ourselves into staying up late into the night and waking up at the crack of dawn, but the ECB had already realised that this England test team will not be moving mountains down under or anytime soon. Why else has it stuffed the summer schedule with more limited overs cricket than your Christmas turkey?
An ever-burgeoning white ball domestic and international schedule will continue to erode the chances of test match quality players rising through the ranks. If we are truly honest – as the ECB probably have been with themselves– this has not happened since the emergence of Root and Stokes in 2013. The absent Jofra Archer has shown flashes of brilliance and Ollie Robinson looks like he will cut it at test level, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. Unlike us, the ECB seems to have given up on English test cricket for the time being.
The cupboard may not be completely bare in the seam bowling department – injuries haven’t helped – but this is still by all accounts a swansong Ashes tour for James Anderson and Stuart Broad. Who is to replace them when they are gone and, more pressingly, who are the runs going to come from?
From the very first ball, this tour may have irreparably exposed Rory Burns as a test match batsman. His opening partner, Haseeb Hameed, is only back in the side because of Dom Sibley’s decline. Dawid Malan is not a long-term option and the mercurial Jos Buttler has also, once again, reverted to the ghostly imitation of his one-day brilliance in test match whites, both behind and in front of the stumps. A video of his stricken face, cut to “the sounds of silence” after the simple drop of MarnusLabuschagne was hard to watch.
It is not their fault. Aside from the suggestion of Ben Foakes taking the wicket keeper’s gloves from Buttler, there is nobody any better.
Root seems a loan ranger in putting runs on the board for his team. Regardless of how the England Captain’sremaining two innings of 2021 pan out, he has been remarkable with the bat this year. If Ben Stokes can peel himself off the Adelaide outfield after being bowled into the ground, he might be able to offer some support, but do not expect an Australian equivalent of that Headingley clip to be appearing on the England Cricket’s Twitter feed anytime soon.
We should remind ourselves that Australia are better in all facets of the game, especially in their homeconditions. They should handily win at Adelaide and will have probably wrapped the series up by Melbourne or Sydney.
Fatalism and optimism go hand in hand. I will continue to turn the radio on and check my phone every morning. But this mismanaged team is simply not good enough and my expectations are now, rightly, as low as thechilling winter temperature.
1990s/early 2000s New Zealand says hello!
At least the example of those dark days for the BlackCaps offer some hope – it just takes a Captain to say enough is enough, and take the Coach(es) with him. I don’t think Root is that man, and you need to protect his run-making ability come hell or high water.
A lot is still a question of attitude. Forget about taking the positives out of our thrashing at the Gabba, just get plain angry, like Hussein used to when captain, which often saw us retaliate after a bad day, rather than a ‘must try harder’ message, like you used to get on school reports. I’d love to see Root spitting feathers at press interviews rather than hiding behind cliches. As you say if we had better on the subs bench it would give us an option, but we’re going to have to go with what we have, unless reality bites and Foakes gets a chance. How many more test failures can Buttler get away with. Players need a kick up the ass the raise their competitive angst, a cussedness not to give them anything, including Anderson and Broad, who just need to be more aggressive rather than bemoaning their luck. It’s clear Silverwood hasn’t the chops for the job. We need a top explayer in there who understands winning, not just trying to be competitive and relishes the pressure of against the odds and can communicate this to the team so defeat actually stimulates them.
Good article Mark which says many of the things that have been going through my mind for the past fortnight. You are quite correct that the ECB are the underlying cause of English cricket’s woes. They want the money that hit and giggle cricket generates at the expense of cricket for grown ups (no offense meant to T20 fans).
I suspect, in the absence of any other rational explanation, that Buttler’s continued selection is an attempt to attract white ball fans to the red (or pink) ball game. If so it hasn’t worked and is an experiment that is long overdue abandoning. Undoubtedly talented in short form stuff he doesn’t have the technique or the powers of concentration for test (or probably first class) cricket.
Don’t worry Tom Harrison will shortly be in front of a microphone to offer a full explanation, just like he did to the Select Committee
Look, no matter which way you look at it, we lose, to paraphrase Paul Simon.
The Selectors pick the best eleven in their opinion. The players themselves cannot be blamed for playing if repeatedly picked. Burns looks woefully, pitifully out of his depth in both field and at the crease. What does he do? Say ‘no thanks I’d rather not play today’? He would never play for England again.
We should take the captaincy off Joe. It is a poisoned chalice at History has shown time and again
Peter Drake teacher Hexham
I sympathise with calls for a change of captain…if only to protect Root’s batting. But who would take over? Who is either consistently worth a place in the side or consistently fit enough or not nearing retirement?
Woakes! (sorry, someone had to say it…..)
Brilliant article Mark, hard to disagree with anything in that, other than that I recall the WhatsApp message in question being a little fruitier ;)
Buttler’s batting average is now even closer to that of Foakes.
England can’t bat time and can’t catch in the slips, two skills not required in the white-ball game. That’s not a coincidence. Who could have predicted this might be the flaw in Simon Hughes’ great vision of cricket consisting of the Ashes and T20 and nothing else?
People say drop Root as captain. Fair enough in that aspects of his captaincy are awful (although those aspects pre-date his captaincy and seem more deeply embedded in this England culture than any one captain). However there is literally nobody else assured of playing every game. Anderson and Broad are too old; Burns, Woakes and Buttler hardly deserve their places; Stokes isn’t fit enough (and have we forgotten how making Botham and Flintoff captain worked out?).
The players should rebel against the coach? What happened to the last bloke who tried that?…
There should be an ECB inquiry? Like there wasn’t after 2013/14?….
There should be an inquiry into the ECB? Like there wasn’t after DOAG?…
Funny how there haven’t been any lovingly lingering reaction shots of an ECB suit – a Harrison, a Strauss or a Giles – in the crowd during either of the matches so far… unlike on certain other occasions.
At this point I’m more interested in why England’s over rate is so dire. They were so bad in Brisbane that the ICC penalised them quite heavily:
“England were originally handed a penalty of five World Test Championship (WTC) points – and fined 100% of their match fees – for maintaining a slow over rate in the first Test at the Gabba but the ICC on Friday announced the penalty would now be eight points in total.”
I know that bowling slowly is one tactic to try and frustrate the opponents, but this is getting ridiculous. Have we reached a point where the non-Test income for the English players is so lucrative that they can just dismiss their match fees?
I’ve seen some shambles in my 45 years watching England, but I’m pretty sure this is the worst.
A good article, Mark. I’m afraid I wasn’t suckered in. I couldn’t see that things were going to turn out much differently than they have as Australia are, man for man, better than us in pretty much every position and both the preparation for the tour, and some of the selection decisions, have been woeful. Sadly, I can’t see that this is going to change for as long as the hundred is the focus of the season and county red ball cricket remains a peripheral element of it. Success in any activity requires commitment from the top down, and we don’t have it.
Where do we start? The batting is probably the worst “offender”. It’s not just the Ashes. In 26 completed test innings this calendar year, England have failed to pass 200 10 times (and some of the others were close). That’s a 40% “batting collapse rate”, despite having the world’s best batsman of 2021. That is simply not a recipe for winning test matches. Unfortunately, it’s not just a matter of poor form, and a queue of replacements at the door. England batsmen don’t get any opportunity to practise red ball cricket domestically in conditions similar to those in which test cricket is played. Domestic red ball cricket is played in April, May and September, leaving July and August free for white ball cricket and “marquee” test series (which won’t stay marquee if England aren’t competitive). How the hell are you supposed to go into a test series with no relevant training or practice? Ever?
The bowling next. England seem to have decided to pick the best possible attack for Adelaide – at Brisbane. The Adelaide attack (5 very similar fast medium seamers on a slow track might work with a Dukes ball in England, but won’t with a Kookaburra in Australia) should never have been tried. Anywhere. The bowlers compound the problem by bowling too short: “bowling dry”. In other words, trying not to concede runs, at the expense of not creating wicket chances (England created just 4 chances in the first 64 overs in Adelaide). At that rate, England would need three and a half days to bowl the opposition out twice, if they took all their chances (7 days if they drop half of them as they did on that first day). Repeatedly beating the bat doesn’t necessarily mean you’re bowling well; you could simply be bowling too short. Again, of course, red ball seam bowling in April, May and September is very different (and much easier) than in high summer. And how do you develop a spinner without decent conditions?
Fielding (including keeping) should be the easiest to fix. England seem to drop far too many catches. Australia have barely dropped one. Burns seems to be a particular offender (and I suspect his confidence is low, so move him from slip), along with Buttler, who just isn’t a natural keeper (and his batting doesn’t justify his inclusion ahead of Foakes in tests).
To be fair, apart from batting, bowling, fielding, management, and governing structure, there isn’t that much wrong with English cricket.
I’ve seen some comments in various places about Stokes being oddly passive with the bat and want to offer some thoughts on this, especially because it’s the sort of play ill-served by highlights and not everyone is as daft as me to get up at 4am to watch this in its entirety. Of course it is only fair to say that Stokes is very short of match practice.
The vast majority of his dot balls have been against Nathan Lyon so it’s Stokes and off-spin that’s the issue here. Two factors are I think significant here:
1) Stokes has had trouble against off-spin before, against the very best off-spinners when there’s a little help for the bowler (which usually means away).
2) Stokes has clearly nor recovered from his knee injury sustained in the field in the First Test. I suspect he’s having trouble playing forward until thoroughly warmed up.
The strategy he’s ended up with has been playing almost everything very late off the back foot. This approach makes survival possible but run scoring difficult. It also means he’s so far back on his stumps LBW is likely if he misses as eventually happened in the second innings. The solution one would think is to nurdle some singles and rotate the strike more because currently he’s getting completely stuck. It’s not something he appears currently to be trying to do.
Before the series there was talk of him emulating Botham – well, I’m not sure Botham’s innings when he took 90 balls to make 6 at the SCG is what people had in mind! (To be fair to Botham on that day, he had an established batsman – Randall – at the other end and occupying the crease wore down both Australia and the pitch in extreme heat. It made sense as a match-winning strategy and England indeed won the match).
The situation with Chris Woakes reminds me a bit of the 1977 Australian tour when lower order batsman Kerry O’Keefe looked their second best batsman in the first two tests but his bowling (also heavily home dependent) wasn’t doing anything. They dropped him and picked the reserve keeper as a specialist batsman instead. It didn’t work – although I’m not saying promoting O’Keefe would have either. Incidentally looking at that tour Australia had all their practice matches at the start of the schedule and they got wrecked by poor early summer weather. There was a serious dearth of practice between tests. History says that Australia lost that series because they were split by Packer but poor scheduling, no Lillee and mistaken selection (leaving out Malone for bowlers less suited to English conditions) had more to do with it.
I also want to give Australia some credit. Their first choice attack is seriously good – both individually and as a unit. Starc had seemed in decline in the T20 WC but has stood up as senior bowler here. Their batting seemed the potential weakness but Warner’s sudden return to form later in the same event has made a huge difference and the big two middle order batsmen have done the job. Green looks an excellent bowler and fielder and if he can start making some runs is a massive find. Carey also looks promising although he was at fault for the Buttler miss today. It’s not the great side of the early noughties but this side is as good as the 2013/14 one.
If you’re looking at the Cricinfo fixture list for that tour, it’s missing about half the side games. As far as I can see, the touring side played 19 games outside the tests–one against each county plus MCC.and Minor Counties.
One of the positives of this Tour has been the emergence of Matt Prior as an analyst and commentor. He really has been excellent, providing just the sort of insight you want from someone doing that job.
There was a cartoon in yesterday’s paper that sums it up! It was MATT showing a picture of a SAGE meeting and a man was saying “We did some modelling on possible outcomes in the Teat cricket, The result was even worse than predicted”
Ho!Ho! Ho1 Merry Christmas to you all and may Boxing Day give us all a welcome surprise!