How is everyone doing? The lockdown is beginning to take its toll here – home schooling the kids isn’t much fun – but at least the cricketing hiatus gives us time to take stock. England’s Test series victory in South Africa was definitely a step in the right direction and there are finally grounds for (guarded) optimism. Having said that, the team clearly needs to improve if we’re going to compete down under in 2021/22.

Although the next Ashes series is obviously still a long way away, I started thinking about it after watching The Test on TV yesterday. It’s the documentary that chronicles Australia’s recovery from the ball tampering scandal in 2018. It culminates with Justin Langer’s troops retaining the Ashes last year. This makes it painful but required viewing.

The two episodes spanning the Ashes were really interesting. Although they’re carefully edited, and obviously present a somewhat biased perspective, you do get a feel for what it was like inside the Aussie dressing room at key moments of the series. The time when Steve Smith was hit on the head by Jofra Archer at Lord’s was particularly gripping. The tension was palpable. Some of the Australians were convinced that he’d been hit in the same place as poor Phil Hughes and feared the worst. The tailenders waiting to bat (which included Nathan Lyon) were absolutely terrified.

The series was also a great insight into the personalities of the Australian players. It seems they’re human after all (wink, wink). In fact, I found them all quite likeable. Marnus Labuschagne in particular is a real character, and my respect for Tim Paine (who admits his mistakes quite candidly), has definitely gone up. It was also quite amusing to hear Steve Smith somewhat sarcastically singing along to Jerusalem before the start of play. I have some sympathy for the Aussies here. I hate it when they play Jerusalem. It’s just contrived patriotism in my (admittedly jaundiced) view.

The most enjoyable moment from an English perspective was obviously when we won at Headingley. The cameras tracked Justin Langer and Smith throughout the run chase – every opportunity missed, every captaincy error, every umpiring mistake, and ultimately the moment when Stokes hit the winning boundary. Langer turned around in disgust, kicked a bin in anger, and then immediately started tidying up every individual piece of rubbish as a form of distraction or therapy. The others just swore and sat there somberly.

The scenes in the Aussie dressing room afterwards were captivating. Several players were close to tears and you could hear a pin drop. Sometimes I think us supporters forget how much professional players are invested in what happens on the field. It’s really is their life work. It means everything to them. It was also interesting to witness all the swearing and bat throwing whenever a batsman was dismissed. I’m sure it’s the same in the England dressing room after our guys have played a poor shot.

I’d love to know whether the England players have watched The Test. Joe Root has said that – despite resisting initial temptation to watch it – the docuseries has “been a good motivator to get back and train” during a time when cricket and sport, in general, is absent. These are all the right noises for the skipper to be making. It won’t have escaped his attention that the Aussies clearly think they’ve got the wood over this particular England side. Their plan was (and I assume it will similar down under) to stifle the English batting, bowl the right lengths, and then wait for us to implode.

This is a pretty good methodology against the cricketers England currently possess. Indeed, it was only Ben Stokes and his Headingley heroics which saved England from losing the series 3-1. Although the additional of Dom Sibley gives England’s top order a more traditional and patient flavour, we still have plenty of batsmen who like to get on with it. Overcoming Australia’s strategy, and wrestling that urn back, will therefore be extremely difficult.

Winning down under is a completely different challenge to beating South Africa (where we also won under Alastair Cook). We’ve won just one of our last 10 Tests away in Australia. What’s more, as The Test makes quite clear, the Aussies seem to be a pretty united and determined bunch under Justin Langer’s stewardship. I’m not sure this has always been the case, especially when Michael Clarke was captain.

© Ben Sutherland on Flickr

If England are to compete in 2021/22 then we’ll almost certainly need to start well. The Test showed just how vital it was for Australia win the first Test at Edgbaston last summer. It gave them an enormous boost – “they call this place a fortress?”. I sense that was the moment that they really believed they could retain the Ashes. England will need a similar performance at Bisbane – that traditional fortress of Australian cricket – if we’re to compete. There’s just one problem: Joe Root’s team are terrible starters. We even needed to come from behind to beat a poor South African team.

Starting badly is a bad habit we simply must kick. Playing catch-up is incredibly difficult in Australia and, according to the latest cricket betting on the series, we’re massive underdogs at this stage. The only glimmer of hope is that the Aussies were also favourites in 2010-11. They key moment in that series? I think it was when Cook and Trott secured a draw at Brisbane with that legendary partnership. I suspect we’ll need something special from someone (anyone!) again if we’re to escape from the first Test unscathed.

The other good news is that The Test reminded me just how reliant the Australians are on Steve Smith. Without him they wouldn’t have had a prayer. He rescued them time and again – including in that key game at Edgbaston. Although plenty have tried and failed to find ways to dismiss him – any ideas folks? – relying on one player so much can’t be good for any cricket team. Although one would expect David Warner to score more runs on home soil against the Kookaburra ball, and Labuschagne is obviously a good player too, Smith is quite clearly the key man.

If Joe Root can somehow find a way to score as many runs as Smudge, and perhaps enjoy a career defining series, then who knows what might be possible. The fitness of Jofra Archer and Mark Wood will also be vital. I want us to fight fire with fire next winter because I hate watching England getting bullied in Australia. With Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad getting older we might well have to put our faith in pace anyway. There might even be a role for Olly Stone and Henry Brookes.

Although looking this far ahead isn’t always practical – so much can change in 18 months – there remains something box office about The Ashes. Watching The Test brought home just how much I love the highest from of the game. If you haven’t already seen the series then I recommend that you do so. It’s not perfect – there’s plenty of Nathan Lyon adoration even though “the best off spinner ever” was out-bowled by Jack Leach in the series – but it’s still a valuable insight into the inner workings of an international dressing room and the personality of Australia’s players.

Next up I’ll be watching The Edge. But only after the home schooling is done. Sigh.

James Morgan