The Ashes: what next for England?

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England have slumped to an embarrassing 4-0 defeat in the Men’s Ashes in Australia. The side are no stranger to Australian difficulties, with just one series win down under in my lifetime. But the manner of this defeat, surmised in that final capitulation at Hobart, has left English cricket preparing for an inquisition that feels like few others.

The statistics coming out of this series are downright depressing. England failed to make 300 in a single innings during the entire Test series, the first time they have failed to do so in 60 years.

By contrast, Australia made 400+ in three out of five of their first innings, made 300+ in the other, and won by an innings on the only occasion they failed to make 300. With the bat, England simply couldn’t compete.

Haseeb Hameed’s duck in the first innings at the MCG was the 50th of 2021. Another record. It is absolutely clear, this England side cannot bat. 

As is customary following a visit to Australia, heads will roll. Chris Silverwood, England’s head coach and selector, and Joe Root, captain, are understandably the two coming under most scrutiny.

It seems necessary for Chris Silverwood to move on. Irrespective of more structural issues in the game, Silverwood must go. The merging of the head coach and selector roles was nonsensical from the start, removing crucial outside opinions and placing too heavy a burden on one job.

England requires a new direction, fresh ideas, and a sterner tactical hand on the captain’s shoulder. For this to be achieved, Silverwood must go. 

Root, however, should not become a casualty of this tour. There is no doubt, Root has some failings as a captain; in the last 5 years there have been plenty of poor decisions with bowlers being misused, fields overly defensive, and at times the messaging has not been strong enough.

Take this tactical mediocrity, and consider that Root has now lost more Tests than any England captain (25), and it’s understandable why people such as Geoffrey Boycott believe it is time to move on.

But Root is also the captain with the most test wins (27), an extraordinary batter, and seems to have the full support of the side. The pressures of captaincy have shackled many England heroes before, even the great Cook was never truly the same. As such, it is important not to underestimate how extraordinary Root’s record-breaking period with the bat has been.

This side is being carried by Root

It is both an embarrassment to the side and a credit to Root’s remarkable prowess that by the end of February he had already scored more runs than any other England player would make across the entire year.

This side is being carried by Root, where many England captains have gone into their shell, Root is there standing tall, trying to lead his men on. England’s senior bowlers are too old for serious consideration, and amongst the rest it is only Stokes with similar levels of prominence, squad security, and strength of character.

But Stokes is a three-format allrounder, with the highest of burdens, a tricky injury record, and has just taken time out of the game to focus on his own mental wellbeing. Now is not the moment to consider Stokes as captain.

Perhaps most importantly, we are led to believe the players remain fully behind Root. Stokes has spoken publicly on this issue: “A captain is someone you want to go out and play for. Joe Root is someone I always want to play for.” Given stronger tactical instruction, Root should continue on his path to being a true England great. 

The selection policy, and the now-infamous bowler rotation strategy, must change. In the very effort to manage the three format schedule, England’s strategies have upset rhythm, stymied player growth, and baffled pundits and the public alike.

Consider the use of Broad this series, the perennial Buttler/Bairstow debates, the rotation of senior players in India, the intermittent flings with Ollie Pope, or the two-year faith in Sibley only to give up right before the very tour they designed him to play. 

All this planning was in the name of preparing for these Ashes. The New Zealand and India tours were treated as mere warmups. England set their sights so firmly into the distance of the Ashes that they lost direction of what was in front of them. England lost both of those series, in home conditions, to contribute to a record nine losses in a calendar year. 

England must find consistency and focus in their selection. They must emphasise technically sound batsmen and develop a resilient, battling, culture to better prepare the side for the sometimes gruelling needs of Test cricket.

This is not to be governed by the old orthodoxy, the selectors only have to look at the excruciatingly brilliant Australian duo of Smith and Labuschagne to see that the weird can work. 

But the stark reality is that there is a strong common denominator between those players that have struggled and those who can hold their heads up a fraction – a technically sound technique. Root is close to being as technically sound as they come and has been enthrallingly brilliant all year.

Malan and Bairstow also put in commendable efforts, with Malan’s technique particularly favouring Australian conditions. Amongst the rest, however, there are many techniques and temperaments that are simply not built to score 400+ runs on a regular basis.

Many put this down to the state of the wickets in the County Championship. With the swinging Dukes ball, the wickets prepped, and clouds rolling in for much of the English season, the Championship clearly plays to quick, low-scoring games.

Consider the success of Darren Stevens: aged 45 and bowling right-arm medium, he has taken over 500 wickets since his 35th birthday. This is no disrespect to the remarkable skill that this requires but the point is that the wicket at Steven’s native Canterbury is often a world away from the reality of most international Test pitches.

Cricket matters more than once every two years

As the England Captain emphasised, how are inexperienced batters supposed to prepare for the realities of Pat Cummins’ pace or a jagging Indian wicket when it turns for only half the season and pitches disincentivize that kind of pace.

Root was surprisingly cutting in saying that players who are reaching the Test level are “doing it in spite of county cricket, not because of it.”

Two who are truly standout in the Championship are being ignored nonetheless. Ben Foakes has been England’s best glovesman for quite some time. Given the difficulties Jos Buttler is enduring, and his superior glovework, even if Foakes does indifferently with the bat, the clarity and quality it would bring behind the stumps could potentially become infectious for England’s presently lamentable slip corden.

Second to Foakes should be Matt Parkinson. The legbreak is surely the country’s best out and out Red Ball spinner (Rashid has been limited to the White Ball in recent years).

The ECB must consider what producing better batting surfaces, flattening the seam on the ball, and either temperenting the Dukes or adopting the Kookaburra ball may do for the balance of the English game.

They must also identify a core group of players to focus on and develop. They must end this fetishisation of the Ashes and focus more squarely on the opposition at hand. The India and New Zealand series deserved more respect than they were given.

Cricket matters more than once every two years. The Ashes will always be number one, but the side needs to be humble enough to take each series as it comes.

Much has been said about England’s bowlers, here they’ve been paid little regard, but ultimately that’s not where the core problems lie.

It’s by no means perfect but at full strength Anderson, Broad, Wood, Robinson, Archer, Stokes, and Woakes represent a very strong unit. This is not to underestimate the challenges that moving on from Anderson and Broad will eventually produce but this utterly remarkable duo are still producing extraordinary performances for the time being.

The West Indies series starts on March 8th, England must go away, recuperate, and then reset. This must be the lowest point for them now, but the West Indies series will prove a series challenge. I pray it’s up from here.

Image: chelsea_steve

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