Ashes to Ashes
Oliver Lamb discusses what went wrong for England in the latest Ashes
“They’ve been pretty poor in their thinking, planning, selection… Everybody has to have a good look at themselves – the players, who haven’t performed… the selectors… we’ve been poor. Really, really poor!”
That was the verdict of Geoffrey Boycott, English cricket’s elder statesman. Though it seems hard to believe now, England began the latest Ashes series with ‘realistic’ hopes of competing in Australia for the first time in eleven years. Perhaps that was always delusional. After all, they had lost six of their last nine Test matches and had been outplayed in two draws. The batting utterly depended on Joe Root.
Even so, the manner of their surrender was shocking. Whatever the precise definition of a batting collapse is, England had at least one per match, each more dismal and yet more predictable than the last. While Australia thrice passed 400, England never reached 300; they made between 100 and 200 five times, and in Melbourne were bowled out for 68. The result: 4-0, one wicket away from a whitewash, and frankly that would have flattered them.
There is some mitigation. Injuries ruled out Jofra Archer and Olly Stone, two of the three out-and-out fast bowlers around whom England had built their bowling strategy. The heroic efforts of Mark Wood left them to wonder what might have been.
Rain wiped out all but two-and-a-half days of their warm-up matches, leaving batsmen and bowlers alike undercooked and unacclimatised to Australian conditions.
And there was Covid. Prior to the Ashes, many of England’s players had already spent two summers and a winter in mentally draining biosecure bubbles. Australia had played just four Tests during the pandemic.
But a performance so abject cannot be blamed on misfortune. It cannot even be blamed on the players – not entirely. Plenty of fingers have been pointed at the County Championship, England’s domestic first-class competition, which in recent years has resembled a different sport from Test cricket. Research conducted after the 2019 season found that 19% of balls bowled by fast bowlers in county cricket exceed 83mph, compared to 61% in Tests. Spin bowling accounts for 19% of county overs, compared to 40% in Tests.
Much of the blame for this has been pinned on the banishment of the County Championship from the summer months. Damp weather in April, May and September results in grassy pitches that favour medium-pace seam bowlers. This is exacerbated by counties’ desire to produce bowler-friendly pitches that guarantee results. High pace and spin – essential on the generally flatter pitches used for Tests – are redundant. Thus bowlers of the type that succeeds at international level are produced by accident, not by design. And new Test batsmen are unprepared for the kind of bowling they will face.
But the County Championship does not merely fail to ready players for Test cricket, it actively hinders them. Many of England’s young batsmen have been criticised for unorthodox techniques. Yet they are techniques designed to counter county-style bowling.
Paul Farbrace, a former England assistant coach, believes that English coaches have been “lazy” in “wanting to be the batsman’s friend” rather than instilling good technique.
England Lions, the second-string team, is meant to bridge the gap for prospective Test players. But they have played just ten first-class matches since 2018. India A have played 24 in that time; India are the top-ranked Test team in the world.
This does not mean the England Test team itself can avoid blame. Eight Tests into their respective careers, Ollie Pope and Zak Crawley had scored a hundred and three fifties each, while the much-maligned Dom Sibley – he of the ugly technique and glacial scoring rate – had made two hundreds and a fifty. Sibley has since been dropped, and Pope and Crawley are in and out of the team. If the County Championship is so inadequate a breeding ground, why did these players’ success come early in their careers? What is it about the coaching and general culture in the England set-up that has caused them to regress so severely?
Head coach Chris Silverwood acknowledges that he may have been ‘too soft’ on the players. Reports suggest that he has lost the confidence of the dressing room thanks to poor communication and a failure to meaningfully help struggling players, to the point that one batsman considered turning to his county coach halfway round the world. Fitness standards declined during the Ashes tour, and there was a culture of excessive drinking. Amid the disintegrating campaign, disharmony brewed.
There were errors of tactics and selection. Batting first in the first Test and leaving out Stuart Broad was a mistake, as was omitting Mark Wood and Jack Leach from the second Test. Instructing Ben Stokes to bowl a barrage of short balls achieved nothing but a side strain. Root’s on-field captaincy was, in the view of many commentators, too defensive and passive, repeatedly allowing Australia to get away when put under pressure. Hindsight brings clarity, of course, but plenty criticised these decisions in real time.
Then there is the fielding. Catches were dropped and run-outs missed; no-balls denied England three wickets. None of this was the main reason for England’s defeat, but fixing it could have made the series a lot more competitive.
Root wants to remain as captain, is supported to do so by his teammates, and has no viable successor. But Silverwood will surely lose his job. Tom Harrison, the England and Wales Cricket Board’s CEO, is likely to leave this year once he has collected his share of the £2.1 million bonus awarded to ECB executives by themselves. The future of Ashley Giles, the director of men’s cricket, is uncertain. There is already no permanent chairman.
Whoever ends up filling these positions might, having surveyed the wreckage of the English first-class game, be tempted to despair at the enormity of their task. It was hard enough fitting everything into this article – in fact, not everything did make it.
But things can change more quickly than you think – and no cricketing nation knows that better than England. The Boycott quote that opened this article isn’t talking about the Ashes, but about England’s group-stage exit from the 2015 World Cup. After that humiliation, a new, attacking philosophy was instilled in the one-day teams, and facilitated by flatter pitches. Players were picked and consistently backed to perform clearly-defined roles. English cricketers were encouraged to develop their skills in overseas tournaments. In 2019, England won the World Cup.
A similar transformation can reverse the Test team’s ailing fortunes. In the short term, a new coaching staff and some fresh players. In the long term, finding room in the summer schedule for the County Championship, encouraging or insisting upon flatter pitches, strengthening the Lions programme. Radical proposals include replacing or supplementing the 18-team County Championship with a more compact competition, so that the best play with and against the best.
Root, Silverwood, Harrison and Giles have all already called for structural changes. English cricket has done it before. Now it must find the vision and will to do it again.