The cracks are showing
What are the criteria by which England teams wish to be judged these days? Throughout another year of drift and ambiguity, punctuated by three headline-grabbing losses (two on the field and one in the street) it became clear that no one was entirely clear.
At least, not at this precise moment of English cricket's regeneration they are not. As 2017 unfolded, two dates and two formats loomed large in the ECB's collective conscience, and neither had much to do with the here and now. Ashes, what Ashes?
The first was the fast-approaching 2019 World Cup - an event that is being regarded by the ECB as a once-in-a-lifetime panacea for a sport that has existed in the margins of the public conscience ever since the move from terrestrial TV in the mid-2000s.
Unusually, in the context of England's habitual disdain for one-day cricket (but very much in keeping with their post-2015 renaissance), the first six months of the 2017 English season were set aside to prepare for England's World Cup dress rehearsal - the ICC Champions Trophy, a tournament on home soil which they entered as favourites but exited with a whimper, after being stunningly outgunned by the eventual winners, Pakistan, in Cardiff.
England, it has to be said, had their moments in that tournament, and in white-ball cricket in general. Three impressive group-stage wins, including the elimination of Australia in a statement victory at Edgbaston, heightened anticipation of a maiden title in a global 50-over event. But then Hasan Ali's howling reverse swing torpedoed their hopes on an abrasive deck (another hint of the squad's vulnerability in non-"English" conditions, albeit one that went under-noticed at the time).
England attempted to mitigate that loss by claiming that the event had come too soon in the gestation period of England's new-look white-ball squad - and there may have been a grain of truth in that assessment. Nevertheless, for a semi-final exit to be considered a failure, after two decades of non-engagement with ICC events, was both an encouraging hint at England's raised expectation levels, and a chilling reminder that the best-laid plans and knockout tournaments rarely work in harmony.
It was probably unhelpful in the circumstances, therefore, that one month later, England's women cricketers seized their own transformative moment in front of a packed and enthralled full house at Lord's, delivering both the World Cup trophy in a sensational nine-run win over India, and the spin-off glory. They finished the year with a glut of Sports Personality of the Year publicity and New Year's Honours gongs, and have no doubt redoubled the ECB's eagerness to bet the farm on the men doing likewise.
The other date - and format - that dominated the agenda this year was 2020, as the groundwork for the ECB's new T20 tournament advanced significantly (if not decisively) with a historic and controversial reframing of the board's ancient articles of association. That was followed, in June, by a groundbreaking £1.1 billion rights deal, for 2020 to '24, in which the twin pursuits of reach and revenue were somehow persuaded not to be mutually exclusive.
That deal represented a rare level of personal fulfilment for the ECB's chief executive, Tom Harrison, who pulled off precisely the sort of coup for which he had been appointed back in 2015. And yet, such boardroom morsels won't be bringing back the Ashes in a hurry, nor will they address the structural flaws in English cricket that prompted yet another round of festive-season navel-gazing as the news from down under started to filter home through the winter nights.
As last year's 4-0 defeat in India segued gruesomely into the loss of the first three Tests in Australia, it became abundantly clear that England lack the bowling resources - pace and spin alike - to be competitive overseas. But it was also increasingly apparent that there is little will to change this status quo in a hurry.
The County Championship will continue to be pushed to the margins of the season to make way for more lucrative forms of the game at the height of the English summer, which means that while no England team has ever possessed a senior trio with more individual experience than Alastair Cook, James Anderson and Stuart Broad, the chances of replacing those men with a new generation of Test superstars are receding by the season.
That's not to say that the Test team did not enjoy some significant moments of acclaim in 2017. Joe Root launched his Test captaincy with a laudable 3-1 series win over an ever-dangerous South Africa in July and August, before backing that up with victory over West Indies in the late summer. And in surging past the 500-wicket mark at the age of 35, Anderson in particular attained levels of threat and consistency to rival the very best form he has ever produced.
But the gulf between England's best Test performances and the rest was as extreme as the year's weather patterns. Even before they reached Australia, two crushing reality checks hinted at the struggles they would endure down under: the series-levelling flogging they received from South Africa on a flat deck at Trent Bridge, and West Indies' astonishing run-chase in the second Test, at Headingley, a performance that was made all the more incredible given that it followed an abject surrender in the inaugural pink-ball Test, at Edgbaston a week earlier.
That day-night Test, incidentally, was not deemed enough of a success for the ECB to be tempted into a repeat for the Ashes in 2019 - the underlying implication being that England are quite content with their formula for balm-application in home conditions. The sort of labels that India attracted in the early 2000s - tigers at home and pussycats abroad - can now be hung around England's necks instead. They have won 14 of their 18 home Test series since 2009, and have not lost the Ashes on home soil since 2001. However, their draw in last week's Boxing Day Test was the first time in nine Tests down under that they have emerged without defeat.
Coronations tend to be happy and glorious events, and Root's ascension to the Test captaincy was no exception. He had spent seven long months waiting in the wings, following Cook's resignation in the New Year and Eoin Morgan's marshalling of the one-day squad, but at Lord's in his first Test as England captain, Root led from the front to triumphant effect - trampling South Africa with 190 from 234 balls, en route to a 211-run win. His efforts were aided and abetted by a startling performance from Moeen Ali, who launched the series of his life by claiming ten wickets (and clobbering a rampant 87 from No. 8), to claim the title of England's leading allrounder from a certain Ben Stokes. By the end of the winter, alas, Moeen had handed that title back in spades - further proof that, sometimes, reputations can rocket in absentia.
The full details of what occurred outside Mbargo nightclub at 2.30am on the morning of September 25 will remain shrouded in innuendo until the findings of Avon and Somerset's police investigation are made public. But it would prove to be a disastrously self-inflicted wound, for Stokes himself and for the England team that was being built around his pugnacious on-field derring-do. Who knows how his presence in Australia would have reframed the Ashes narrative - but you suspect he may have wrestled the initiative at least once during the pivotal moments of England's defeats in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.
More pertinently, the incident shrouded the rest of England's year in paranoia and barely disguised desperation. The message from the very top was that England's players remain good role models (headbutts and beer-dunkings notwithstanding) and when Harrison implied that Stokes' rehabilitation would take place "on the field", it set in motion a second wave of frenzied speculation when he was spotted boarding a flight to New Zealand in a bid to ready himself for the recall that never came. His omission from the ODI squad for the campaigns in Australia and New Zealand extends a period of purgatory that threatens to define and destabilise the team well into 2018.
New kid on the block
Dawid Malan was just another name out of the hat when he was drafted into England's middle order towards the end of the South Africa series in July - a replacement for Gary Ballance (remember him?) On initial evidence, he was another less-than-convincing pick from a thin gruel of batting options, a further indictment of the current malaise in England's Test development. But Malan had shown mettle that impressed the England head coach, Trevor Bayliss - albeit in a one-off T20 appearance against the same opponents at Cardiff - and a pair of hard-fought 60s against West Indies were enough to earn him his air fare to Australia.
What followed was a brilliantly combative century in Perth, undoubtedly England's batting high point of the competitive end of the Ashes (sorry Alastair… ), in which Malan showcased a range of strokes and tempos that augured well for his long-term development in the side. At the start of the year, he had also been one of the few England cricketers willing to travel to Lahore to take part in the Pakistan Super League final - a trivial detail, perhaps, but maybe an indication of a player with hidden mental depths. Either way, in a year of slim Test pickings, his progress was encouraging.
Australia is no country for old men, which had many pundits secretly fearing for the future of Anderson as he embarked on his fourth Ashes tour. But while he has held his own with probing spells throughout the series, including a maiden five-wicket haul down under in Adelaide, it has been his new-ball partner Stuart Broad who has been under the greater long-term scrutiny. An improved showing in the drawn fourth Test assuaged the fears to a degree, but Broad's self-confessed struggles with his wrist position have robbed him of that enviable habit of getting "on a roll", which he had so famously done to seal each of England's last three Ashes wins on home soil. Allied to that was the state of his batting. Again that was mitigated by a battling fifty on a slow deck in Melbourne, but his ticker against quick bowling has never recovered from his nose-squashing against Varun Aaron in 2014, and you wonder how much that inability to front up has impacted on his inner mongrel. He was England's saving grace on the 2013-14 tour, but this time around, he has been symptomatic of their surrender at key moments.
What 2018 holds
In spite of the Ashes failure, it's hard to see much change to England's Test team in the immediate future. A lack of options will prevent too much tinkering, while Cook's Kraken-like awakening at the MCG will surely end any speculation that he's about to be put (or put himself) out to pasture.
The tour of New Zealand could yet offer a low-key opportunity for Stokes to ease himself back into the reckoning, but the wheels of justice continue to grind on that front. But if any campaign is going to focus England's minds in the short term, a five-Test home summer against India will surely do the job. Anderson, for one, will see their return to his backyard as a chance to have the final say in a grudge match that has defined much of the latter part of his career. On the one-day front, final preparations for the 2019 World Cup will dominate - Australia, India and the Champions Trophy winners Pakistan will provide suitably stiff opposition.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo @miller_cricket