<
>

Are England ready for the Ashes?

Joe Root must find a way to make the crease his home again, not just a place he visits Getty Images

Imagine Mo Farah training for the 10,000 metres by running only 100s with Usain Bolt. Imagine Barcelona playing five-a-side pre-season matches in the build up to La Liga. Think of the All Blacks playing just sevens during the run-in to a World Cup.

In preparation for a Test match against Ireland and the five-match-long Ashes series that follows, most of England's players have been involved in nothing but one-day cricket since the start of May. Many of the skills required for the 50-over game are specific, and to play it with England's gusto requires a committed mindset. Joe Root has played two first-class matches this summer; that is two more than any of Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes have played. There you have it, two of England's front six or seven, depending on what the selectors decide come Thursday, have played the sum total of two first-class games since the third Test in the Caribbean that concluded on February 12.

There are, then, mitigating circumstances which help to explain the batting at Lord's. Tim Murtagh moved the ball around at a full length in the way that many a skilful county bowler has done in the past. In the first innings, there was precious little pace in the green pitch and hitting him off his length was nigh on impossible. Since hitting him off his length is the modern batsman's default position, England fell apart like a cheap suit. It is well documented that someone had to bat until lunch, in the manner of Boycott, Atherton or Cook in their pomp, but there aren't any of those and nor are there likely to be any time soon. If you don't believe me, have a look at the proposed schedule for the 2020 summer of county cricket. Championship matches are to be pushed to the front and back ends of the season; 50-over cricket, by the way, is to be scandalously marginalised by T20 and The Hundred.

ALSO READ: England to prioritise red-ball cricket after World Cup focus - Ashley Giles

The ECB talk well of Test cricket and the need to preserve it, but will not do so with such a schedule and with a marketing spend on everything but Test cricket. The evidence of this disregard can be clearly seen in the decline in standards of technique and application in English batting, a point further exaggerated by the ease with which Jack Leach, a No. 11, occupied the crease for so long against Ireland by simply playing straight, transferring his weight forward and back, watching the ball like a hawk and never trying to hit it too hard. Without reinventing the wheel, Leach made more runs in one innings than either England or Ireland made in the first and fourth innings of the match. Writing in The Times, Michael Atherton called it the worst standard of Test match batting he had seen in his 30 years of playing and watching. Ouch.

play
1:37

'Stokes the heartbeat of England' - Giles

Ashley Giles discussed the process behind reinstating Ben Stokes as Vice Captain ahead of the 2019 Ashes, and admitted that more must be done for Test cricket.

For all that, the Ireland match was badly conceived: so soon after one massive game and too soon before another. Though no one could have known that England would win the World Cup, we all knew the players were good enough to come close. Neither could we have known about the fallout - the post-victory syndrome that is playing on the minds of a number of the players - but we could have had an educated guess.

Winning a World Cup is the achievement of a lifetime: both the completion of a life's work and the fulfilment of a dream. The nerve-shredding, near-miss denouement that led to surely the most dramatic and emotional conclusion to any cricket match ever played brought joy at the time and confusion on reflection. Over the days and weeks that this sinks in, euphoric highs clash with numbing lows and those that played their part must try to make sense not just of their achievement - remember that after four years as the world's best, England did not actually win the match, a point of fact that niggles - but of the near certainty that nothing like any of it will ever happen to them again. In its way, this is a kind of post-traumatic disorder and the healing takes timeā€¦ which the players picked for Thursday don't have.

ALSO READ: 'If you'd said four years ago I'd be a World Cup winner now, I might not have believed you

The start of the Ashes is two sleeps away. If we English listen at the hotel room doors of the players let us hope for the sound of snoring. Frankly, if Root wins back that little Urn come mid-September, it will be an achievement to equal Eoin Morgan's on July 14.

Root's Achilles heel, the top of the batting order, is a problem written across his face each time he walks to the crease. Not the nature of it, more the burning desire to put it right. Against Ireland, his every step was exaggerated; his search for runs and innings momentum taken to the very edge of risk. More runs were scored behind square than is best for his game and fewer runs were scored down the ground than they can and should be. He busied himself by manipulating the ball into free zones and running hard between the wickets but the shots were taken from lines and lengths that did not justify the angles with which he worked. We have seen less of the face of his bat in his last three innings at Lord's than ever before. To sense the desperation in him, that desire for the natural order of things, is at once inspiring and alarming. He cares so much for the game, for its history and legacy, for his title, for his team and for the people who support that team and so want to see the Ashes returned. But such reference and responsibility is too much for any man. Root must find time for himself and for the calm, organised batting that sees the ball back past the bowler. The crease must become his home again - not a place for visits, however worthy. There is a space in which Root most flourishes, the one where he takes the game away from his opponent. His hundred against the Australians four years ago at Trent Bridge was made in that space, a startling innings of aggression and composure - attributes that only find harmony in the very best cricketers.

The question that most frequently confronts the England captain, other than the Achilles heel, is why he doesn't ease some of the pain by moving up a number himself. Root at three not only helps the uncertainty at the top of the order, it brings the best player with the most games to the wicket sooner rather than later, while at the same time creating a vacancy further down the list that can be filled by another of the splendid all-rounders hovering round a single spot in that middle-order.

The reason Root doesn't bat at three is that he doesn't want to, which strikes me as a damn good reason. It's not selfish, as suggested, it's common sense. The best player needs to be comfortable. The answer may lie in his friend and vice-captain, Stokes, who looks cut from the cloth of the job. Tell Stokes he is the next Jacques Kallis and though he won't now make the same mountain of runs, he will have similar influence. Stokes has the game and the temperament, and Stokes loves a challenge. The pieces fit.

ALSO READ: Winning back vice-captaincy was logical next step for Ben Stokes, Ashley Giles says

Finally, to Jofra Archer, who has not played a first-class game for ten months. He has it all - pace, bounce, rhythm, accuracy and surprise - but these gifts are to be found within a young body, unaccustomed to five-day cricket. A side-strain almost got the better of him during the World Cup and, in the form of delayed shock, the mental strain of bowling that Super Over surely lived with him for days after. He is a hard one to read - Barbados being the spiritual home of the laidback - and given that James Anderson has only just recovered from a serious calf strain, the question the selectors must be asking themselves is whether or not he is worth the gamble. I'd say not. Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes are straining at the leash, Sam Curran is nipping at heels. There is a nine-day gap between Edgbaston and Lord's, time enough to see how everyone pulls up and how Archer has responded to the physical impact and reflected glory of the World Cup.

For a long while now, the front three in the England cricket team have been the problem children; the middle-order, a collection of creatively minded students; and the back three a reliable, resilient and result-driven triumvirate of grown-ups. With hours to go until another Ashes, not much has changed.

It is a hard series to predict because the Australians have their own uncertainties and insecurities, the pitches are an unknown and the Duke ball is zipping around like nobody's business. As the England selectors make their final conclusions, they should take note of the mind games and establish which of the players is most ready for them. Blink in a series like this and you may well miss the moment that defines it.