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Comment

Are England enjoying themselves? Or has cricket turned into an obligation for them?

The horror start to the Ashes shows they might have lost sight of what's most important in the game

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
24-Dec-2021
Root: a man besieged  •  Cricket Australia/Getty Images

Root: a man besieged  •  Cricket Australia/Getty Images

It is that time of year, on repeat it seems, every four years. It is the time of Pommie-bashing down under, when England's shocking inability to cope becomes the Groundhog Day of its genre. This is agony from afar - oh, the darkness of the early morn! - and gut-wrenching up close. It's not just the drip of torture - we can steel ourselves for that - it's the overwhelming humiliation that gets you. Like English cricketers simply can't play.
Is the unilateral criticism fair? Or are the circumstances so extreme as to now provide a clear explanation? Obviously enough, the players have made basic mistakes. Equally, selection has been odd. The management of the team appears never to have been to Australia before, which of course they have been, all of them. The captain is the first to have a second crack at the Great Southern Land since Andrew Stoddart in the latter part of the century before last. Stoddart won the first time but failed to defend. Joe Root is on course for a double disappointment. Is the Ashes really the one event that defines an English or Australian career? No! But the Ashes can make the man - check Lord Botham, Andrew Flintoff and Ben Stokes, allrounders who have stopped the nation.
Let's pause for a moment and consider the circumstances within which the current England players have had to perform - this is Covid we're talking, and the bubble. Cricket is as much a game of the mind as it is a game of talent, application and of technique. Perhaps more so. It requires patience and concentration, a kind deal of the cards and a fair wind.
Cricket is the most artistic of all games. Batting is frequently difficult and frustrating but even the most prosaic of batters can give pleasure with a mighty stroke or an unlikely rearguard. It is a mainly instinctive skill and yet relies on method for its excellence. Nothing, not even ballet, could be more graceful than Babar Azam's off-side play or an on-drive by VVS Laxman. Batting pleases the eye because it is a thing of angles and dimensions.
Above all, batting is fragile. One minute you have it, the next it is gone. A single ball will undo hours, days, weeks of preparation. For sure, batting - cricket indeed - is not to be trusted. It is played out on the edge of nerves. It examines character, explores personality and exposes vulnerabilities. A man scores a hundred one day and nought the next. This is both wicked and unkind but also, it is tempting and exhilarating. Raise your bat once and you will ache to do so again.
For the moment, at least, England have mislaid the art of batting as a unit. This puts undue expectation on Root - and, presently, the feisty Dawid Malan - as well as on the bowlers, the leading practitioners of whom are aged by the standards of high performance. Though James Anderson played a stellar part in England's stunning 2010-11 triumph under Andrew Strauss and bowled with a huge heart four years ago, neither he nor Stuart Broad have always fired as effectively in Australia as they have done elsewhere. The answer, if you must, is to alternate between them.
The rest of the attack is in new territory: a territory that is harsh and unforgiving. Ask Jack Leach: thumped in Brisbane and binned. In contrast, Mark Wood appeared to revel in it but he was rested for Adelaide. Rested? For what? He came to play! Ollie Robinson has manfully rolled in, Angus Fraser-ish, but the ball doesn't move sideways much, and when it does, he needs it to do so a tad quicker. A yard on Robinson would feel like five to his opponent. Chris Woakes has so far failed to master Australian conditions with the ball, and he's had a few cracks at it.
Back to the batting, where the rot started. Both Root and Malan sniffed hundreds but lost the scent. No raising of the bat for them, while no one else has been close. Haseeb Hameed is rooted to the spot. A cutter of the ball denied his strongest suit by good bowlers, he looks like a fellow who went to the nets in desperate search of a front-foot drive, promptly eased a couple of long half-volleys through the covers and then watched in horror as he chipped the next one into the hands of mid-on. You couldn't make it up. Out there with him is Rory Burns, the gamest of cricketers but with a method too often exposed by the best users of the new ball. And so on. Ollie Pope is wretchedly low on confidence, while Stokes tries so hard to occupy the crease and defy the bastard enemy that he forgets how damn good he is. Free up Ben, unleash hell!
What of Jos Buttler, whose highs and lows are bewildering: a clanger one minute, a hanger the next; a boundary a ball, a block for 207 of them. There is no more thrilling talent out there but the inconsistency is a menace. Where has Jos gone, you think, and then he plays that Cook of an innings at Adelaide Oval: a knock, if you can call it that, in which he scored nine runs between lunch and tea. In Dubai, against the same opponent at the T20 World Cup, he scored close to nine every ball. Remarkable.
Which brings us back to the question of circumstance. How demanding is it to live for much of an 18-month period in a bubble that includes numerous periods of quarantine, and still give this trickster of a game your best shot? Martin Crowe called it traffic - can't play with, can play without.
There's a lot of traffic in quarantine and not much less in the bubble. The wife's on the phone morning and night, saying it's all very well for you out there in the sunshine but the kids are coughing and spluttering their way around Grandpa's Christmas tree and Grandma's a bit jumpy about you know what, all masked up and that, in her own gaff. And all the while, you're tripping the light anything-but-fantastic from hotel room to coach to ground and back again, wondering whether the next game will even go ahead. Not easy and probably not much fun either. Think Miller and Compton, Lillee and Botham, Gough and Warne living in the bubble, never mind the quarantine. Hardly, where's the fun in that? Sure, the guys today earn big bucks but money can't clear the mind.
So it doesn't really matter whether cricket is artistic, it just matters that you get the job done and make it home safe and sound. Right now, for the England players, there is nothing especially beautiful about it either: there never is when you're losing by a distance. Beauty, pah!
England were woefully underprepared. Bubble or no bubble, Root and the lads not in Dubai could have been in Australia a fortnight earlier, thus making time for full-on first-class matches against the states or an Australia A team. Ashley Giles, the director of England cricket, should have insisted upon it, ensuring such matches were a pre-condition for the tour. Of the team for the Adelaide Test, only Malan, Buttler and Woakes were in the T20 group, along with Wood and Jonny Bairstow, both of whom should play on Boxing Day in Melbourne. That left a team of cricketers looking for a game. There were England Lions out there too, also eager.
Granted, this was more complicated than it appears because Queensland was in lockdown and therefore required of its visitors a period of quarantine. No matter, England could have played one game in Adelaide against South Australia (with a pink ball) and then nipped up to the Sunshine State for a bit of quarantine and a game against Queensland.
Year upon year, touring teams come to Australia and get kicked about at the Gabba, as much because they are not ready for its stern test as because the Australians are so good on a ground that most plays to their strengths. Yes, India beat them there at the start of this year but it was the fourth Test, and by then the Indians were flying up the eastern seaboard on something of a magic carpet.
The ball, the pitch, the light, the heat and humidity, the intensity - oh, man: the newspapers, the talkback radio, the TV reporters, the commentators, the spectators who know if you're any good, the bloke in the street who thinks he does; the beer, the wine, the surf - live it, love it, play great because of it. This is Australia, mate.
It is one thing to be less good than the Aussies but quite another to turn up late and fail to give yourself the best chance. In 1986-87 Mike Gatting's team made a right mess of two of the three state games that preceded the first Test. "Can't bat, can't bowl, can't field" was the famous headline on a piece filed by the Independent's unflinching cricket correspondent Martin Johnson. Then Allan Border sent England in to bat, and Bill Athey fought for his wicket like a man instructed solely to protect the trenches, before Botham charged out of them to slaughter a withered attack. If ever one innings changed the preconception of a cricket series, that was it: 138 he made, helmetless and gung-ho. (Hadn't that happened somewhere before?)
In 2010-11, Strauss' team made relatively light work of the state teams but found themselves drowning in a sea of Australian optimism after such moments as Strauss himself - having chosen to take first use of the pitch - slapping the third ball of the match into the hands of gully and Peter Siddle roaring in to take a hat-trick.
But, like Gatt's buccaneering band, Strauss' disciplined players were by then embedded in the local culture, both on the field and off it, and duly battled the odds for two long days to save the game. No way that was possible if they had only just arrived. This isn't only England. Every team that comes to the Gabba undercooked gets eaten alive. Raw meat is all about the blood. The Australians haven't lost a first Test there since Gatting and Botham. It is a fortress, and so, just quietly, is Adelaide and the pink ball day-nighter: yes, they are unbeaten at that little party as well.
In short, you can practise among yourselves all day long, but it's not the real thing. Giles and Chris Silverwood, between them director, coach and national selector of England cricket, surely take responsibility for the threadbare schedule. Add in Root when it comes to selection, plus the nod of a couple of senior players - though Broad doesn't seem to be one, given his inexplicable omission from the first Test - and you've got the gamut of those running the show day to day.
It is fair to be critical, though I'd go easy on the decision to bat first in Brisbane. That was a dog of a toss to win because every piece of data on the ground points to the advantage of batting first, and the data has it. What's more, Pat Cummins would have batted first too.
As the rain fell in the days leading up to the game, Root will have scratched his head during numerous mid-pitch conversation about that 22 yards of Queensland turf and resolved to not do as Nasser Hussain, Len Hutton and others from other lands had done before him. He knew the pain of bowling first at the Gabba - probably has images of Phil DeFreitas and Steve Harmison writ large in the memory bank. And yet, the grass on the thing, usually so straw brown, kept springing up from beneath the covers with a damp feel and green tinge. As the coin hung in air, Root doubtless thought, "Oh god, it's a bowl-first pitch for a bat-first match. We have to look this bull in the eye and show him we mean business, but what exactly does that business look like this morning…" Pause. "We'll bat." Nice, thinks Cummins. Root got it wrong. Even Mark Taylor, that old hawk of the bat-first message, said he would have bowled. Blimey - if only Root knew that.
Then, no Broad or Anderson but instead, Woakes and Leach. Was Anderson really injured or was he being saved for Adelaide, where, the assumption was, the pink ball would swing as it did four years ago? Assumptions, huh. Was Broad so badly out of nick? He had David Warner in his pocket, for goodness' sake, and more generally, loves a left-hander, of which Australian have a few. First match of the Ashes, the Gabba: you go with your best team, don't you, and let the devil…
Then Burns missed a half-volley, first ball of the match, falling across his stumps like an off-balance Gold Coast surfer. Then England were three down, then six. Oh, the inglorious nature of a collapse. You can't win a Test match on the first morning (though it's a daft cliché, because Australia did) but you can sure lose one. On the subject of the toss, it is in that mantra that reasonable criticism of Root's decision can be found, simply for the fact that his ill-prepared team needed some time to bed in. Imagine the Australian dressing room, delighted that England were choosing the options that most played into their hands.
We could tear strips off the Adelaide Test performance too - no Leach or Dom Bess, really? - but does it help? And that was a grim toss to lose. The fact is that, again, England weren't ready. Had Adelaide been a four-day first-class match against South Australia, the players could have shrugged it off in the name of the learning curve.
Let's go back to India in February. Rather brilliantly England won the first Test, in Chennai, whereupon the in-form Buttler went home for a predetermined rest. Bairstow wasn't even there - he was home too, having a kip perhaps. Ben Foakes played in the second Test, along with Dom Sibley, Dan Lawrence, Moeen Ali (who went home soon after) and Olly Stone. (Burns, Root, Stokes, Pope, Broad, Leach made up the team.) England were beaten, and then beaten again and again, by heavy margins.
Rest through rotation to compensate for bubble life has done little good for performance. Winning away had never been straightforward but in the current environment has turned hellishly difficult. The thinking behind rotation is flawed. The tough question is the one that asks whether the England players are enjoying themselves. On any level, can they find a sense of adventure and fun in a land that has long offered the most exciting tour of all? Or has the year of living limited and lonely turned the greatest game into an obligation? Are the players comfortable with their thoughts or weary with regulation and instruction? Initially, some were undecided about going: what space do they occupy now?
The art of cricket is a beautiful journey and should become a beautiful result. This beauty holds its place in our heart even at a time when all roads point to change. It is why there is an immense responsibility as we frantically modernise a game that has its roots in the past. After all, it is the roots that define it. Right now, one imagines such thoughts are far from the minds of the beleaguered English cricketers. Perhaps, Boxing Day at the Melbourne Cricket Ground will remind them of the glory of the game and, thus, bring excitement and inspiration. England are quite good enough to beat Australia but first the traffic must clear and the collective mind become committed.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator