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Comment

Chris Silverwood's position as England head coach untenable after Ashes drubbing

Not one of the young players in whom so much time and money has been invested has thrived under Silverwood's watch

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
29-Dec-2021
Chris Silverwood's side has lost nine of their last 12 Tests  •  ICC via Getty

Chris Silverwood's side has lost nine of their last 12 Tests  •  ICC via Getty

It was a comment that stuck in the craw. "I think there are positives coming out of this," Chris Silverwood said in an interview to BT Sport, after his England side lost by an innings and 14 runs at the MCG to give Australia an unassailable 3-0 lead in the Ashes. "I've got to give our boys credit for the way they pushed back yesterday."
If Silverwood's intentions were sound - defending his bowlers' efforts after they had come in for heavy criticism after the Adelaide Test - then his response still betrayed a coach whose outlook seems increasingly out of touch with reality. His side has lost nine of their last 12 Tests, including six consecutive thrashings away from home: this was the time for honesty and introspection, not empty cliché.
Those results mean Silverwood should be well-versed in fronting up after a defeat but his words have suggested otherwise. He has referred to a batting line-up containing "youngsters that are learning on the job constantly", when five of the top seven in all three Tests have been aged 30-plus. He has described the dressing-room debrief after the thrashing in Adelaide as "a good, honest chat" and evidence that the players respond to him, despite the manner of the defeat. Most bizarrely, he insisted that England know what their best XI is, despite the very notion being outdated in this squad-based era of Test cricket.
But Silverwood has a history of making a rod for his own back. He has stressed the importance of preparing his side for this series ever since his appointment 26 months ago to the extent that everything had been geared towards it: why focus on winning the series at hand or making qualification for the World Test Championship final a priority when you can talk in vagaries about long-term Ashes preparation?
The nadir came at the start of the English summer. "Playing the top two teams in the world, in New Zealand and India, is perfect preparation for us as we continue to improve and progress towards an Ashes series in Australia at the back end of the year," Silverwood was quoted as saying in a press release before his side went on to win one out of six Tests across their home season. Under his predecessor, Trevor Bayliss, England were dominant at home but struggled away; under Silverwood, England sacrificed their stellar home record to prepare for the Ashes, but results overseas have been just as bad.
When Silverwood was unveiled as England coach, he had said his "job number one" was to improve the Test side so that they could "make a real impact" in Australia in 2021-22. Perhaps circumstances and a creaking system have let him down but he has clearly failed to achieve his primary goal
"Our gameplan is not rocket science - we need big first-innings runs," Silverwood wrote in his programme notes at the start of the India series in August, like a football manager revealing that his team's strategic masterplan was to try and score goals in the first half. In their seven Tests since then, England have been bowled out for 236 or under in the first innings four times and have made 400 only once. Silverwood highlighted old-school virtues of batting time but has been unable to implement that philosophy.
Their failure to do simple things well has been a damning reflection on Silverwood's training sessions: dropped catches, missed run-outs and wickets off no-balls have added to a wider sense that a focus on small details has caused England to lose sight of the basics. Jofra Archer's absence is a mitigating factor - but his excessive workload in Silverwood's first Test and beyond doubtless contributed to his injury.
Asked about England's response to Rory Burns' first-ball dismissal in Brisbane, Silverwood spoke about the management's wargaming and their attempts to think: "Okay, we expected this - let's move forward." Combined with his insistence that they picked the right team for the first two Tests in spite of all evidence, it has become clear that he lacks the humility to admit his own mistakes.
In a winning team, that might be framed as a positive, demonstrating strength in his own convictions. But it has jarred badly with an unassuming public persona and either an inability or an unwillingness to explain England's decision-making after defeats, and has been out of kilter with an understated defiance about his own future. "I do feel like I am capable of leading this team to winning things and that's what I'm going to stay focused on," he insisted after the MCG defeat.
The response to a third consecutive drubbing in an Ashes series in Australia has been to look for systemic issues within the English game, to blame the rotation policy which saw first-choice players rested in India, to criticise the domestic schedule and to focus on the prioritisation of white-ball cricket. Covid, too, has contributed to a meagre warm-up period, a brutal schedule and an intense team environment.
All have contributed to this defeat, but Silverwood must shoulder some of the blame. Right now, his position appears untenable. Not one of the young players in whom so much time and money has been invested has thrived under his watch - in fact, most appear to have regressed - and two years of planning has unravelled within 12 days of cricket. Clearly, the players he has worked with have been limited, but it is damning on the management team he leads that aside from Joe Root, the only batter to emerge from the first three Tests with any credit - Dawid Malan - is the one who has spent the least time training with the Test squad in the last two years.
Another defining feature of the Silverwood era has been his mistrust of spin, which has seen England go into seven out of his 27 Tests without a frontline spinner. Ironically, his primary qualification for the job was his Championship win with Essex in 2017 - a title underpinned by Simon Harmer, the outstanding spinner in county cricket, who took 72 wickets at 19.19. He clearly does not rate Jack Leach, who has not played a home Test under him, yet opted to throw him to the wolves on a green-top at the Gabba.
Not since Ray Illingworth has an England coach had as much power as Silverwood, after Ashley Giles, the ECB's managing director of men's cricket, opted to give him lead selectorial duties and dismiss Ed Smith earlier this year. Yet that power has manifested itself in theory alone: after the T20 World Cup, Silverwood admitted he would not even consider removing the out-of-form Eoin Morgan as captain: "He's got to make that decision himself… the longer he is there, the better," he said.
Giles' own position must also be in question after the decisions to promote Silverwood twice: first from bowling coach to head coach, beating Gary Kirsten to the job, and later from head coach to overarching supremo. "His head is on the block," he said when Smith was axed. "If we lose in Australia, the pressure will be on all of us. You might as well have a free run at it: it's your team."
Giles hoped Silverwood could be cricket's Gareth Southgate: a best-of-British choice who has used the knowledge and experience he gained in a junior role to galvanise a team that had lacked a clear identity. Instead, he has resembled Steve McClaren: hopelessly out of his depth after an overpromotion, as reflected by results.
The recruitment process appeared flawed, with reports highlighting the strength of Silverwood's presentation. Kirsten himself has revealed a disconnect between what he had been led to believe heading to his interview at Lord's in 2019 and the reality of the situation: "It was a very weird process," he said last year. "I think they wanted Chris to do the job but if I arrived and I was convincing enough they might have offered it to me; but I was thinking they were going to offer me the job."
The refusal to split the head coach's role in two was an obvious mistake, exacerbated by the pandemic further squeezing the international schedule. Silverwood has regularly missed white-ball series in order to take time off and contributes little to the limited-overs set-up; he was appointed due to his credentials as a red-ball coach after leading Essex to promotion and then the title, but had a losing record overall in the T20 Blast.
Kirsten is already indirectly on the ECB's payroll as Welsh Fire's head coach and has at least some knowledge of England's talent pool through his role in the Hundred. If his family commitments allow, he would be the standout candidate as a Test coach, with Paul Collingwood - already a regular and popular stand-in for Silverwood - well-placed for the white-ball job.
Graham Ford, who left his job as Ireland head coach after growing increasingly frustrated with their lack of facilities and fixtures, would be another strong candidate for the Test job, but many of the world's best coaches will justifiably have limited interest in spending hundreds of nights a year away on tour when they can earn just as much from two months at the IPL.
When Silverwood was unveiled as England coach in 2019, he had said that his "job number one" was to improve the Test side so that they could "make a real impact" in Australia in 2021-22. Perhaps circumstances and a creaking system have let him down but he has clearly failed to achieve his primary goal.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98