Collingwood: England players 'deserve medals, not criticism' after getting through Ashes series
Assistant coach fears damaging long-term effects of Covid bubbles on players
Paul Collingwood believes that the Ashes were "one step too far" and that he is genuinely concerned about the long-term implications on the mental health of players that Covid bubbles are causing.
Speaking in Barbados, where he is standing in for Chris Silverwood as head coach during England's T20I series against West Indies, and on the island where he became England's first ever World Cup-winning captain, Collingwood spoke explicitly on the realities of life in the bubble, and fears that the long-term impact of the pandemic on cricketers may be severely damaging.
"I don't think people have understood the impact and the effects that these bubbles have had," Collingwood said. "Going to the Ashes off the back of a tough bubble in Dubai, I think was literally one step too far.
"You can't even explain what it's like until you experience it. The simple fact is you cannot walk out of your front door and as soon as you're told that you cannot do something as simple as going for a coffee, and you are penned in with the same guys. A lot of people will say 'that must be fun' and 'you've got a lovely hotel' [but] it hits you.
"Take someone like Chris Woakes, the most loveable and down-to-earth guy. I have seen him in some serious mental states. We have seen Ben Stokes, someone we consider to be the most mentally tough cricketer in the world, being hit by this. I just hope there are no ramifications moving forward because when they come, they won't be obvious next week or the week after. These are things that might come out down the line. That's what scares me."
The England players underwent strict quarantine on the Gold Coast, and managed only two full days of match practice going into the first Test in Brisbane. Rory Burns' golden duck set the tone for a dismal series as England were bowled out for 147 on the first day and went on to lose 4-0, hanging on for a draw in Sydney while nine wickets down.
Despite England's hammering, Collingwood stressed that England were facing an impossible task. "I reckon if you had given us the best England cricketers in the Ashes from the last 100 years and put them in the same environment that those boys have lived in over the past two years with the preparation that we had going into this Ashes even they wouldn't have had a chance," he said.
Collingwood was part of the England squad that won the 2010-11 Ashes down under and understands precisely the physical and mental levels required to compete in Australia. He retired from international cricket after that winter and since then, England have failed to win a Test match in Australia, across 15 attempts.
Collingwood was part of a group alongside Silverwood, Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow, Dawid Malan, Woakes and Mark Wood that spent six weeks in a bubble in the UAE, before flying to Australia for their quarantine period on the Gold Coast and insisted that the lack of meaningful preparation only compounded the situation.
And while he admitted that England made mistakes at the toss and in selection, he said that players should be praised for the efforts they had made in getting through the series in a strict environment, suggesting that Cricket Australia should have agreed to a compromise rather than packing five Tests into a short window during the pandemic.
"You are burnt out from the start after your team has been in the intense environment of a World Cup," he said. "It wasn't club cricket that these players were coming from. Then there's just two days of preparation before going into the Ashes. Australia is the hardest place to go to when you've got your best team in form and everyone's playing consistently. We've seen that from the past.
"Yes, we made mistakes, 100%. We made selection mistakes, we made toss mistakes, but the fact we actually turned up and agreed to a five-match Ashes series, the guys should be given medals for that. It would've been much better if we'd done two matches and then three next year. That would've been a great compromise.
"But no, Australia were not bothered that they were going to receive an England team who were mentally fatigued, they just wanted to get the product out there. They just wanted the Ashes. These guys deserve medals, not criticism. They should be told 'well done' for even going. It's the equivalent of the England football team being asked to go to a World Cup, then from that bubble into the Euros. Would you expect a performance from that scenario? It's ludicrous."
Ahead of another hectic schedule for England in 2022, which includes tours to West Indies, Netherlands, Pakistan and Australia, as well as a jam-packed home summer and another T20 World Cup in October, Collingwood hopes that at least in England, they can operate without bubbles, but fears that the damage may already have been done - not just for England players but also for cricketers around the world.
"I almost think it is too late to get these messages across," he said. "These sorts of things should have been brought out in the middle of last summer. We saw the signs then when boys were fading, and it is not healthy for the game. This isn't just us. We have obviously played the most amount of cricket, but it will catch up with other teams as well."
Aadam Patel is a freelance sports reporter who has written for BBC Sport, the Daily Mail, ESPNcricinfo, the Cricketer and other publications @aadamp9