Joe Root has announced his resignation as England's Test captain, after five years in the role, in which time he has overseen more games, more wins and more defeats than any of his predecessors. But with England winning just one of their last 17 matches, and with no permanent appointments at the ECB to decide on his successor, his departure leaves the team in unprecedented chaos. Here is a rundown of the likeliest candidates to step into the breach.
In moments of indecision, England tend to revert back to their age-old habit of copying what Australia do. And with the very notable recent exception of Tim Paine, that has tended to revolve around picking the team first then giving the leadership to the best player therein. And so, assuming he is sound in mind and body after the travails of the winter, Ben Stokes is the most obvious man for the role, seeing as he is the only player other than Root himself who is guaranteed a game in the midst of this chaotic merry-go-round.
The case against his accession is manifold. The most surface-level concern right now is his fitness record. Stokes was put through the wringer this winter, first in Australia, where his rush to return from a career-threatening finger injury led him to take the field with his usual wholehearted enterprise but without the requisite conditioning to back up his methods - and then in the Caribbean, where he was supposed to be limiting his bowling after a side strain, but ended up being England's most-used seamer in the series, and is currently out of action until May due to a knee injury.
And that leads onto the other concern - the more broad mistrust of talismanic English allrounders being given the keys to the citadel. Neither Ian Botham nor Andrew Flintoff had much joy as England captain in their brief stints at the helm, with both men all too easily taking the view that they, and only they, could be trusted to dig England out of whichever hole they had landed. Stokes has a similar tendency towards the superhuman, when sometimes quiet functionality is all a given situation requires. And yet, the fact that he has never coveted the job perhaps suggests he'll be better at tempering his own expectations of incessant heroism. He's certainly the consummate team man, which will help his cause no end.
What, exactly, did England achieve with their binning-off of Stuart Broad and James Anderson in the Caribbean? If they wanted to prove that England's oldest stagers were more the problem than the solution to the Test team's flatlining standards, then they failed miserably in that objective, with both men emerging with their credentials enhanced following some unrelenting toil for their stand-ins, Chris Woakes and Craig Overton in particular.
Perhaps it was intended more like a GSCE science experiment - what happens if we withdraw water from our control batch of cress? - but given that Root's post-Grenada claims of a "positive dressing-room atmosphere" have now culminated in his resignation, you do wonder if the stage is set for a similar reverse-ferret from the selectors (not that there are any actual selectors in this crazy maelstrom, but the catch-all term still applies…)
Either way, Broad has already made his case for the captaincy. Whether intentionally or not, his 15 minutes' worth of truth-bombs on the first day of the Sydney Test were more inspiring than anything that actually took place on the field of play in that benighted campaign. After proving his enduring worth, even at the age of 35, with England's first five-for of the series, Broad laid out nothing less than a manifesto for the reboot of England's Test fortunes: stop planning for tomorrow, start focusing on today. If a player performs, let him "own the shirt"; if he doesn't, expect him to work for it. And for God's sake, start scoring some runs…
His address awakened a dormant truth about a Test team that still has at its disposal four of its greatest players of all time: the solution to their current troubles may lie deeper within.
Broad is already two years older than Bob Willis was in 1982, the last time England picked a fast bowler as captain. But he's still four years shy of his sidekick Anderson, and besides, it's been 11 years already since Broad was considered worthy of the T20 leadership. He probably ought to have been given the caretaker captaincy in the Caribbean, just to guard against the inevitable listlessness that coloured that campaign, but with the ECB in such a state of turmoil that there may yet be no permanent executives in office come the start of the New Zealand series, there's a strong case for a management buy-out. Leave the cricket side of things to the guys who've been automatic picks for 15 years, and let their wisdom infuse into the whole set-up.
One of the curious features of the ECB's production-line approach to their Test cricketers is that the very best candidates for captaincy have next to no experience when they land the top job. Alastair Cook was the first to suffer from this scenario when he took over from Andrew Strauss in 2012, while Root himself admitted his nickname had briefly been "craptain", after an underwhelming stint in his early days as a pro at Yorkshire.
And so, there's unquestionably a case to be made for handing the reins to a proven County Championship-winning captain - not to mention a player whose own efforts with the bat in that 2018 season were so far and away the best in the country - by runs scored and minutes batted - he was immediately drafted into the England team as Cook's replacement as opener.
On the flip side, however, few players have seen their stock fall quite so dramatically as Rory Burns this winter. He remains England's only debutant since 2018 to average more than 30 - a shocking indictment in itself - but after arriving in Australia as one of Root's key lieutenants, Burns was burnt alive in the heat of the Ashes battle. His first-ball duck at Brisbane was one of the iconic horrors of the winter, and as his form and technique deserted him, so the mutterings began about his sullen attitude in the dressing-room and his failure to provide the senior-player support that might have been expected of him.
Had it not been for the dropping of Stuart Broad and James Anderson in the Caribbean, Burns' absence would surely have been the main talking-point of that tour. And while England hardly covered themselves in glory in his absence, Zak Crawley did make a hundred, and Alex Lees did show ticker in adversity twice in their series-settling loss in Grenada. And as Burns himself put it earlier in the month, "I think I have to get back in the side first" before pondering any higher honours.
It's a thoroughly left-field notion, and it surely will not happen, but given how much value the ECB has placed in its pathways in recent times, is it out of the question that they might promote Alex Lees, the England Lions captain in Australia, and now their senior incumbent opener (given that Zak Crawley, a shoo-in for the captaincy in years to come, is clearly not ready to be thrown to the wolves just yet)? Yes, it probably is - although England's Test cricket has arguably not been at such a low ebb since 1988-89, so it would be fully in keeping with the current 1980s vibe for the selectors to go the full Chris Cowdrey.
Lees did emerge with some credit in the Caribbean. A tally of 126 runs at 21 doesn't exactly scream of his aptitude, but he did outscore England's top nine in both innings in Grenada, and has taken that confidence straight back onto the county circuit with a statement performance in his first outing of the summer against Glamorgan - carrying his bat for an unbeaten 182.
Unlike Burns, however - or even Somerset's Tom Abell, arguably the most accomplished pure leader on the county circuit - Lees is not even his club captain at Durham (that honour belongs to another Ashes-disaster cast-off, Scott Borthwick, and what a story that would be!)
It's a measure of how far England have fallen that a player who, at the turn of the year, was 90 minutes away from boarding a flight back to the UK, ended up driving 500 miles and nine hours to make his Test debut in the final match of the Ashes, but has emerged from the Ashes rubble as a viable captaincy candidate. That prospect was stepped up a notch after his first-innings 29 at Hobart (yes, things are that desperate …), then receded somewhat after his flaccid flick to mid-on in the final-day collapse. But in between whiles, Sam Billings carried himself with composure, most particularly behind the stumps, where his sheer glee at being involved was radiated across England's fielding effort - a devastating counterpoint to Jos Buttler's self-absorbed misery of the first four games.
In terms of his actual credentials, Billings is a curious case. He's been around the England set-up for seven years now, having made his white-ball debut amid the post-World Cup reboot in 2015, but has played just 58 games out of a possible 185 - the sort of record that would be fittingly augmented by a one-off Test cap. Either way, that familiarity meant he was able to saunter into the dressing room as an old lag, and "add a bit of experience around the group" while placing his arm around a few battle-weary shoulders as well - including, you presume, his young team-mate Crawley, whom he has skippered at Kent since 2018.
In between injury, England and IPL call-ups - and despite some heat from one or two of the more county-militant members - Billings has a decent record in the role, having helped to keep the club in the Championship top flight, while taking them to the Blast title last summer too.
Speaking in the wake of Hampshire's crushing victory over Somerset in the opening round of the County Championship, James Vince described the prospect of him taking over from Root - more than four years after his last Test appearance - as "extremely out there". And yet, that's pretty much where England are at with their options right now. Whichever route they take is going involve taking a plunge of some description or another. And at least in Vince, you'd be pretty sure of what you were getting.
For those who haven't been paying attention to one of the great nearly careers of recent times, a Vince recall would entail rich promise each and every time he came to the crease, intermittent gold-dust when his timing and placement came to the fore, and more than a few flighty drives to the cordon - it would be like appointing a proxy for Crawley, in fact, but at the age of 31, he's got experience in spades, and there are surely worse ideas to countenance. Paul Farbrace, for one, believes his record of 548 Test runs at 24.90 could have been far better if England had stuck with him.
As a bonus, Vince is probably in charge of the best county team on the circuit right now. Asked last week if there was any area to improve after Hampshire's emphatic win, he responded: "I'm not sure there is." Confidence is infectious…
Surely, surely, there's no way back for Jos Buttler after his ghastly display in the Ashes? It wasn't simply that his form fell off a cliff in Australia, with scruffy glovework and over-awed batting, it was the manner in which it was bookended by his white-ball form that was the most revealing aspect. His scintillating strokeplay in the T20 World Cup has given way to similarly domineering form for Rajasthan Royals at the IPL, as if he's simply drawn a curtain around his red-ball mindset and shot a bolt through its head.
Perhaps, perhaps, that Ashes showing was indicative of other factors - the family pressure of lockdown lifestyle, the sense that all was not well within an outclassed squad, the huge expectation of tailoring his game at such short notice to a completely different format. When Buttler was at his best as a Test option in 2018-19, the team was built around him to a far greater degree, with a glut of allrounders to free up his attacking approach, rather than leave him second-guessing himself in the midst of another collapse. Never say never, but he is Eoin Morgan's heir apparent in the white-ball side, so it would be a very England approach to try to marry up the two formats once again at this critical juncture.