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News Analysis

England's latest Ashes wreck proof of how deep the problems run

The ECB shouldn't need to wait for a full-blown inquiry to realise urgent change is required

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
17-Jan-2022
Aside from retiring hurt following yet another blow amidships, it's hard to imagine a more fittingly awful ending to Joe Root's latest bid to rescue his team's necrotised standards. An unplayable grubber slammed through his defences to hit halfway up off stump, and off Root trudged with a world-weary grin across his chops. Sometimes there really is nothing you can do to get back on the right side of fate.
There was nothing any of his team-mates could do either. One wicket on the stroke of tea was all it had required to freak England out, as if they had been triggered by the breaking of their highest first-wicket stand of the series, rather than emboldened by its existence in the first place. And after a final-session attrition-rate of one wicket every 15 balls, it was time for the recriminations to begin in earnest.
This was a devastatingly flimsy display - England's fourth-worst fourth-innings collapse in Test history, and yet somehow it was not even their worst pillar-to-post performance of the tour. Never mind 68 for 0 to 124 all out, how about 68 for 10 from a standing start? That was England's Ashes-surrendering nadir at Melbourne. Surveying the wreckage then, it was inconceivable how a professional sports team could stoop any lower. On the latest evidence, it's probably best not to presume that this is, indeed, "rock bottom", as Alastair Cook put it on BT Sport.
Somehow, in the face of such relentless humiliation, Root says he wants to carry on as captain. But as he trots out brave sentiments about "caring so much about Test cricket in our country", you have to wonder if he's stubborn, snow-blind or simply lashed to the mast, like the skipper's daughter on the Hesperus, an innocent and incapacitated (albeit well-paid) victim of circumstance.
The mood around this Ashes series suggests it must be the latter. In a week when Virat Kohli - the most powerful Test captain of recent times and a man with a 5-2 winning record against England last year - decided that the off-stage noises in Indian cricket had become too loud even for him to ignore, it beggars belief that no one has yet been in Root's ear, dropping the odd hint that it might be time to take matters into his own hands.
It's been quite the contrary, in fact. Ashley Giles, the ECB's managing director who will mark his own homework by overseeing the tour review, has already sought to deflect the blame away from England's existing brains trust (himself included, obviously). In the wake of the Melbourne loss, he pleaded that a round of sackings won't even begin to address the structural flaws that have made this debacle possible. But even if that's true, the most obvious means to ensure that nothing changes is surely to change nothing.
Certainly to judge by revelations in the Telegraph, which cites a drinking culture within the England bubble, weak-willed attempts to monitor the players' fitness levels through "fat-shaming" skin-fold tests, and a remote-controlled selection policy that denied reserve players such as Zak Crawley and Jonny Bairstow the chance to warm up for England Lions against Australia A, there have been more than enough avoidable errors to fill the short-term need for drastic improvement.
After all, the international treadmill is unrelenting. Long before the ECB bigwigs can be expected to synchronise their calendars and book themselves a conference room and a flip-chart, the Test squad will be back on the road for a three-Test series against West Indies - a team that, with a solitary home series loss against England in 54 years, rarely needs much incentive to raise its game against their old colonial masters.
As it happens, England also lost nine wickets in a session on their last visit to the Caribbean in 2019 - they were routed for 77 in the first Test at Bridgetown, en route to a 2-1 series loss that, once again, had a Mark Wood tour de force to thank for a late measure of resistance. The team's lack of direction was plain as day back then - the big difference, of course, was that the 2019 World Cup had entered its final countdown, and so the Test side's main objective on that tour was not to make an undue fuss.
Three years of listlessness later, and there are no such mitigating factors any more. Another World Cup came and went in the winter just gone, the preparation for which was a not-insignificant factor in the Test team's distracted displays throughout 2021. But, unlike the rousing events of 2019, it would be a challenge for any casual fan to recall many of that event's salient details - dominated as it was by an undue reliance on the toss, and squeezed at either end by the IPL and the Ashes respectively.
The Ashes may be an overhyped husk of a competition in urgent need of a competitive reboot, but it's also the primary prism through which English cricket has been viewed for most of the 21st century
With Covid an ongoing and undeniable factor in the ECB's planning, it wasn't necessarily wrong to give a champion white-ball team every chance to land another piece of silverware - it's not as if England has been over-burdened with genuine shots at World Cup glory down the years. But now that that moment has passed, and even with another T20 World Cup looming next winter, the rebalancing of priorities cannot begin soon enough.
Take Jos Buttler's winter as a microcosm of the sport's current standing with its public. Whereas Ben Stokes' World Cup and Headingley heroics shared an equal billing in the summer of 2019, who honestly thinks that Buttler's masterful displays against Australia and Sri Lanka in the UAE will linger longer in the memory than his derelict efforts with the bat and gloves Down Under? The Ashes may be an overhyped husk of a competition in urgent need of a competitive reboot, but it's also the primary prism through which English cricket has been viewed for most of the 21st century. You don't get to debase the competition that your fanbase has been conditioned to hold most dear, without expecting an almighty backlash.
And so, in spite of Giles' protestations, in spite of Chris Silverwood's focus on the "positives", in spite of Root's boy-on-burning-deck attributes, it is surely not acceptable to allow this drift to continue in perpetuity.
Root went to the well in 2021 - he even took up residence there - churning out an exceptional haul of 1708 runs at 61.00. But the evidence, right from the outset in Sri Lanka and India, where his three massive matchwinning hundreds were backed up by a next-highest score of 87 (from the now-banished Dom Sibley in Chennai), is that no one is willing or capable of following his lead.
As for his relationship with Silverwood, the most unlikely "supremo" in Test history after the sacking of Ed Smith as national selector last summer, the sense pervades that both men are too inherently "nice" to deliver the sort of home truths that this team so clearly needed to stay remotely in touch with a good, but far from great, opposition. Between them, however, the pair managed to compile a litany of tactical errors that defied belief at the time, and more so in hindsight.
The selection of a never-before-seen attack at Brisbane, with England's most reliable Ashes combatant Stuart Broad warming the bench; the banishment of a now-Gabba-scarred Jack Leach on a turner at Adelaide, and the reliance on the same medium-paced attack that had proven so toothless in the equivalent fixture four years earlier. The wrecking of Ben Stokes as a bowling option, by deploying him to bowl endless bouncers, as if England had not mistreated enough of their quicks already in recent Test history.
Then there was the retention of the hapless Haseeb Hameed over the team's senior opener of the past three years, Rory Burns - for crimes against communication apparently, which perhaps says as much about who he was communicating with than anything that he didn't have to say for himself. Burns' first-ball humiliation at the Gabba may have entered Ashes folklore, but aside from Root, there was no other specialist batter in England's starting XI with multiple Test centuries to his name, nor anyone else with as many as 500 runs in 2021. Of all the moments to presume that Burns was the team's most pressing problem, this was surely not it.
Those decisions barely cover off the period of the series when the Ashes were still live - all 12 days of it. The official tour review may or may not unearth other pertinent gripes and missteps, and the ECB's overarching strategy will face the scrutiny it deserves in due course. But, as with other matters currently on the UK's news agenda, sometimes the shortcomings are so obvious that waiting for the inquiry is merely stalling for time. This is the hand that England were dealt this winter. It has been played appallingly.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket