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Ashes long-con exposed: England's dereliction of Test cricket threatens format as a whole

If the public loses confidence in the product, then its viability will be called into question

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
28-Dec-2021
As anyone who lived through the 2008 credit crunch will remember, economies are essentially built on confidence. So long as the public has faith in the robustness of the institutions charged with managing their assets, those assets barely need to exist beyond a few 0s and 1s in a digital mainframe for them to be real and lasting indicators of a nation's wealth.
When doubts begin to beset the system, however, it's amazing how quickly the rot can take hold. Is this really a Triple-A-rated bond I am holding in my hands, or is it actually a tranche of sub-prime mortgages that are barely fit to line the gerbil cage?
Likewise, is this really the world's most enduring expression of sporting rivalry taking place in Australia right now, or is it a pointless turkey shoot that exists only to justify the exorbitant sums that TV broadcasters are willing to cough up for the privilege of hosting it… a privilege that, in itself, feeds into the self-same creation myth that keeps the hype ever hyping, and the bubble ever ballooning.
On Tuesday, that bubble finally burst. After weeks of barely suppressed panic behind the scenes, England's capitulation in Melbourne deserves to be Test cricket's very own Lehman Brothers moment - the final, full-frontal collapse of an institution so ancient, and previously presumed to be so inviolable, that it may require unprecedented emergency measures to prevent the entire sport from tanking.
For there really has never been an Ashes campaign quite as pathetic as this one. Crushing defeats have been plentiful in the sport's long and storied history - particularly in the recent past, with England having now lost 18 of their last 23 Tests Down Under, including 12 of the last 13. But never before has an England team taken the field in Australia with so little hope, such few expectations, so few remaining skills with which to retain control of their own destinies.
Nothing expressed the gulf better than the performance of Australia's Player of the Match, Scott Boland. Leaving aside the rightful celebration of his Indigenous heritage, of far greater pertinence was his international oven-readiness, at the age of 32, after a lifetime of toil for Victoria in the Sheffield Shield. Like Michael Neser, 31 on debut at Adelaide last week and a Test wicket-taker with his second ball in the format, Boland arrived on the stage every bit as ready for combat as England's Test batters used to be - most particularly the unit that won the Ashes in Australia in 2010-11, which included four players with a century on debut (Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss, Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior) and two more (Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell) with fifties.
The contrast with England's current crop of ciphers could not be more galling. It is genuinely impossible to see how Haseeb Hameed could have been expected to offer more than his tally of seven runs from 41 balls across two innings at the MCG, while Ollie Pope's Bradman-esque average of 99.94 at his home ground at The Oval, compared to his cat-on-hot-tin-roof displays at Brisbane and Adelaide, is the most visceral evidence possible of a domestic first-class system that is failing the next generation.
Even on the second day at the MCG, England's best day of the series had finished with them four down for 31, still 51 runs in arrears, as Australia's quicks punished their opponents for a fleeting moment of mid-afternoon hubris by unleashing an hour of God-complex thunderbolts. It stood to reason that the morning's follow-up would be similarly swift and pitiless.
Watching a bowed and beaten troop of England cricketers suck up Australian outfield celebrations is nothing new, of course. But this is different to previous Ashes hammerings, because despite the Covid restrictions and limited preparation time, never before has a series loss felt further removed from the sorts of caveats that sustained previous such debacles Down Under - most particularly the 2006-07 and 2013-14 whitewashes, both of which were at least the gory dismemberments of England teams that had previously swept all before them.
The 2021-22 team, by contrast, has swept nothing before it, except a few uncomfortable home truths under a succession of carpets. Despite the enduring magnificence of James Anderson - whose unvanquished defiance evokes Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh's noble upholding of West Indies' crumbling standards at the turn of the millennium - and despite Joe Root willing himself to produce a year of such cursed brilliance it deserves to be inducted into Greek mythology, the rabble that clings to their coat-tails is little more than the zombified remains of the side that surrendered the urn so vapidly back in 2017-18.
They travelled to Australia with the same captain, for the first time on an Ashes tour in more than 100 years (and Root is destined for the same 5-0 shellacking that JWHT Douglas achieved in 1920-21); the same core bowling unit of right-arm medium-pacers, and by this third Test, the same outgunned middle order, with Root, Dawid Malan and Jonny Bairstow on this occasion physically united with Ben Stokes, compared to the spectre at the feast that had haunted the team's endeavours four years ago.
Nothing in the interim has progressed for this generation of players, in spite of a vast amount of hot air about how exhaustive the planning for this campaign has been - most particularly from England's dead-man-walking head coach, Chris Silverwood, whose epitaph deserves to be the same fateful phrase that he used to announce England's Test squad to face New Zealand at the start of the summer.
"The summer of Test cricket will be fascinating," Silverwood wrote back in May, shortly after he had taken over selection duties from Ed Smith to become the single most powerful supremo in the team's history. "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." Well, that aged well, didn't it?
And yet, Silverwood is just another symptom of English cricket's wider malaise. From the outset, and irrespective of his theoretical influence, he was only ever an uninspiring over-promotion from within the team's existing ranks - more than anything, a recognition of how undesirable the role of England head coach has become in recent years.
"All attempts to keep English Test cricket viable essentially ground to a halt from the moment that Tom Harrison was appointed as ECB CEO in 2015"
In an era of gig-economy opportunities on the T20 franchise circuit - when barely a day goes by without Andy Flower, the architect of England's last truly great Test team, being announced as Tashkent Tigers' batting consultant in the Uzbekistan Premier League - who wants or needs the 300-hotel-nights-a-year commitment required to oversee a side that, like an overworked troupe of stadium-rock dinosaurs, fears that the moment it takes a break from endless touring, everyone will forget they ever existed in the first place?
English cricket's financial reliance on its Test team has been holding the sport in this country back for generations, long before the complications of Covid kicked in to make the team's relentless touring lifestyle even less palatable than ever before. It was a point that Tom Harrison, the ECB chief executive, acknowledged in a moment of guard-down candour before last summer's series against India - and one that he will now be obliged to revisit with grave urgency as the sport lurches into a new crisis of confidence, but one that is effectively the reverse side of the same coin that the sport has been flipping all year long. English cricket's ongoing racism crisis, after all, is yet another damning expression of the sport's inability to move with the times.
"It is the most important series, then we've got another 'most important series' coming up, and then another directly after that," Harrison said of that India campaign - which, lest we forget, also needs to be completed next summer for the financial good of the game, even if the players would sooner move on and forget. "The reality is, for international players, is that the conveyor belt just keeps going. You want players turning up in these 'most important series' feeling fantastic about the opportunity of playing for their country. They are not going to be able to achieve that if they have forgotten the reasons why they play."
The issue for Harrison's enduring credibility, however, is that all attempts to keep English Test cricket viable essentially ground to a halt from the moment that he was appointed as CEO in 2015.
That summer's team still had the latent talent to seal the last of their four Ashes victories in five campaigns, but on Harrison's watch, the ECB has essentially spent the past six years preparing the life-rafts for the sport's post-international future - most notably through the establishment of the Hundred, but also through the full-bore focus on winning the 2019 World Cup, precisely because it was the sort of whiteboard-friendly "deliverable" that sits well on a list of boardroom KPIs… unlike the lumpen, intangible mesh of contexts by which success in Test cricket will always need to be measured.
It was a point that Root alluded to his shellshocked post-match comments, where he hinted that the red-ball game needed a "reset" to match the remarkable rise of the white-ball side from the wreckage of that winter's World Cup. But what do England honestly believe can be reset from this point of the sport's degradation?
It feels as though we've all been complicit in the long-con here. For 16 years and counting, the Ashes has been sold as the most glorious expression of cricket's noble traditions, when in fact that self-same biennial obsession has been complicit in shrinking the format's ambitions to the point where even England's head coach thinks that a magnificent home-summer schedule is nothing but a warm-up act.
Perhaps it all stems from the reductive ambitions of that never-to-be-forgotten 2005 series, the series upon which most of the modern myth is founded, but which was more of an end than a beginning where English cricket was concerned.
The summer of 2005 marked the end of free-to-air TV in the UK, the end of Richie Benaud as English cricket's voice of ages, the end of 18 years of Stockholm Syndrome-style subjugation by one of the greatest Test teams ever compiled. If English sport was to be repurposed as a series of nostalgic sighs for long-ago glories, then perhaps only Manchester United's "Solskjær has won it" moment can top it.
Sixteen years later, what are we left with? The dreadfulness of the modern Ashes experience has even bled into this winter's TV coverage, every bit as hamstrung by greedy decisions taken way above the pay-grade of the troops on the ground. It's symptomatic of a format whose true essence has been asset-stripped since the rivalry's heyday two decades ago, with those individual assets being sold back to the paying public at a premium in the interim.
It's not unlike a Ponzi scheme, in fact - a concept that English cricket became unexpectedly familiar with during a Test match in Antigua back in 2009, when the revelations about the ECB's old chum, Allen Stanford, caused a run on his bank in St John's, with queues stretching way further down the road that any stampede to attend a Caribbean Test match of recent vintage.
The warnings about Test cricket's fragility have been legion for decades. But if England, of all the Test nations, doesn't remember to care for the format that, through the hype of the Ashes, it pretends to hold most dear, this winter's experiences have shown that the expertise required to shore up those standards may not be able to survive much more neglect.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket