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Tour and tournament reports

Australia vs England in 2021-22

A review of Australia vs England in 2021-22

Gideon Haigh
The England players look on after yet another defeat  •  AFP/Getty Images

The England players look on after yet another defeat  •  AFP/Getty Images

Test matches (5): Australia 4 (52pts), England 0 (-4pts)
English cricket teams have made some inglorious tours of Australia down the decades, but few have matched these Ashes for one-sidedness. The whitewash of 1920-21 was partly pardoned by the toll of war; those of 2006-07 and 2013-14 involved the expiry of some fine careers. The capitulation of Joe Root's Englishmen was ignominious and abject on every level. If it were possible for a team to lose in the nets, they would have done so. Australia were seldom extended, and never for long.
England held out for a draw in the Fourth Test at Sydney, where rain limited the available overs, and No. 11 James Anderson dead-batted the last in poor light precluding the use of faster bowlers. But the margins of defeat were definitive: nine wickets at the Gabba, 275 runs at Adelaide Oval, an innings and 14 runs at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, 146 runs at Bellerive Oval. England's average first-innings score barely exceeded 200; the batters totalled 17 noughts and one spirited hundred from Jonny Bairstow, as Australia brought an abrupt end to Root's record-breaking solo year.
Not one player can claim to have enhanced his reputation. By early February, two men higher up the chain of accountability had gone: head coach Chris Silverwood, and managing director of men's cricket Ashley Giles. Chief executive Tom Harrison, who - like Giles - was present for the completion of the fiasco in Hobart, remained in place. Assistant coach Graham Thorpe was also sacked.
The tour's portents, it is true, had always been grim. England had struggled through another northern summer under the pall of Covid. Ben Stokes, having played one day of first-class cricket since sustaining a bad finger break at the outset of the IPL, was wrestling with his mental health. Although he declared his availability at the eleventh hour, long-term injuries to Jofra Archer and Olly Stone deprived England of two of their quickest bowlers, while stress fractures ruled out Sam Curran.
Before the schedule of five Tests in six weeks was agreed, there were also months of high-stakes diplomacy about biosecurity protocols between the ECB and Cricket Australia, at a time when entry to Australia was heavily restricted - specifically, what level of restriction would satisfy state governments and public health authorities without antagonising visiting players and their families. Indeed, Western Australia's border controls were so strict that, after the series had begun, the final Test was moved from Perth to Hobart.
The delay in confirming the tour went down poorly in Australia, quick to detect any sense of English diffidence as the series loomed. "No one is forcing you to come," declared Australia's 2019 Ashes captain, Tim Paine, on October 1. "If you don't want to come, don't come. The Ashes are going ahead. The First Test is on December 8, whether Joe is here or not."
The First Test did proceed on the specified date; it was Paine, on his 37th birthday, who was missing. He spent it in seclusion, having stepped down on November 19 following revelations of sexually explicit messages to a Cricket Tasmania employee four years earlier.
Fast bowler Pat Cummins was appointed a week later, with Steve Smith his deputy; Smith would briefly resume the captaincy when Cummins was ruled out of the Second Test by a Covid contact. By the time Paine resigned, an England squad as near as possible to full strength (at least on paper) had converged on the Gold Coast in tranches - first Root, Stokes, Anderson, Stuart Broad and the balance of the Test specialists, followed by those involved in the T20 World Cup.
The ECB puffed the party's readiness, participating in a six-episode BBC podcast series, "Project Ashes", about the tour's granular level of planning, preparation and war-gaming, whose measures included the despatch of a shadow squad, England Lions. The podcast's going-to-air coincided with the unravelling of these schemes, initially in the face of an old enemy: the weather. A scheduled three-day match between England and the Lions at Peter Burge Oval was abandoned after 29 overs, and a four-day game at Ian Healy Oval after 78, to be replaced by some listless middle practice. The Lions remained for a fixture against Australia A that coincided with the First Test, then flew home, causing one to question why they had come at all.
So scant had the opportunities been to prime Anderson and Broad that Silverwood deemed them unready for selection in Brisbane, leaving England's two most prolific wicket-takers to run drinks to an attack of Chris Woakes, Ollie Robinson and Mark Wood, who had never previously bowled in harness. It was as though England were treating the First Test as a warm-up for the Second. So began a succession of odd, opaque selections that puzzled players almost as much as pundits.
Root called correctly at the Gabba under overcast skies on a seam-friendly pitch but, without Anderson and Broad, lacked the confidence to bowl first. It's not as if the Ashes would have been all that different had Australia batted that morning, but at least Rory Burns's career would have been spared a wrong turning: with the first delivery of the series, he was bowled behind his legs by a full, fast, swinging ball from Mitchell Starc, and his tour never recovered.
With only 147 to defend, England's attack had little room to manoeuvre, and Jack Leach less. Poorly protected by Root, he was gored by the left-handers David Warner and Travis Head. Although Root and Dawid Malan finally wrested a session from Australia in the second innings, England surrendered their last eight wickets for 74 in a morning, to lose in Brisbane for the seventh time in their last nine visits. So much for Project Ashes. Mike Tyson proved more relevant: everyone has a plan until they're punched in the mouth.
It grew ever harder to follow Silverwood's thinking. When he finally chose Anderson and Broad in Adelaide, England left out the speedy Wood and the benighted Leach, leaving the team with a configuration they claimed to have forsworn: a kludge of right-arm seamers of roughly the same speed and trajectory. Broad was omitted again in Melbourne, on a surface that would have suited him, and Leach recalled, in conditions that didn't. Silverwood kept faith with Haseeb Hameed, who appeared increasingly overwhelmed; he recalled Ollie Pope, who continued his year-long regression, and Robinson, despite his air of apathy and indolence. Was it a coincidence that England played their best cricket in Sydney, where Bairstow in the first innings and Zak Crawley in the second gave free rein to their attacking instincts, while their coach was in isolation, having tested positive for Covid?
The brief optimism that accompanied the reunion of Root and Stokes faded quickly. Root's form ebbed under the strain of being England's key wicket. His attempts to cleave to his natural game kept costing him outside off stump. Stokes appeared first underdone then overwrought, his back-and-across step defiant but defensive. He removed Warner in his first over of the series, only for the delivery to be judged a no-ball. His bowling was rarely effective and, at Sydney, injurious. By Hobart, he could not bowl at all.
Cummins, by contrast, looked confident in everything he did, right to the finish when, in an intelligent gesture, he banished champagne from the traditional Australian celebration out of sensitivity to the religious convictions of Usman Khawaja. The historic objection to fast-bowler captains was made to seem like the anathematising of split infinitives or the superstitious aversion to 13th floors. He did not miss a trick in the field, and his bowling remained superb, little flattered by 21 wickets at 18, for even his unsuccessful spells contributed to the cumulative pressure. He somehow did not take a wicket in the last hour of the second day at the MCG, but nobody who watched four English wickets fall amid vintage Australian celebration will forget it.
Cummins was also favoured by selectors (George Bailey, Tony Dodemaide and coach Justin Langer) who got almost everything right. They stuck with Starc, who alone among the frontline seamers bowled in all five Tests, took 19 wickets at 25, offered his captain variation in speed and angle to which England had no counter, and provided useful runs.
They showed faith in Cameron Green, who came into the series with one Test half-century and zero Test wickets. After a tentative beginning, he buttressed the batting with 228 runs at 32; bouncing the ball as much as anyone on either side from his 6ft 6in, he claimed 13 wickets at 15; he was impassable in the gully. Just 22, he is a formidable cricketer in the making.
Australia had opted for Head rather than Khawaja at the Gabba, and he made a vivid, counterpunching 152 in 148 deliveries, which proved the series' highest. They drafted Jhye Richardson and Michael Neser at Adelaide, when Josh Hazlewood was injured and Cummins rendered ineligible by contact with a Covid case: Richardson took five for 42, and Neser looked the part.
And when those two pulled up sore, Australia recruited 32-year-old local boy Scott Boland for the Boxing Day Test on the basis of an outstanding MCG record. It proved fully justified. The second Indigenous man to play Test cricket, he won the Mullagh Medal - the individual award for the Melbourne Test, named after Indigenous cricket's original pioneer. But having been chosen as the horse for a particular course, Boland produced bowling in Sydney and Hobart that was similarly accurate, persistent and inventive. He would probably have been nowhere near calculations had his Victorian team-mate James Pattinson not retired from international cricket on the eve of the season. As it was, his 18 wickets cost less than ten each.
When Head returned a Covid positive after Melbourne, Khawaja seized his opportunity in Sydney with a brace of hundreds. Recalled for Hobart at the expense of Marcus Harris, Head made another bustling century, which secured him the Compton-Miller Medal for Player of the Series. After four years trying, he looked to have nailed down a spot. It will be remembered as a bowler's series - no bad thing, in its way. The Australian summer was mild, thanks to La Nin˜a; the home pitches were often spicy; the umpiring, provided by Australians, was quick on the finger.
Had English fans known in advance that Warner would average 34, Steve Smith 30, and Marnus Labuschagne be restricted to a single hundred, they'd have been delighted. England's bowling figures read quite respectably, and in Wood they had the swiftest bowler on either side, not to mention the most cheerful. Still, six of his 17 wickets came in his final innings, Anderson and Broad had a single genuinely effective Test each, neither Woakes nor Stokes had any impact, and Leach (six wickets at 53) was colossally outperformed by Nathan Lyon (16 at 23), despite Lyon not bowling at all in the abrupt Fifth Test. Most disappointing was Robinson, who has attributes of a fine Test bowler, but who frustrated management with his fitness. The propensity England exhibited for starting a spell with either a half-volley or a no-ball remained uncorrected for the whole series.
Neither team was served by outstanding wicketkeeping. Alex Carey, in his first series, a last-minute inclusion for Paine after being his long-term understudy, struggled to achieve a rapport with Warner at first slip, and passed 25 only twice; Jos Buttler showed flaws in technique and concentration, and was a stationary target at the crease well before a broken finger at Sydney ended his tour. How to reconcile his T20I career strike-rate of 141 with his series strike-rate of 27? In the absence of answers, his Test career looked vulnerable.
One of the stranger features of the series was the teams' relations with their respective coaches. Langer's successes here, and earlier at the T20 World Cup, did not appear to have endeared him to senior players. The criticism had previously been that he wanted to do everything; now, the murmur was that he was erring the other way, leaning heavily on assistant Andrew McDonald. Cummins's seeming reluctance to recommend a renewal of Langer's contract, expiring in May, invited criticism from Australia's powerful lobby of ex-players, including Steve Waugh, Shane Warne and Ricky Ponting. But, in early February, Langer stepped down, having rejected CA's derisory offer of a new six-month contract.
England's players, by contrast, continued to laud Silverwood - at least in public - and Silverwood to laud himself: "I would love the chance to put some of this right. I think I can do that. I know I am a good coach. I would love to be given the opportunity, but there are certain things out of my hands at the moment." It was the voice of a soft-headed, self-championing mediocrity. But, in England's Test record since the start of 2021, of four wins and ten defeats, spoke for itself. His end was inevitable.