Same Old Story

In The Ashes by Bill Ricquier

“…Anderson and Broad declined to pitch the ball up.”

This is from Lawrence Booth’s match report of the second Test between Australia and England at the Adelaide Oval. The second Test, that is, of the 2017-18 series.

The scorecard seems weirdly similar to that of the equivalent game in the current contest: Australia, inserted, rather surprisingly, by Joe Root, 442 (Anderson one for 74 in 31.5 overs, Broad two for 72 in 30 overs) and 138 (Anderson, five for 43); England 227 (Craig Overton top scoring with 41 not out) and 233 (Root 67). The margin of victory was 120 runs. This time around it was 275 runs (though listening to some of the praise for England’s admittedly gutsy and resolute performance on the final day one might have thought they had secured some sort of moral victory).

What was it that Talleyrand said about the Bourbons after the restoration of the French monarchy in 1815? “They had learnt nothing and they had forgotten nothing.” In fairness to Louis XVIII, planning would have been difficult; Napoleon was somewhat unpredictable. And, of course, Talleyrand wasn’t talking about planning as such.

But in England cricket circles they talk of little else. The BBC’s Jonathan Agnew had a whole radio series that seemed to last for months about all the planning that had been done for The Ashes. When England were playing, not always very successfully, against Sri Lanka, or India, or New Zealand in the past twelve months, a common theme was, is this really just preparation for The Ashes? Root, the captain, was also the captain in 2017-18. When, do you think, was the last time an England captain led the side on two successive Ashes tours Down Under? It was Johnny Douglas, who was captain in 1911-12 (4-1 to England) and 1920-21 (5-0 to Australia). I think we can all agree things were a bit different then.

Root is understandably held in the highest regard. He has been in peerless batting form for the whole of 2021. He has always been a wonderful player to watch and a number of his innings this year have been truly sublime.

His captaincy, it is fair to say, has always been viewed somewhat more equivocally. As a tactician he is not exactly Brearleyesque, if there is such a word. And he doesn’t always seem to have the ability to get things moving in the field, in the way that Ben Stokes, for instance, can.

Root appeared to be unusually frank in his post-match press conference at Adelaide when he appeared to be criticising Anderson and Broad for the lengths they bowled in the first innings.

This little outburst of Root’s did not engender a huge amount of sympathy. Two comments in particular stood out. Steve Harmison, who knows a thing or two about fast bowling, said that if Michael Vaughan, for instance, had made similar comments in a press conference, the bowling group would have been “waiting for him” on his return to the dressing room. More to the point, perhaps, he said that if Anderson and Broad had pitched the ball up, any chance created would almost certainly have been dropped, most likely by a batsman who was not making any runs. And Ricky Ponting, who knows a thing or two about losing – and winning – Ashes series, asked, if Root was unable to influence the lengths his bowlers were bowling, what was he doing on the field?

One point that made observers very patient about Root’s captaincy issues in the last year or so was the long-standing mantra that he was never given his best side. In fairness this was often true. After the fiasco of the 2015 fifty-over World Cup, coach Trevor Bayliss, short format captain Eoin Morgan and the England hierarchy focussed on the white ball game. This worked very well in the sense that England won the next iteration of the World Cup in 2019. Say what you like about the luck enjoyed by England in the final overs of that traumatic game against New Zealand, England were the best team in the world. After that, Morgan always got the players he wanted, whether at home or overseas, while Root, it seemed, was not so favoured. COVID, of course made things much more complicated, with players being rotated for understandable mental health reasons. Stokes’ withdrawal from cricket in the course of 2021 was also a factor because of his pivotal impact on the balance of the side. Harmison, my favourite radio pundit by a country mile, spent much of 2021 asking if Root was going to have to wait until December in Brisbane before getting his best team on the field.

Ironically, the “best” – these things are always relative – eleven were available in Brisbane but of course they didn’t all play. All that planning is to blame apparently. Anderson and Broad had to be “saved” for the day-nighter in Adelaide. It seems Anderson may have had a niggle. That in itself seems odd when you have a cast of thousands looking after fitness and nobody has played any actual cricket, but these things happen. Anyway dawn rises at the fearsome Gabbatoir and the cloudy humid conditions look as similar to England as you’re ever going to get in sub-tropical Australia. So, on winning the toss, let’s have a bat, omit our two most experienced pace bowlers and pick our “leading” spinner – again all these things are relative – who has hardly played for about a year, and hope for the best.

In a way it doesn’t really matter who you pick to do the bowling if you bat first and are bowled out for 147. You don’t need to be a former professional cricketer to be able to predict that you are not going to win from there: it is a matter of common sense. Nor is it any use having a go at Jack Leach. He is not in the class of, say, Graeme Swann, but England have to give him the chance to be as good as he can be. Inevitably he and England’s most threatening bowler Mark Wood, were not picked for Adelaide, when both could have had a crucial role to play.

England’s real problem, along with their inexplicable propensity to drop catches, is their batting. Root stands heroically alone with Dawid Malan in an impressive supporting role. The openers are all at sea. It is unreasonable, sadly, to expect too much from Stokes. When Ollie Pope is facing Nathan Lyon it is only polite to avert one’s gaze. And much as one admired Jos Buttler’s “boy stood on the burning deck” routine on the last day at Adelaide, that is not really what we want from him. What we want is his Rishabh Pant routine. Why can’t we have it? And can we really expect reserves Jonny Bairstow, Zak Crawley and Dan Lawrence, to do better than the hapless incumbents?

There are of course extenuating circumstances. The absence of Jofra Archer is a cruel blow. Again, one has to wonder how he picked up such a long term injury. The combination of COVID and appalling Queensland weather made preparation very difficult. This was an issue for both sides up to a point, but the Australians obviously managed more cricket. Of course Australia went into the Adelaide Test without their two leading bowlers, one of whom, captain Pat Cummins, withdrew on the first morning because of contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID. It didn’t seem to make much difference.

Actually it is no secret why England are so poor. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB)’s relentless dismantling – destruction – of a domestic structure that was the envy of the cricketing world has made “Team England” ill-equipped for Test cricket in all but the friendliest local conditions. The historically rich County Championship, which nurtured many of the game’s greatest names, is now played mainly in April and October (that reminds me, I must re-read Neville Cardus’ The Summer Game) and the most feared bowler on the circuit is 46-year old dibbly-doubly merchant Darren Stevens. You can plan as much as you like, but that is no preparation for Brisbane.

Inevitably people are talking about 5-0 – it would be the third in five tours since 2006-07 (Root’s last go in 2017-18 was a relative triumph at 4-0). But all may not be lost. With the onward march of Omicron and the well-established incompetence of the Australian state authorities in dealing with the virus, it is possible to envisage a 2-2 result; two to Australia, two to COVID, and a bore draw at Melbourne.

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