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No Rising From These Ashes

As I watched Haseeb Hameed tuck his bat under his arm and trudge forlornly through the vast MCG outfield back towards the pavilion, I was filled more with pity than disappointment. The Boxing Day Test is a great fixture in the festive sporting calendar, but there was nothing at all Christmassy about the brutality with which the Australian quicks had ripped through the England top order. I suppose for Pat Cummins, the Australian captain, Christmas is very much a three-day affair. On the morning of the 27th December, it was business as usual.

I, however, could not quite forget the festive season, since the scenes in Melbourne following England’s second innings perfectly mirrored the state of my living room after the dogs had ‘opened’ their Christmas presents. Comparing Zak Crawley’s forward defence to mangled tissue paper perhaps does too much credit to a man who has not scored a century all year. His opening partner, Hameed, averages an anaemic 32.4 in First-class cricket. Apart from Joe Root and Rory Burns, who has been dropped because he bats more like a crab than a human being, England’s highest run scorer in 2021 was ‘Extras’. These are the no-balls and wides bowled by the opposition. At the risk of straining my Christmas metaphor too far, every single one of these runs are gifts. For the uninitiated, the upshot of these statistics is that the 2021 Winter Ashes series was always going to be a case of men against boys. For all the misguided hope that two day-night tests with the swinging pink ball or the inclusion of a cricket-starved Ben Stokes would hand England the advantage in the series, this was clear to see for everyone with a working pair of eyes (i.e. not Rory Burns).  

It was clear on the first morning in Brisbane when Burns strolled leisurely towards extra cover and charitably exposed his entire leg stump to a fired-up Mitchell Starc. The fast bowler did not need a further invitation. It was clear when Jos Buttler inexplicably stepped on his own stumps having batted through an excruciating 207 balls to almost – but not quite – save the second Test. And it was clear when the ball whistled through Jimmy Anderson’s terrified defence to end the shortest Test Match played in Australia since the 19th century and put the English out of their misery.

Once the Australian team had begun to celebrate with the very tiny beers they are so fond of, the English post mortem began. Blinded by anger, or perhaps by the sunlight streaming through the gap between Jonny Bairstow’s bat and pad, there was little talk of ‘mitigating circumstances’ from those in the commentary box. In a sense, they were justified in their bluntness, since this latest surrender of the Ashes cannot be explained by the strange, Covid-hampered circumstances. The Melbourne humiliation was simply the latest low-point in English Test Cricket’s decade-long downward spiral. The lingering nature of this decline has allowed the English cricketing media to raise their practice of the blame game to an art form. This time, all fingers were pointed at the England head coach, Chris Silverwood. Much of this is justified. In this series, his selection decisions looked desperate, and his post-defeat contention that there were positives to take must have left the BBC’s Jonathan Agnew scrambling for the microscope.

However, it seems unfair to blame one man, despite his personal compilation of errors, for problems which run to the heart of the ECB. The truth is that the factors in the demise of English Test Cricket are not easily fixed. The terrifying consequence of that truth is that the eleven men who took to the field for the final Test in Melbourne were the most talented eleven men who could feasibly have done so. For all Silverwood’s shortcomings, he is simply the latest person to inherit a basket of problems that are structural, not superficial. For instance, England’s selection strategy for opening batsmen has long resembled that of a drunk in a casino, begging for one last spin of the roulette wheel. Since the retirement of Andrew Strauss in 2012, 21 opening batsmen have been given a go. I just tried to write their names down and could only remember seven. 

However, even this encyclopaedia of anonymous English sportsmen is but a symptom of a wider problem. This problem is also responsible for the dearth of quality English spinners (my apologies to Dom Bess). It also explains the consistent inclusion in the Test team of Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler. In pursuit of an ever-growing pot of TV rights money, the ECB has relegated the County Championship to a position of obscurity. Due to the unfortunate fact that only 200 people actually want to go and watch Somerset and Gloucestershire battle it out over four days, the administrators have given priority to the short forms of the game. Young players are now coached in an environment where TV-friendly ramp and scoop shots are valued far more than the ability to defend the off stump from a swinging red ball. These players then follow the travelling circus to wherever it takes them: Pakistan, India, Australia, the Caribbean. They have forgotten how to bat in Test Match cricket. For all of Australia’s undoubted quality, this series defeat is not down to slack England fielding, or even the selection of the wrong players. Test cricket was once the pinnacle of the English game, providing the definitive examination of cricketing skill and mental strength. Now it seems that the world has left it behind. 

Image Credits: ‘Prescott Pym’, https://www.flickr.com/photos/ppym1/343733118