After a terrible Ashes defeat, will England ever be good at Test cricket again? | Ash 2021-22

IIt’s vaguely funny to remember now that the very existence of this Ashes series for most of the year was the subject of full speculation at the board level. Tense negotiations were taking place between Cricket Australia and their colleagues in England. State governments, federal governments, public health experts and players all had to give their approval. Would the ashes 2021-22 happen at all?

Well, as it turned out, not really. Around 850 overs separated the dismissal of Rory Burns the first morning in Brisbane and the dismissal of Jimmy Anderson the third morning in Melbourne: the series settled on just over nine days of cricket. And so when the victorious Australians celebrated wildly on the MCG field, it was possible to wonder if they were exaggerating things a bit. Was there any real satisfaction to be gained by sending an opponent so easily? Didn’t it all feel a little hollow? A little comfortable? A little embarrassing?

But then we may be guilty here of reducing competition as a whole to England’s dried up level. After all, playing test cricket for Australia in 2021 is still essentially funds something. Winning test matches for Australia still means something. The Ashes still mean something, and not just as a rivalry or as a commercial concern, but as a basic test of sporting ultimate, a search for truth, a measure of character.

No one exemplified this better than Scott Boland, the country’s newest cricket hero after taking six for seven on his debut. Boland is a good bowler and a nice story, but he will be the first to admit that none of this made sense. Never again will he enjoy the serenity of being able to face this opposition on this ground at this point in their sporting trajectory. All he really had to do was show up on time, put on his socks and not get balled for throwing. And yet by running hard and doing his best, Boland awarded this competition a certain respect which England had long ago misplaced.

Ashes 'not over yet', Joe Root maintains after Australia's secure series victory video
Ashes ‘not over yet’, Joe Root maintains after Australia’s secure series victory video

What does it mean to play test cricket for England in 2021? This is a more contentious issue. England have issued internationals to 25 players this calendar year, from Jofra Archer to James Bracey, Dan Lawrence to Dom Bess, and it has long been impossible to distinguish who deserves what. Somewhere in the midst of the bubbles and the brain disappearance, the renewals and the rotations, the very point of the English test team has somehow been dulled, dissolved, blurred. None of this makes it inevitable that you will be knocked down for 68 in bright sunshine. But it certainly does not help.

A thought exercise: If you had to re-elect an England crew for this Ashes tour, knowing what we’re doing now, would it have been possible to do something different? Maybe you’re sending an emergency flare to Dom Sibley or Liam Livingstone or even Darren Stevens. Maybe you decide not to rush a half-pace Ben Stokes back from an injury. But this team’s raw materials do not change fundamentally. This is what it is. Instinctively, we would think that there are 11 cricketers in England who together can score more than 68 in a completed test round. But it may not be there.

Joe Root, one of only two English batsmen to reach double figures in their second innings, endured a painful day all-round and could now lose the lead. Photo: Joel Carrett / EPA

After all, this is a game England have been playing for a while. It’s tempting to consider this a nadir, but England were all out 67 67 Ashes Tests ago. Before that, there were 85 against Ireland, the 58 against New Zealand, eight wickets for Roston Chase, 10 wickets in a session against Bangladesh. Each time learned, approaches were changed, tires were mixed, and the same thing happened again. No one is surprised by any of this.

Of course, there is a certain sense of climax here. Joe Root and Chris Silverwood are likely to pay for this latest debacle with their jobs. Silverwood is clearly a skilled coach, but something about this team and this moment seems to have detached him from reality, like a waiter at a restaurant telling you through the specialties while the kitchen slowly burns behind him. Root is approaching five years as captain and either there is nothing more he can do or he is actually making things worse. Either way, it’s best to move on and concentrate on the one skill where he really deserves greatness.

And yet, what is the broader goal here? Where is the institutional will to turn this team around? Will it really come from the England and Wales Cricket Board, which gets the vast majority of its revenue from the sale of home tests and short-form cricket to players and TV companies? Producing test teams that win big overseas series can be very nice, but it does not keep the box low. Holding a high-quality county championship at the height of summer can provide better cricketers, but it will not keep the bonuses afloat.

Moreover, if you think about it, England really has no divine right to be good at this. It is by no means inevitable that England will be good at Test cricket again. This is not Pakistan or India. The game does not live and breathe in our streets or our public spaces or our school system. Aside from history and tradition, cricket does not flow through the national bloodstream any more than judo or surfing or e-sports.

Perhaps a close parallel to the West Indies around the turn of the century: driven by one of its greatest batsmen (for Brian Lara, read Joe Root) and two of its greatest bowlers (for Ambrose and Walsh, read Anderson and Broad), and yet infected with a basic, complacent decadence. In time, they would regain their dignity. They would be competitive. Sometimes they would even win. But their true calling – mainly driven by trade and circumstances – would be to produce brilliant short-form cricketers for the global market. As for the test cricket, the sun had already set and risen somewhere else.

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In the short term, of course, England has no greater goal than to evoke the basic species pride to make the last two tests vaguely competitive. We are not even talking about a victory here. A century, a partnership, even a fifth day would feel worthwhile at this point. In the longer term, meanwhile, there are broader existential questions that need to be answered. What is this team for? What will it be? Why should people worry about it? English cricket has spent years working during its many delusions. The biggest of all would be to assume that this is as bad as it gets.

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