A Run-Down and Analysis as English Cricket Looks to the Future
It may not have been the whitewash that was predicted when the first test at The Gabba was lost by an astonishing nine wickets. But it wasn’t far off, and it was hardly as though the scoreline reflected poorly upon England.
The first ball of the series should have been a giveaway. In front of a raucous crowd in Melbourne, Mitchell Starc stormed in at 90mph and bowled Rory Burns for a golden duck with a full straight ball to leg stump. Having completely lost his footing, Burns looked baffled. On the other side of the world, heads were in hands.
Don’t get me wrong, Australia were very good. When playing away from home, visitors need to be considerably better than the hosts to overcome the home advantage. In the Ashes, it was the other way around. Australia’s young talent in Cameron Green with the ball and Marnus Labuschagne with the bat promises much for their future; established bowlers Starc, Lyon and Cummins laid down the groundwork for Australia to build advantages with the bat; the catching at slip, where England were most frequently derailed by sending deliveries down the offside, was almost faultless.
But that doesn’t mean that they outplayed an equally good England side, and the best way to examine this is by looking at a few stats.
1) Only one England player, Jonny Bairstow, scored a century. It was a good stand that was a welcome one from Bairstow, who had been usurped as wicket keeper by Jos Buttler and briefly dropped from the Test side altogether due to poor form. On the other hand, both Travis Head and Usman Khawaja played brilliantly to centuries – twice.
2) Roughly on average, it took Australia 71 overs to bowl England out; when Australia were at the crease, it took England 96 overs to send ten batsmen back to the dressing room (which also happened on fewer occasions).
3) In Australia’s first three innings alone in the first and second tests, England dropped 11 catches, as well as missing key chances for runouts and bowling a few no-balls. For a side which struggled for so long to make breakthroughs, it truly is a case of ‘what if?’.
So, what does this tell us about the England side and the immediate future of English Test cricket?
Throughout the series, whispers of disunity within the dressing room manifested in media interviews – Stuart Broad admitted that the efforts of the bowlers don’t matter if the batting line-up posts a low score. He is completely correct – England never made a first innings total of more than 300 runs, and the closest they got to that number (297 all out) was the drawn test at Sydney.
This failure to mount a significant challenge for the Australian bowlers is the standout problem for England. The opening line-up has changed so frequently, no long-lasting, productive, or rewarding partnership has had the chance to be fostered between two batsmen. During this series alone, there were three different combinations of the first two men out on the field. No first wicket stand was higher than 68 runs.
Since the end of the series, the focus of the media and of commentators has been upon the structure of domestic cricket within England, and whether this is impeding the batsmen from switching between different styles of play. Drastic and long-term change has been proposed by those such as Jonathan Agnew writing for BBC Sport, suggesting an overhaul of the county game in favour of a more streamlined first-class structure.
The increased emphasis on limited over games, such as the T20, T50 or The Hundred, means batsmen must play a far more aggressive game to score runs in a far more limited period. To put it into context, one innings of The Hundred is less than 17 overs, the same number as it took for England to score the above 68 runs. Test matches are stylistically very, very different. The county game, much closer to Test format, has been squeezed out to either side of the season to make room for new, shorter matches. But it would be taking the easy way out to blame current Test failures solely on this.
It could be argued that England, because of this, are struggling to scout the future of Test cricket. Revolving through the same few starting batsmen – Crawley, Burns, Hameed, Sibley – conveys how these factors have led to a drought of options. Bear in mind, this is not a problem that the Ashes alone has exposed; remember when Joe Root played at no.3, and even contemplated opening, due to a shortage of top order batsmen? Without Broad, Anderson, Root and Stokes, all in or approaching the twilight of their careers, the backbone of the side falls away.
In the short term, changes could be made in the dressing room. Chris Silverwood has won less than half of his matches in charge of England, and although England’s numbers have slightly improved – they are, for example, now more economical at wicket-taking than they were under his predecessor Trevor Bayliss – issues with selection have hampered the Test side’s chances, and it’s unlikely that he will keep the support of the ECB for very long. It seems that Joe Root wants him to stay, and as the majority of the dressing room seems to support Root as captain, that might prove significant. However, the lack of viable alternative to Root as captain or Silverwood as coach is worrying, suggesting that England could be stuck in a dip with little idea of what to change to lift their form once more. But if solely Silverwood departs, it would make little effect on overhauling the coaching team.
There is no world in which England can fully turn this around to present proper opposition to the West Indies in March; they then host New Zealand – arguably the best in the world at the moment – three months later. Past precedent cannot be used either for or against England in these scenarios, as there is too little depth and strength in the side compared to their last tournaments to make any kind of comparison. Long-lasting and drastic change seems to be the only way forward; the only thing that could be salvaged from the series might be the impetus to do it.
Image: [Wikimedia Commons]