Worst Ashes debacle to date – but of all England leaders Joe Root is the least blamed
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The ad Ashes tours are unique and relentless in their cruelty. It is not uncommon for teams to come to Australia and lose their first three matches. Only England should remain two more.
If Covid-19 allows this tour to go on its intended course – and we eagerly await each round of testing – there is still more than three weeks left before beleaguered cricketers from England return from Australia.
Already, the competition is over. Cricket was played on 12 different days, but there were not 12 days of cricket; the last, the third day in Melbourne, was only 80 minutes long. It was the shortest test in Australia for 71 years and finished with England’s lowest total in that country since 1904.
Twenty-two days is a long time for England to simmer, for the blame to be spread from inside and outside the camp, and, frankly, for Australia to make matters even worse. And that’s before the inevitable official review even begins.
Nathan Lyon spoke in 2017/18 about the end of English careers; then, although they beat England, Australia did not quite succeed. This time the story is different. The nature of defeat – so swift, so elongated, so self-inflicted – makes change inevitable. Cricketers will play their final test matches on this tour. Coaches will be pushed if they don’t jump. Admins will too, but probably not until this bonus arrives.
Yes, the Ashes were lost in an even more devastating way than the recent precedent prepared English cricket for. Four times before in the era of the central contract – since the turn of the century – England have lost 3-0 after three games in Australia, but that’s the worst.
Worse than in 2017/18, when Joe Root’s team was severely understaffed and undermined even before boarding the flight. Worse than the late-era whitewash of 2013/14, when Mitchell Johnson was so devastating. Worse than 2002/03 or 2006/07, against these great Australian teams.
There is some mitigation. England, for all its planning, was woefully ill-prepared because of the rain in Brisbane. Covid-19 has exhausted them mentally for the past 18 months as the costumes demanded too much of them. The injuries suffered by Jofra Archer and Olly Stone led them to return to bowlers from whom they should have left under these conditions. England won the draw, both captains would not have hesitated to lose, and lost the two they desperately wanted to win.
But so much has been self-inflicted. England overthought the selection, crippling their bowling attack and scrambling their first order. Their hitters, averaging 19 points per wicket in the series, have been dismal, unable to live with an excellent, adaptable Australian attack that has lacked strength since day three of the series. They made 11 ducks in six innings, compared to just five fifties, all of which belong to Root and Dawid Malan, the only men even averaging 30.
Root wasn’t in the mood to discuss his own future, knowing that 22 days is a lot of time to think (and walk the cricket road). He is not a reckless man prone to emotional decisions.
By leading a second Ashes series under Root, it was offered an opportunity that no English captain had been in for over a century. And entering a sixth year, Root’s captain job appears to be nearing the end of its natural lifecycle. In Melbourne, Root tied his predecessor Alastair Cook’s record for 59 Tests as England captain. All of Michael Atherton, Michael Vaughan, Andrew Strauss, and Cook went to the fifties, but not the sixties. At a time when their style made draws rare, he has won more tests than any other England captain and has also lost more.
Because of this, because of the two Ashes lost underground, because of England’s appalling record this year (it was a record ninth loss), it’s easy to conclude that Root should be one. heads to roll. One of her unwanted days off this week just happens to be her birthday, just her 31st; an opportunity presents itself to return to the ranks, for a third and final chapter of his career, hopefully with a score as ravenous as the one we’ve seen this year.
But that would lose England more than they would gain. Root has given his heart and soul to the English harbor master’s office and, if he decides he has more in the tank, should stay on for the time being. No, he’s not the most tactically astute captain, but it’s far down the list of reasons for England’s struggles this year.
If not Root, then who? We can forget Jos Buttler and Rory Burns, whose Test careers seem set to end on this tour. Ben Stokes is an option, but extremely risky. He is a versatile player in all formats who plays in the IPL and has spent time this year with injuries and mental health issues. He already has too much on his plate.
Root, with Stokes by his side, is expected to receive a strong and imaginative new head coach – the kind they needed when Chris Silverwood was appointed in 2019 – and a blank slate to rebuild.
Root knows better than anyone that for the England test team things are going to get worse before they get better. They have to leave the James Anderson and Stuart Broad duopoly, but their bowling will feel shallow when they do.
The stick, aside from Root, has been appalling, but there aren’t any candidates barging in the door. The best young people in the country are in the team. Root knows so much about the stick and has seen so many players at camp this year that he deserves a chance to choose who should compose his order to move forward; a small but significant change would be to give Ben Foakes a long lead over Buttler and Jonny Bairstow, who have been more misses than touchdowns for too long.
Few people could blame Root if he’s had enough of a demanding enough job even before you’re forced to score three times as many points as your failing teammates.
But Root is dedicated to a fault, and while there is still a ways to go, the first signs are showing he wants to keep going. For this debacle, all the other leaders of the English configuration are more responsible. You don’t need 22 days to resolve this issue.
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