There’s a story of a cricketer ahead of the 2017/18 Ashes tour who, for a moment, thought he was going to make the touring party. Amid the sense of pride at seeing their name on a list of potential bolters was one reservation. Had he made the cut, he’d merely be another rabbit in the headlights given how the series was expected to go.
His fears were well-founded as England recorded a chastening 4-0 defeat. Those he knew in the squad spoke of an utterly dispiriting few months in Australia, riddled with uncertainty, anxiety and a degree of mistrust among the group in each other’s worth and motivation. The grief copped outside the changing room walls, in the press and in the stands, was worse.
One imagines there are a few like our man right now, relieved to have been watching a humiliating innings loss at the MCG for afar, which put England down and out just 12 days into this five-Test series. An urn spurned two days shy of the quarantine period they would have had to undertake had they got the nod. Perhaps there is even some envy towards them among the unlucky souls who are out there wearing this 3-0 scoreline like a weight around their necks. The adage of being a better player out of the side is reflecting back on those involved, already dubbed the worst bunch to dare compete in this historic series.
As Joe Root et al trudge out of Melbourne with two matches to play and a 5-0 scoreline incoming, it is important to outline some truisms. There remains an ingrained desire within most male cricketers to play Test cricket, and especially to represent their country in an Ashes. But over the last few years, both relationships have been severely tested and are now close to breaking point.
Amid the wreckage of all Ashes losses are clues to what led to the crash. And the black box of 2021/22 contains issues pertaining to selection.
It might not seem it, but the group England have right now were the best available to them. However, the way they have been utilised speaks of a lack of faith in all but a few. A distrust exacerbated by how much stock is placed in any series against Australia, but one prevalent for a while.
The broader spectrum of the selection process has been quietly unravelling in the background. Long before ECB director of men’s cricket Ashley Giles took the peculiar option of giving Chris Silverwood greater autonomy by appointing him the sole chief selector eight months ago.
One regular criticism has been around communication. Some within the current set-up have privately voiced their displeasure at both a lack of clarity and what they perceive as promises broken around matters ranging from getting picked in XIs and their subsequent roles, to the allocation of central contracts.
Moeen Ali is perhaps the best example of this: batting every position from one to nine, then not getting a Test deal in the 2020/21 cycle despite being earmarked for the first seven Tests of 2021 in Sri Lanka and India. He ended up playing the final three Tests last summer before calling it quits.
Another to suffer from this muddled thinking was James Bracey: mooted as a top-order option given his work for Gloucestershire but playing in the New Zealand series earlier this year as a wicketkeeper at number seven. The idea was to ensure he would not go uncapped ahead of this winter, but two ducks in three innings in an unfamiliar position underlined a counterproductive experience for the 24-year-old.
The result is an uncertain atmosphere within the Test team that afflicts newcomers. Of the 15 “full-time” batters to have debuted from 2015 onwards, four were in the XI at Melbourne, and it is no coincidence the one who has any kind of comfort is Dawid Malan, the most self-sufficient. A player who, beyond a sound technique, has an acquired level of selfishness to operate almost independently to the general malaise, not least because he has been burned before when he was dropped three years ago.
Those lower down the food chain are also exposed to this incoherence. ECB coaches often bemoan how many high-profile batters “hide” themselves lower down the order in County Championship games. But when one asked outright what position he should bat to improve his chances of selection, he was told in no uncertain terms that it did not matter. Similarly, one England scout referred to the prospective selection of a certain player as “deluded” despite posting significant numbers over the last few years. The reason given was the cricket played was “just not the same”.
A view remains within the ECB that those who post big numbers in the Championship are flawed. That is to say they have grooved methods against 75mph bowlers on low, seaming pitches that are not serviceable at Test level. The travails of Rory Burns, who peeled off five thousand-plus-run seasons in a row before his selection in 2018, and Dom Sibley, who rattled off 1,428 with five centuries in 2019 ahead of his, have only reinforced that. Likewise, the idea of taking Haseeb Hameed’s low hands on this Ashes tour was seen as a no-go at the start of this summer.
Such a response is indicative of the lack of respect towards county cricket and the growing disconnect between the international and domestic game. Not all who thrive in the latter are given an opportunity in the former. Indeed many find themselves churning consistently for no reward. Not even a “keep doing what you’re doing” from a selector. Naturally, when no one seems to want to let you in, you stop knocking on the door.
That is the graver issue at play. Because this attitude of disregard has become more pronounced, particularly over the last two seasons. To be a County Championship regular can be a thankless task at the best of times. But the pandemic has been a rude awakening for those who dedicate themselves to it.
Whether it was playing on sub-par outgrounds, or, as was the case at one county ground, watching the “proper” covers protecting a limited overs pitch for a televised game while the four-day one due to be used the next day was given a sheet, it has never felt more like an afterthought. That will only worsen going forward.
You can blame The Hundred and Twenty20 franchise competitions all you like. But beyond the more lucrative careers they provide, they are also competitions where the game is valued and the players feel important by association. No matter the history, or lack thereof, they are emboldened by a sense that who they are and what they do matters.
This, really, is the biggest task facing the ECB. To invest more money and spirit into the County Championship. To ensure it is not directly competing with other competitions in order to maintain strong competition. That in turn might lead coaches to do more coaching, especially of the fundamentals of the long-form grind. It would even improve pitches by easing the workload of ground staff, some of whom had to spin numerous plates across their squares to provide for up to four men’s competitions.
The regard for the Championship will improve among the players, not just for the few with a chance of silverware or higher honours. Thus the standard will rise, and maybe then the England management might find the environment is better suited to cultivating and refining cricketers for the next level. Not just a breeding ground for bad habits and coasters.
Silverwood will probably lose his job, and Giles may follow him. It may be the last time we see some of these players in international whites. New faces will come in for the series against West Indies in March. But the current slide will continue if the powers that be do not bridge the chasm that has opened up between the top and bottom of the professional game.
Test cricket as an institution will never be allowed to go bankrupt in England. But the ones who carry it forward on the field, others who still yearn to be a part of its world and those who provide the base to realise those ambitions have never been more disillusioned. The problem is far greater than even this most desperate of Ashes defeats makes it seem.