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Paul Collingwood has launched a remarkable defence of England’s players who were thrashed by Australia in the Ashes, saying their preparation for the series and the gruelling effect of two years in biosecure bubbles meant they went into it as “sitting ducks”.
The assistant coach also believes that the tourists never had a chance of succeeding, that despite their poor performances they “deserve medals not criticism”, and that the series “was one step too far”.
The manner of England’s defeat led Joe Root to call for a reset of a county system that he says is failing the national team, the England captain saying that “anyone that’s coming into the Test team is doing it in spite of county cricket, not because of it”. But Collingwood, three times an Ashes winner as a player, suggested the main cause of the team’s failure lies elsewhere.
He said: “I reckon if you had given us the best England cricketers from the last 100 years and put them in the same environment that those boys have lived in over the past two years with the preparation that we had going into this Ashes, even then they wouldn’t have had a chance.”
Collingwood had particular sympathy for those who came to Australia straight from the T20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates: “It’s the equivalent of the England football team being asked to go to a World Cup, then from that bubble into the Euros. Would you expect a performance from that scenario? It’s ludicrous.”
He believes that for all the talk about the impact of bubbles on cricketers it remains significantly underplayed. “You can’t even explain what it’s like until you experience it,” he said. “In 2020 we went into the Ageas Bowl and Old Trafford, and they don’t bring back nice memories. I’ve been scarred by what we had to go through in those places. You are living in the ground. You wake up, look out the window and there is the pitch. You cannot get away from it, can’t get out … If you’re a batsman, imagine if you nick off. All you want to do is get away, see the family, see friends that don’t talk about cricket. But you just can’t get away from it.
“We kept cricket going for those two years. We had to do it for financial reasons. Players have had to sacrifice things, as have their families. You don’t see families when you are in the bubbles, or if they do come in it’s an awful environment for them to be in. It’s going to be impossible to measure the effect that had.
“Australia is the hardest place to go to when you’ve got your best team in form and everyone’s playing consistently, never mind during a period of mental fatigue.
“Hopefully bubbles are starting to move out of cricket now, because we have to protect the mental health of the players and management. What I have seen over the last two years is that we’ve kept the show on the road, and we saved a lot of jobs doing that. The Ashes was one step too far.”
Collingwood’s concern is that the gruelling impact of the pandemic on international cricketers will cause some to suffer serious long-term psychological issues and others simply to give up on the game, pointing to the South African Quinton de Kock’s decision to announce his Test retirement at the age of 29, and his compatriot Chris Morris retiring from all forms of cricket at 34, both within the last month.
“Take someone like Chris Woakes, the most lovable and down-to-earth guy. I have seen him in some serious mental states,” Collingwood added. “We have seen Ben Stokes, someone we consider to be the most mentally tough cricketer in the world, being hit by this. I just hope there are no ramifications. These are things that might come out down the line. That’s what scares me.”
Collingwood left the Ashes squad midway through the series to spend some time at home before travelling to Barbados, where he is acting as head coach for the T20 series against West Indies while Chris Silverwood, who has been the subject of intense criticism because of England’s Test performances, takes a break from the game.
“To come away during the second Test was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Collingwood said. “I was watching it thinking: ‘I just want to be out there.’ But I had to come home because I needed to see my daughters.
“Going into the Ashes series off the back of a tough, tough bubble in Dubai I think was a step too far. I sympathise 100% with Spoons [Silverwood]. He has been criticised for rest and rotation. You understand when you are inside the bubbles that you have to get people out of there. He is one person who has really looked after his players and management. Him more than anyone else has been in those bubbles and tried to fight it through. I have 100% sympathy with Spoons, but I don’t think people really understand it unless they’ve been there.”
Collingwood said that a five-Test Ashes series, coming immediately after the T20 World Cup and which would inflict such strain on the players involved and their families, should never have been attempted.
“Yes, we made mistakes, 100% we made selection mistakes, we made toss mistakes, but the fact we actually turned up and agreed a five-match Ashes series, the guys should be given medals for that,” he said. “It would’ve been much better if we’d done two matches and then three next year. That would’ve been a great compromise. But no, Australia were not bothered that they were going to receive an England team who were mentally fatigued, they just wanted to get the product out there. They just wanted the Ashes. We were sitting ducks.”