It’s vaguely amusing to recall now that for much of the year, the very existence of this Ashes series was the subject of fraught, board-level speculation. Tense negotiations were conducted between Cricket Australia and their counterparts in England. State governments, federal government, public health experts and players all had to bestow their approval. Would the 2021-22 Ashes happen at all?
Well, as it turned out, not really. Around 850 overs separated the dismissal of Rory Burns on the first morning in Brisbane and the dismissal of Jimmy Anderson on the third morning in Melbourne: the series decided in a little over nine days’ worth of cricket. And so as the victorious Australians celebrated wildly on the MCG outfield, it was possible to wonder whether they were overdoing things a touch. Was there any real satisfaction to be taken in despatching an opponent this easily? Did it not all feel a little hollow? A little comfortable? A little embarrassing?
But then perhaps we are guilty here of reducing the contest as a whole to England’s desiccated level. After all, to play Test cricket for Australia in 2021 still essentially means something. Winning Test matches for Australia still means something. The Ashes still means something, and not just as a rivalry or as a commercial concern but as a basic test of sporting ultimacy, a seeker of truth, a gauge of character.
Nobody exemplified this better than Scott Boland, the country’s newest cricketing hero after taking six for seven on debut. Boland is a fine bowler and a lovely story to boot, but he will be the first to admit that none of this really made sense. Never again will he enjoy the serendipity of being able to face this opposition, on this ground, at this point in their sporting trajectory. All he really had to do was turn up on time, put his socks on and not get no-balled for throwing. And yet in running in hard and doing his best, Boland accorded this contest a measure of respect that England had long since mislaid.
What does it mean to play Test cricket for England in 2021? This is a more contested question. England have issued caps to 25 players this calendar year, from Jofra Archer to James Bracey, Dan Lawrence to Dom Bess, and it has long become impossible to discern who deserves what. Somewhere amid the bubbles and the brain-fades, the revamps and the rotations, the very point of the England Test team has become somehow blunted, dissolved, obscured. None of this makes it inevitable that you will get rolled over for 68 in bright sunshine. But it certainly doesn’t help.
A thought exercise: if you had to re-select an England squad for this Ashes tour, knowing what we do now, would it have been possible to do anything differently? Maybe you send out a distress flare to Dom Sibley or Liam Livingstone or even Darren Stevens. Maybe you decide not to rush a half-paced Ben Stokes back from injury. But the raw materials of this team do not fundamentally change. This is what there is. Instinctively, we want to believe that there are 11 cricketers in England capable of collectively scoring more than 68 in a completed Test innings. But maybe there aren’t.
This is, after all, a game England have been playing for a while. It’s tempting to regard this as a nadir, but England were all out for 67 five Ashes Tests ago. Before that there was the 85 against Ireland, the 58 against New Zealand, eight wickets for Roston Chase, 10 wickets in a session against Bangladesh. Every time lessons were learned, approaches were altered, decks were shuffled, and the same thing happened again. Nobody gets to act surprised at any of this.
Naturally, there is a certain sense of climax here. Joe Root and Chris Silverwood will probably pay for this latest debacle with their jobs. Silverwood is clearly a capable coach, but something about this team and this moment appears to have detached him from reality, like a waiter in a restaurant talking you through the specials while the kitchen slowly catches fire behind him. Root is approaching five years as captain and either there’s nothing more he can do, or he’s actually making things worse. Either way, best to move on and concentrate on the one skill in which he genuinely has a claim to greatness.
And yet, what is the wider aim here? Where is the institutional will to turn this team around? Will it really come from the England and Wales Cricket Board, which derives the vast majority of its revenue from selling home Tests and short-form cricket to punters and broadcasters? Producing Test teams that win big overseas series may be very nice, but it doesn’t keep the tills ringing. Staging a high-quality County Championship at the height of summer may produce better cricketers, but it won’t keep the bonuses flowing.
Besides, 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 isn’t Pakistan or India. The game does not live and breathe in our streets or our public spaces or our school system. History and tradition aside, cricket does not flow through the national bloodstream any more than judo or surfing or esports.
Perhaps a close parallel is with the West Indies around the turn of the century: powered 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. Over time they would recover their dignity. They would be competitive. They would occasionally even win. But their true calling –driven largely by commerce and circumstance – would be to produce brilliant short-form cricketers for the global marketplace. As for Test cricket, the sun had already set and risen somewhere else.
In the short term, of course, England have no greater objective than to summon the basic species pride to make the last two Tests vaguely competitive. We’re not even talking a win 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 to be answered. What is this team for? What does it want to be? Why should people care about it? English cricket has spent years labouring under its many delusions. The greatest of all would be to assume that this is as bad as it gets.