Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. England started work on theirs two years ago. “Job No 1 is to help Joe to keep moving forward so that in two years’ time we can go to Australia and make a real impact,” said Chris Silverwood in his first press conference after he took over as England’s head coach.
Usually it’s the players and coaches who say the press talk about the Ashes to the exclusion of everything else. This year it’s been the other way around: Silverwood has come back to his plans for this winter again, and again and again.
He did it in March when explaining the team’s rotation policy during their 3-1 loss in India. “We talk about working our way towards the Ashes and I want the squad to arrive there fit and in form,” he said. “We want to make sure everyone arrives at that point in as good a place as possible.” He did it again in May, before they lost 1-0 at home to New Zealand. “We want to travel to Australia fitter, faster, leaner, more ready than ever before, so we get off the plane and it is ‘Right, we’re here, we mean business, and we’re full of confidence, and that will take us through.’ ”
The BBC even turned out a six‑part podcast – “Project Ashes” – detailing all the backroom planning that has gone on, the selection and rotation, the hotels, the training venues, the diet, the strength and conditioning, the Lions squad (who are being battered by Australia A). In one episode their performance director, Mo Bobat, explained the approach for the first Test: “There’s no debating Australia have a formidable record at the Gabba, you can be intimidated by that or you can frame it as ‘they depend on winning at the Gabba to win their series’. Frame it as a challenge. Get something from that game and Australia are in difficult territory, territory they are not used to.”
At the end of it all, England ended up leaving out their two senior pros, James Anderson and Stuart Broad, so they could open the attack with two men, Chris Woakes and Ollie Robinson, who have never taken the new ball together, and include a spinner, Jack Leach, who hasn’t bowled in Test cricket in nine months because they didn’t trust him to play all summer, and an all-rounder, Ben Stokes, who hasn’t batted since he faced seven balls in the Hundred in July. Then they got themselves in such a tangle over what to do after the toss that they ended up missing out on the best bowling conditions of the match and were rolled for 147 after winning it.
There is a lot to unpick in all this. If the BBC needed six episodes for the run-up, they’ll take 12 for the debrief. There is Covid, of course, and the quarantine restrictions which meant they had to rest and rotate their players, the persistent rain in Australia, which spoiled their practice matches, injuries to Jofra Archer, Olly Stone, and Stokes, the calamitous drop-off in the form of Dom Sibley, Zak Crawley, and Dom Bess, who they had invested so much hope in over the last year. But at the bottom of it all there is a bigger problem. It feels like England have confused having a plan with being prepared.
Because a lot of this, the weather, the injuries, the poor form, are exactly the sort of problems you ought to expect in sport, and which a well-run team should be able to work around. Plans change. If you’re well prepared, you cope. That doesn’t necessarily mean they would win, just that they wouldn’t lose by nine wickets in three days and three hours of play.
England didn’t succeed in Australia in 2010-11 just because they had dotted every i on the schedule, but because over the year running up to the series they had developed a resilience, and a sense of resolve that meant they didn’t fold when they found themselves 221 runs behind after the first innings of the series. That strength comes from the character of the players, and the culture of the team. This England squad has plenty of matchwinners in it, but do they have the conviction, cohesion, and culture which marks India’s cricket at the moment, or which allows New Zealand to become the world’s No 1 Test team on such slender means?
England may still find their way back into this series. It’s possible. But if they do, it will be because someone among them has become today’s hero. Usually it’s Joe Root. In the past 12 months, England have won four Tests. Root has top-scored (and been the only century-maker) in every one of them. But it could be Broad, or Anderson or Stokes, who have all done it before.
The last time England turned in a genuine team performance was their victory against Pakistan at Old Trafford in August 2020, when three batsmen made fifties and six bowlers took at least two wickets each. The trouble with this way of doing things is you’ve nowhere to go if the hero doesn’t show. And you certainly can’t make a plan around it.