There was a slightly anticlimactic feel to the announcement of England’s squad for the upcoming Ashes tour. Maybe it was only natural. The England management had, after all, spent a good two years talking about this team, and its goal of urn recovery, right up to the point when a sudden screeching of brakes indicated that hey, there might not even be an Ashes this year anyway. At which point, fans adopted the brace position and prepared themselves for the even-worse-case-scenario – not that England wouldn’t tour, but that they’d arrive at Brisbane with a team devoid of Root, Buttler, and anyone else with young family at home.
The fact that England coach Chris Silverwood was able to reveal a passenger list including literally every one of England’s current best Test players – unless you happen to be a diehard James Vince fan – should be cause for cheer, not to mention a hearty slap on the back to those who have made such an outcome possible. The problem is that Australia are still seen as such overwhelming favourites for the series that the first instinct isn’t to celebrate but to count the ways in which the published batting lineup has let England down in the past two years. Or to subtract the average speed of the bowling attack from the numbers of miles per hour which may have been available had Jofra Archer and Olly Stone not been injured. There is nothing some England supporters love to indulge in more than the anticipation of defeat.
And it is hard not to be overcome with a premonition of doom, based largely on a melancholy reflection of where Joe Root’s team were supposed to have been at this point in their evolution. It would perhaps be less poignant to all if Silverwood hadn’t painted such a bright and definite vision at the start of his tenure. When he took over from Trevor Bayliss in October 2019 he was already envisaging his Ashes-winning team. It had two key elements: a top order that scored big runs in the first innings, and a battery of 90mph-plus bowlers who could harry the Aussie batters in their own backyard.
For all his hard work and preparation, he has neither. Here’s what you could’ve won.
But then it’s been a long, tough and utterly unimaginable two years for all of us. The golden summer of 2019 seems a lifetime ago, an age of miracles and wonders; three of its most talismanic figures – Archer, and Ben Stokes, and Jack Leach – have phased out of view. No, England’s results since then do not suggest that they have built on their promise, but neither was that summer all super-overs and Headingleys: it was also getting bowled for 85 by Ireland, among other embarrassments.
In fact, if there was anything jarring about Joe Root’s leadership that summer, it was the sense that he didn’t quite appreciate or take responsibility for the latent flaws in his team, the ones that have since opened up into deep fissures, particularly in the batting. He will have no such illusions about the team he’s leading to Australia. There was a hint, in Silverwood’s words, that the underdog spirit may suit England better.
No reasonable person, in possession of the data, expects this England team to prevail where it failed in both 2013-14 and 2017-18. And yet that doesn’t mean they can’t. India’s historic victory in Australia earlier this year can be both an inspiration and even a model. Silverwood suggested as much, when asked about the ghost of England’s absent supreme-pace attack.
“Every plan has got to be adaptable,” he said, “and the one thing that we have got is supreme accuracy. What we’ll be doing is looking back over the plans that India used and adapting any of those to what our bowling attack is.” India travelled with only one outright fast bowler, Jasprit Bumrah; England will have Mark Wood. The rest of Joe Root’s attack – from the veteran pairing of Anderson and Broad, to newcomer Ollie Robinson – certainly has the capacity to imitate the patient and parsimonious approach that served India so well.
But there’s another trick they could copy, too. India used no fewer than 20 different players during their four-Test series, and in difficult, hostile touring conditions, their strength in depth was one of their greatest weapons. Mohammed Siraj began the tour as a net bowler; the rookie Washington Sundar played a key role in their series-sealing victory in Brisbane.
England have already proved what they can do with a third-string one-day side this summer. In Australia, they will have, alongside their 17-man squad, an accompanying Lions tour that may well provide useful back up along the road.
Of course, the thing that really hamstrung Australia in January was their inability to bowl India out, and that is not a circumstance that seems half as big a problem against England. Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood will surely be looking forward to the thought of an opening pair that are still bedding in and the unsettled rhythms of Dawid Malan, Ollie Pope and Jos Buttler in the middle order.
Whether Australia’s lack of Test cricket in 10 months proves a problem of preparation, or a refreshing break that will benefit their players, is one final question. England’s packed international schedule has been deservedly criticised, but it cannot be denied that they have unparalleled experience of playing under (and living in) harsh Covid restrictions. Silverwood calls them “battle-hardened”. We shall see.