An Ashes tour heading south after two heavy defeats naturally brings players and the backroom setup into focus but, while changes to the XI now look inevitable, Chris Silverwood remains adamant he is the right person to be England’s head coach.
Upon removing Ed Smith as national selector in April and turning these duties over to the head coach, the director of England men’s cricket, Ashley Giles, said Silverwood would have a “free run” at trying to regain the urn from Australia, albeit with the caveat that defeat would see “pressure on all of us”.
Sitting 2-0 down on a tour that has been the much-referenced focus of the Test team for the best part of two years, all wriggle room has now evaporated going into the Boxing Day Test. Silverwood, fresh from what he described as a “truthful” dressing‑room debrief after the 275-run defeat in Adelaide, at least acknowledges the situation.
Asked whether his position is now on the line before the squad travelled to Melbourne, Silverwood replied: “It always is. When you take a job like this you accept that. It is what it is. Do I believe I’m the right man? Yes I do or I wouldn’t have taken the job in the first place. You’re under pressure constantly.
“I do believe I can turn it around, I believe I can. We have had those honest chats and I believe I have the right coaching staff around me to make that happen as well.”
Not every issue falls at the feet of Silverwood, his assistants or the captain, Joe Root. Since the pandemic struck, England’s fixture list has been crunched. Rotation was well‑meaning but chiefly signed off from above with the Indian Premier League a non-negotiable. Sold as a chance to blood fringe players, it proved damaging to the Test team’s continuity while the T20 team went unaffected.
England’s shortcomings with the bat, illustrated by two match-defining collapses, are longstanding too, reflecting a domestic system in which white-ball revenues are prioritised over red-ball development. Root is the sole player to average more than 40 in Test cricket since his own debut in 2012, and those tried include experienced pros, players picked on potential and international short-form talent that has not transferred. Losing two fast bowlers in Jofra Archer and Olly Stone to injury was unfortunate.
Nevertheless, strategy has been highly questionable at times and exacerbated by two wasted years in the spin department, flitting between Dom Bess, Jack Leach, Moeen Ali or simply all-seam attacks regardless of conditions. And Silverwood and Root, it must be said, appear to read pitches like they are written in the Russian alphabet.
Five seamers and bowling first on a surface that started out green at the Gabba was surely the value play against Australian batsmen returning from a year out of Test cricket. Instead England batted first (doing so lamentably) and picked the subsequently plundered Leach after a summer on the sidelines. For the day-night Test in Adelaide they then eschewed a frontline spinner, only to see the surface rag for Nathan Lyon.
Even with hindsight Silverwood and Root have refused to accept these as mistakes. It may be the public stubbornness of two otherwise personable Yorkshiremen, and acknowledgement has occurred privately. But looking back to the pink-ball Test in Ahmedabad this year, when England picked four seamers and Leach before 28 of the 30 wickets taken fell to spin, a pattern has emerged.
England’s series has also been plagued by dropped catches and two wickets have been struck off for no-balls, while fielders have consistently missed when shying at the stumps. Shortcomings in talent are one thing, but there are few excuses for the basics of the game going missing at international level, however limited the preparation time. “Unacceptable,” was Silverwood’s appraisal. “We have to do better.”
Even acknowledging the extremely challenging pitches at the back end of the India tour last winter, England’s past 11 Tests have returned just one victory. As such, Boxing Day at the MCG has taken on huge importance regardless of whether the destiny of the urn appears already settled by the weight of history.
Silverwood backed Root’s public appraisal of Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Ollie Robinson not bowling full enough in Adelaide – albeit while also stating the Hawk-Eye data showed these lengths to be similar to those of the hosts – and said this made up part of the team’s debrief. The topic has raised eyebrows in Australia, most notably those of the country’s decorated former captain, Ricky Ponting.
“I nearly fell off my seat when I heard that,” Ponting told cricket.com.au. “Whose job is it then to make them change? Why are you captain then? If you can’t influence your bowlers on what length to bowl, what are you doing on the field?”
Silverwood went on to highlight how well players such as Marnus Labsuchagne (103 and 51) and Steve Smith (93 and six) left the ball compared to his own players and it is here where changes are expected beyond a recall for the rested Mark Wood among the seamers. Ollie Pope may have to be dropped given his struggles against Lyon and the openers, Haseeb Hameed and Rory Burns, are also vulnerable. Jonny Bairstow, Zak Crawley and Dan Lawrence are the spare batsmen on tour but they have not played since the warmup match, while a raft of hopefuls enjoying the low-key Big Bash League are on standby.
Australia, meanwhile, have added the Victoria seamer Scott Boland to their squad, a call-up that suggests Josh Hazlewood will not be ready after his side strain. Pat Cummins, the captain, will return after his close‑contact Covid issue in Adelaide, upping the quality of a team piling pressure on England’s batsmen, bowlers and brains trust.