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Ashes 2021/22

Capitulations and salutations: Why would anyone put themselves through this?

Phil Walker by Phil Walker
@Phil_Wisden 5 minute read

Wisden Cricket Monthly editor-in-chief Phil Walker wonders what exactly we, and England, were expecting.

It could be that the following splurges amount to no more than inelegant variations on a lowly theme, in which case, let’s get it said now: it’s hard to see how Chris Silverwood survives this, and harder still to see Joe Root wanting to.

There are few people in cricket whose brilliance with a bat/ball roughly translates to their actual qualities, but Root is one of them. What you see is actually what you get. He will know that the job is a monster, always has been, but he may also have gazed into the dregs of his glass last night and offered the opinion that it’s never been so crushingly, maddeningly undoable as it seems to be now.

The England captain (he adds, pouring another) used to be one bloke, in charge, calling shots. He had one task, to build a Test team. Nothing else mattered much. There was clarity of purpose, undiluted authority. However rockily he ran it, it was still his show. At this point it’s worth reminding ourselves that plenty of Root’s predecessors knew fully well what they were employed for; it didn’t mean they did it especially well, and while it’s not exactly a comfort – for there’s no solace in watching this sad black dog of a cricket team – it’s at least helped make some sense of the latest psychodrama by framing it in history.

The Nineties has been dredged up, as if that era was the nadir against which all other capitulations should be measured. But hold up, what about the Eighties? Rebel tours, regulation 909, four skippers in a month, home defeats to New Zealand, India and Pakistan, and your best players either dodging World Cups because they couldn’t be arsed or chucking their coffins over the back fence to jump on a jumbo to Joburg? The point is that English cricket is no stranger to chaos.

And so we alight, seamlessly enough, on the Rootian decade, during which this celestial batsman has been shouted down by white-ball secularists and undermined by a system which no longer prioritises his particular gifts and function. The authority of the England Test captain has never been more diminished, though of course this is not entirely out of Root’s control. His affability may be a beautiful thing but it doesn’t get him the team he wants when the IPL is around the corner. Whatever selfishness he’s tried to cultivate doesn’t extend to self-preservation, and so he puts up and shuts up, and makes do with what he’s given. Root is not a natural agitator – he was born to bat. Eoin Morgan was born to do it his way.

It all builds up. Assuming he gets to Sydney for the fourth, Root will have captained England in more Test matches than anyone else, overtaking Cook’s mark of 59 matches. As it stands, midway through this Adelaide rinsing, they have each lost 22 matches in charge, while just this year, Root has presided over seven losses from 13.

And still he bats like a god.

There have been dispiriting signs over the last few days. A series of selections that tear through any claims to coherent ‘Ashes planning’. A lesser-seen spinner at Brisbane but not at Adelaide. Baffling strategies, as if large portions of day one at Adelaide could effectively be underwritten because, aptly enough, the lights were off, and then when they came on and a new ball was summoned, posting an extra cover and a leg slip.

He is not a proactive captain. He lets the game play out, and in Australia, on flat decks, that equates to a lot of passive sessions. Six times in the seven Tests against Root’s tourists, Australia have posted 400+ in their first innings. Such relentlessness must take a toll on his soul, and yet Root appears stuck in this medium-fast fever dream, conditioned to the lifeless beats of “attritional cricket” that Chris Silverwood was so keen to trumpet when he was first given the job. If he gets to the end of Hobart (and what we’d give for a couple of hundreds to take him there), he might just conclude that, at 31, and batting better than ever, he doesn’t want to dirty those genius hands much longer.

This has been an objectively harrowing few months for Silverwood. He was employed to improve a listing Test team and it’s gone nowhere. Young players of evident ability (Crawley, Pope) have shrunken over time. It’s taken three knocks for the team’s only stick-on opener to come unstuck. Jos Buttler’s thousand yard stare extends by the week. Anderson and Broad are unshiftable grandees in a botched reshuffle. Jack Leach has bowled 13 overs since March, while his only actual fast bowler is employed for one day’s work across two Tests. It wouldn’t be so bad, but Silverwood, an unlikely magus it must be said, openly referenced this mysterious ‘Ashes plan’. We just had to wait until Brisbane, and then, just like that, all would be revealed. Well, we got there and Tommy Cooper turned up.

Still, it’s too easy to Blame The Coach. The pally ease with which he saw off heftier candidates (Mickey Arthur, Gary Kirsten) may be symptomatic of the culture but it goes way beyond him. Some with straight faces have explicitly blamed The Hundred, but whether it’s a bit of that, or Tom Harrison’s big plump bonus, or the Rajasthan Royals GM, or a loss-leading 18-club model, or crap pitches or the Ruin of England or the poor sap who has to arrange four competitions in a summer that just happens to feature more red-ball cricket matches than any other domestic structure in the world – whatever it is that gets you, you can be sure there’s plenty more where that came from.

For this is where we’re at. In my lifetime, I’ve known a dominant, world-class English Test team for about eight, maybe nine years. Yet either side of that 2004-2012-ish dreamscape it’s been stark social realism, all of us trapped, like regulars in a Mike Leigh play, in this cycle of inescapable middleness. I’ve found the last six days of Ashes cricket as agonising as ever, a part of me almost enjoying the latest realisation that I still care so much. In a way it secures me to the game again, until it hits me that there’s something else at work, something unsettling around the notion that if it’s a form of madness to keep repeating the same mistakes, then what mass of delusions must be sustaining me to keep watching, hoping for a different outcome.

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