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England’s next head coach needs to be a gnarly old bastard

Phil Walker by Phil Walker
@Phil_Wisden 5 minute read

With Chris Silverwood shown the door as England men’s head coach, Wisden Cricket Monthly editor-in-chief Phil Walker reflects on where it all went wrong and suggests what should come next.

And so it cranks up again, the rolling content circus of educated guesses and insider rumours, of hobbyhorse-mounting and the jostle for airtime, of partial denials from those in the frame and the backroom calculations of when to go all in. And here come the tossed-off Friday web columns, and the oddschecker emails – Kirsten the favourite, by a nose from the Gaffer, with JL as low as fives, Belly and bar at 16s – all feeding the industrial complex around cricket’s never-ending revue. This week English cricket dispensed with its director of men’s cricket, its men’s head coach and, in the last few hours, its assistant coach. Just another normal one. With barely a pause, we’re onto the next bit.

It can be brutal. It is brutal. They will come again, albeit in reduced circumstances, knowing that whatever good things they achieve in the game from now will never quite free them from the horrors of the last 12 months. For all that admissions of failure and concessions to weakness appear rather out of vogue in British public life – and let’s not kid ourselves that Messrs Giles, Silverwood and Thorpe, battered by a harrowing few months and aggrieved to be carrying the can, would have gone quietly – it’s nonetheless a moment in which three people will wake up jobless tomorrow, untethered from the cause which has obsessed and defined them for the last two years, unsure of the future and of themselves.

For Silverwood in particular, one feels that this was his big chance: plucked from the relative margins of the county game and absorbed into the England set-up, from where he would soon be wedged into the top job, he was always grappling with the speed and scale of his elevation, and never quite shook the self-consciousness that marked his unveiling in the autumn of 2019, when Giles sat alongside him in their matching blazers and like an overly protective dad explained to the gathered hacks that Chris was actually a bit nervous.

We know, too, that if the job never quite shrank to his size, he was hardly helped by Giles lumbering his man with the role of chief selector. Silverwood, in a pandemic, living out of a suitcase for 300 days a year, swabbing all over the world, already dedicating himself to a possibly dangerous degree to a job he never imagined would ever be his, and then his boss tells him to take on this other stuff? It was a fateful decision, as it turned out, for both men.

It became clear that Silverwood was finished when the players refused to back him after the Melbourne farce. But in reality the tipping point came earlier, when he stared down the lens and insisted that England would not have changed a thing about those first two Tests. As we have seen elsewhere, and may yet see again before this odiously compelling week is out, mounting a defence of the indefensible rarely ends well. Nor, for that matter, in our revolving moral sphere, does the whiff of self-preservation in the task of public service, and when Giles fronted up pre-Melbourne and said that they could get rid of him but the “systemic” problems would remain, there was a natural inclination from large swathes of punch-drunk punters to say, ‘Well, maybe, old boy, but at least it’s a start’.

For this is what happens: people lose faith. They run out of road. They weary of apologies. They’re insulted by the idea that a Test match can just be cancelled on the morning it’s due to begin. They recoil at the latest horror revelations, of the worst kind, emanating from some dark corner of the English game. They stand appalled yet helpless at the swindle of the ECB’s top brass awarding themselves over £2m in bonuses when the game is brassic and clubs, schools and charities are on their knees. (And if you think that’s dramatic, just speak to Chance to Shine’s embattled essential workers for a few minutes.) They look at the map, and those vast areas of dead space where cricket barely registers, and they grow tired. And to top it all off, the team they want to love keeps getting stuffed. In some respects, Giles and Silverwood were victims of circumstance. The timing got out of whack. They stood a chance, but it wasn’t much.

Beyond anger lurks despair. And yet, lodged somewhere between them, gasping for air, is this quaint but not quite discredited truth: That English cricket’s identity is so wrapped up in Test cricket, that if it wants to maintain some corner of the British conversation beyond the squeal of another knockabout here or a new competition there, then it will have to bind itself again to the thing that made it, or lose its voice for good.

There will be more than a few of you aghast that we’ve got this far without mentioning Joe Root, whose job, it would appear, is safe for now. His landmark torrent of runs – the third-most over a calendar year in Test history and 1,178 more (read that number again) than England’s next best runmaker in 2021 – has seemingly inoculated him from the chop.

“He’s bruised, hugely disappointed by what went on in the Ashes,” admitted Andrew Strauss, back again (temporarily) as England’s managing director of men’s cricket. But Root has the support of his hangdog dressing room (which must be feeling a little guilty) and there is an alarming dearth of other options to replace him, all in spite of a sequence of often jaw-dropping moves that pockmarked his Ashes strategy. Madly, moreover, he still wants to do it.  (Indeed there’s an irresistible Catch-22 element here: if he genuinely still wants it, and he keeps saying that he does, then surely there must be something wrong with him…)

What he needs, in the absence of a clear alternative candidate, is a head coach with a penchant for confrontational management, the antithesis of the avuncular committee man who’s just a tad surprised to be there. What he needs is a gnarly old bastard who’s seen it, done it and wants to do it all over again.

For too long an air of cloying cosiness has hung around the Test team. As the pendulum swings again, it’s time for a different kind of energy. You can even get Ponting at 10/1 if you shop around.

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