The weather seemed to turn last week, and the conversation with it. All of a sudden it was autumn and, since what it’s like out is one of the few reliable topics of conversation in this country, friends sent despairing messages from Old Trafford complaining about how bitterly cold it was in the stands. The cricket season’s still got another fortnight‑and‑some to run, there’s this last Test at the Oval, and two more rounds of County Championship matches after the current one. They’ll be sweeping great piles of dead leaves from the outfield by the time it finishes on 26 September, six months and two weeks after the counties played their first warm-up games back in the middle of March.
The approach of the England and Wales Cricket Board to scheduling is something like a teenager’s to tidying their room, they just keep stuffing things in to the space they have. Sooner or later, the wardrobe is going to split open at the hinges. Next year it will be even messier, because everything is being rearranged around the Hundred, which will run through July and August, overlapping with the county one-day competition, a one‑day and a T20 series against Australia (gratuitous in one sense, not the other), and a Test and T20 series against Pakistan. “There will,” the ECB chief executive, Tom Harrison, said earlier this summer, “be some inevitable challenges with scheduling.” He made it sound as if it was beyond his control.
Well, so much the better for all us spectators, who will be spoiled for choice. It’s the players who will struggle. Take Joe Root. You may have missed it in between his being lbw to Josh Hazlewood for 71 and being bowled by Pat Cummins for a duck, but Root actually reached a century at Old Trafford last week. The second day of the fourth Test was the 100th day in the last 365 that Root has spent playing cricket for England, Yorkshire and the Sydney Thunder. Most of the rest were spent on planning meetings, press conferences, gym and net sessions and all that travel, around and across England, Sri Lanka, Australia and the West Indies.
The very first weekend after England won the World Cup, the players were already back in camp getting ready for the Ashes. “It’d be wrong to say I’m not,” Root said when asked if he was feeling tired a week later. “It’s been 10 weeks of hard cricket, high emotions, ups and downs, and it does take a lot out of you.” There was no point in his pretending otherwise, since the answer was written all over his face anyway. You can even see it at the crease, where his technique has grown frayed and worn, and his nimble, impish energy has been receded into a leaden determination, as though all he has left to run on are the fumes of his resolve.
Root has already played more innings, and faced more balls, in international cricket than any other batsman since he made his debut in December 2012, and the pattern has repeated itself this year. He has played 103 days of cricket in the last 365, Virat Kohli 88, Kane Williamson 87, and Steve Smith 50. Root has played 40 innings in international cricket this year, Kohli 32, Williamson 27, Smith 15. Root doesn’t asking for sympathy, and wouldn’t get much anyway since a lot of the workload is because he is so keen to play in all three formats of the sport. It was his choice to spend January in Australia playing in the Big Bash, after all.
“It is what it is,” Root said. But it’s not. It is what it oughtn’t to be. Root’s difficulties are part of a wider problem. It was only in 2013 that England and Australia scheduled two Ashes series back-to-back so that they could stop the series from clashing with the World Cup, and yet here we are, six years later, with the two events squeezed side‑by‑side into the same summer. As it has worked out, England and Australia both got what they deserved out of these past few months of cricket. The English had spent most of the past four years preparing for the World Cup, the Australians for the Ashes.
The ECB imagined it could have both. The model Andrew Strauss had in mind when he took over as England’s director of cricket in 2015 was the great Australia team that dominated Test and one-day cricket around the turn of the century. But they didn’t have to wrestle with T20 cricket, let alone the Hundred, didn’t have to worry about how their best players were going to fit in franchise cricket. The question for the next generation, then, is whether it is ever going to be possible for any one player, or any one team, to dominate all the formats of the sport, or whether the demands of red- and white-ball cricket have grown both so intense and so far apart that it is impossible for anyone to successfully span both for any length of time.
England’s experiment with picking the same players for both has certainly backfired on them this summer. And it is not going to get any more straightforward for whoever takes over from Trevor Bayliss as head coach. Strauss’s successor, Ashley Giles, has repeatedly said that the England team’s emphasis is going to be on winning the World T20 in Australia next winter. And next summer England’s best players – Root, Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer, Jos Buttler – will be split switching between the Pakistan Test series and the Hundred, every bit as keen to play on the BBC in the ECB’s lavishly resourced new format as they are in what we all call “the pinnacle of the sport”. It feels like too much of a good thing.