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If Covid-19 allows this tour to follow its scheduled path – and we await each round of tests with bated breath – there are still more than three weeks before England’s beleaguered cricketers fly home from Australia.
Already, the contest is over. Cricket has been played on 12 different days, but there have not been 12 days of cricket; the last, day three in Melbourne, lasted just 80 minutes. It had been the shortest Test in Australia for 71 years, and finished with England’s lowest total in this country since 1904.
Twenty-two days is a long time for England to stew, for blame to be apportioned from inside and outside the camp, and, frankly, for Australia to make the situation even worse. And that is before the inevitable official review even begins.
Nathan Lyon spoke in 2017/18 about ending English careers; then, though they thrashed England, Australia did not quite manage that. This time, the story is different. The nature of the defeat – so swift, so supine, so self-inflicted – makes change inevitable. Cricketers will play their last Test matches on this tour. Coaches will be pushed if they do not jump. Administrators will too, although probably not before that bonus lands.
Yes, the Ashes have been lost in a fashion even more devastating than recent precedent has prepared English cricket for. Four times previously in the central contract era – since the turn of the century – England have been 3-0 down after three games in Australia, but this feels the worst.
Worse than 2017/18, when Joe Root’s side were critically undermanned and undermined before they even boarded the flight. Worse than the era-ending whitewash of 2013/14, when Mitchell Johnson was so devastating. Worse than 2002/03 or 2006/07, against those great Australian teams.
There is some mitigation. England, for all their planning, were woefully underprepared because of the rain in Brisbane. Covid-19 has drained them mentally over the last 18 months, as the suits asked far too much of them. Injuries to Jofra Archer and Olly Stone saw them return to bowlers they should have moved on from in these conditions. England won the toss both captains would not have minded losing, and lost the two they were desperate to win.
But so much was self-inflicted. England have overthought selection, mangling their bowling attack and muddling their top order. Their batters, averaging 19 runs per wicket in the series, have been dismal, unable to live with an excellent, adaptable Australian attack that has been understrength since the third day of the series. They have made 11 ducks in six innings, compared to just five fifties, all of which belong to Root and Dawid Malan, the only men averaging even 30.
Root was in no mood to discuss his own future on, knowing that 22 days is plenty of time to reflect (and cricketing road to travel). He is not a rash man prone to emotional decisions.
By leading a second Ashes series down under Root was afforded an opportunity no England captain had been for more than a century. And entering a sixth year, Root’s captaincy would appear to be nearing the end of its natural life cycle. At Melbourne, Root equalled his predecessor Alastair Cook’s record of 59 Tests as England captain. All of Michael Atherton, Michael Vaughan, Andrew Strauss and Cook made it into the fifties, but not the sixties. In an era where their style has meant draws are rare, he has won more Tests than any other England captain, and lost more, too.
Because of that, because of the two lost Ashes down under, because of England’s dreadful record this year (this was a record ninth defeat), it is easy to conclude that Root’s should be one of the heads to roll. One of his unwanted days off this week happens to be his birthday, just his 31st; an opportunity knocks to return to the ranks, for a third and final chapter in his career, hopefully with run-scoring as ravenous as we have seen this year.
But that would lose England more than they would gain. Root has given his heart and soul to the England captaincy and, if he decides he has more in the tank, should remain in post for the time being. No, he is not the most tactically astute captain, but that is a long way down the list of reasons for England’s struggles this year.
If not Root, then who? We can forget Jos Buttler and Rory Burns, whose Test careers seem likely to end on this tour. Ben Stokes is an option, but a hugely risky one. He is an all-format all-rounder who plays in the IPL, and has spent time out this year with injury and mental health issues. He has too much on his plate already.
Root, with Stokes by his side, should be given a strong, imaginative new Head Coach – the sort they craved when Chris Silverwood was appointed in 2019 – and a blank slate to rebuild.
Root knows better than most that for England’s Test team, things will get worse before they get better. They need to move on from the duopoly of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, but their bowling will look shallow when they do.
The batting, Root aside, has been dreadful, but there are not candidates barging down the door. The best youngsters in the country are in the squad. Root knows so much about batting and has seen so many players in camp this year that he deserves a chance to choose who should make up his order moving forward; a small but significant change would be to give Ben Foakes a long run ahead of Buttler and Jonny Bairstow, who have been more miss than hit for too long.
Few could blame Root if he has had enough of a job that is demanding enough even before you are required to score three times more runs than your failing team-mates.
But Root is dutiful to a fault and, while there is a way to go yet, the early signs are that he has appetite to continue. For this debacle, every other leader in the England setup is at greater fault. You do not need 22 days to work that out.