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The Blame Game

Getting thrashed in the Ashes is never easy. It’s humiliating. It’s embarrassing. And it’s about as much fun as watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse with a hangover. However, when it happened in the 1990s and early 2000s we had an excuse (of sorts). We were playing against one of the best teams ever – a side boasting all time greats like Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, and Steve Waugh. There’s no shame in losing to a team like that.

The current Australian team, on the other hand, is good but far from the finished article. They have a talented bowling attack, which was always likely to be a handful in their own backyard, but they’re currently ranked 5th in the world test rankings. England, meanwhile, are 3rd.

As a result, I can’t agree that England have simply lost to a better team and therefore all the gnashing of teeth is misplaced. Australia might well have the edge over us at home, but are they really ten wickets, 120 runs, and an innings and 41 runs better than us? Honourable defeat in a competitive series would have been acceptable. Losing the first three tests by massive margins and surrendering the Ashes before Christmas is not.

So where does the blame lie? This email I received from reader Tom Williams typifies the angst many feel:

If there has to be a postmortem, a fallout, then attention has to be turned towards the selectors and the senior management rather than the players …

I still cannot understand the Vince at three decision. A batsman who continually gets out playing rash shots outside off-stump, shots that should be leaves. This should not be a surprise. Vince had an extended run in the team. He played seven tests, failed to reach a fifty and had a test average of 19. He managed an average of 32 in the County Championship in 2017 from 12 games. These are not figures that warranted a recall. Keaton Jennings, despite having a dismal summer for England, averaged higher than Vince in tests before the start of the Ashes and had a test century in India to his name. Gary Ballance averaged 67 for Yorkshire in the summer and has heaps of international experience.

Mark Wood could make his comeback in Melbourne. This should happen. He is with the Lions. He has played in an Ashes series before and he has the ability to get the ball zipping about at 90mph. However, reports indicate that Tom Curran – another right arm medium-fast seamer – will play instead. I don’t understand the thinking.

Moeen Ali is also a huge concern. He’s bowled like a man carrying an injury and has been one of our most expensive bowlers. The England management must have had concerns and must have seen him bowling in the nets before the tests. Perhaps, in the end, he’s played because England’s back up spinner is Mason Crane. A talented but uncapped twenty year old who averaged 44 with the ball in the 2017 season.

These are not digs at Mason Crane, at James Vince, or Moeen Ali. The fault lies in the decisions of the England selectors. This was a curious squad whose fragility has been proven by a ruthless Australia. If they are to have any chance of avoiding a whitewash then the pack has to be reshuffled.

It’s pretty hard to argue with any of this. By picking seamers who are all very similar, a main spinner who wasn’t fully fit (and has never bowled well abroad), plus selecting flawed batsmen who have failed before, England really shot themselves in the foot. However, on the other hand, it’s undeniable that England would’ve been a lot more competitive had the senior players performed – no matter who the supporting cast around them was. 

With the exception of James Anderson and Jonny Bairstow, who have done reasonably well, the other senior players – I’m talking mainly about Root, Cook and Broad here – have been massive disappointments. It’s hard to talk about any of them as world class operators when they’ve failed so miserably in the biggest series in the English cricketing calendar. Indeed, there’s an argument that England should now move on from Cook and Broad.

Joe Root’s performance has been a bit of a mystery. Whilst I wasn’t sure whether his game was particularly suited to Australian conditions – I expected him to get into trouble on the backfoot outside off-stump occasionally – I’m surprised that he’s yet to make a single match altering score. His captaincy has also been poor at times. I thought Ricky Ponting’s comments yesterday were very interesting. Although it’s a bit below the belt to depict Joe as a ‘little boy’, I do think there are question marks about his leadership.

The problem, of course, is that Root hasn’t had the opportunity to hone his captaincy skills before assuming the most pressurised job in English cricket – a flaw inherent in the English system. What’s more, there are few alternatives to Root as captain. Indeed, one could argue that Alastair Cook only continued in the job for so long because there really weren’t any compelling alternatives.

As for Cook and Broad I think their legacies are now somewhat tarnished – especially Alastair’s. I’ve long argued that Cook is a tad overrated, and not quite good enough technically to withstand bowling of the highest quality, and I think this series (plus his numerous efforts against South Africa) have proven this to be the case. I still think he’s a good test opener – you don’t play 150 test matches and score big runs against international opponents unless you’re an accomplished player – but he’s clearly not the boy wonder so many have wanted us to believe.

In the case of Stuart Broad, once again I think he’s been exposed as a good but not world class performer. I’d probably rank him alongside guys like Peter Siddle, Andre Nel, Tim Southee, and Kemar Roach rather than top draw performers like Jason Gillespie, Craig McDermott, or even Andrew Flintoff. Both Broad and Cook have accomplished so much due to their longevity (and lack of competition for their places) rather than possessing any transcendent talent.

What this series has shown, therefore, is that England’s senior players simply aren’t as good as many thought. But if this is the case, what more could the ECB, the management, and the selectors have done to prevent this defeat? Surely we’ve come full circle but, in the process, demonstrated that England simply did lose to a better team? After all, Australia’s best players have lived up to the hype but England’s haven’t.

At this point one has to look beyond this series and see things in their broadest context. And this is where (surprise, surprise) it all comes back to the ECB. After all, if many of us suspected that Cook and Broad would struggle – Cook’s productivity in particular has been on the decline for a while – then it’s reasonable to ask why they were playing in the first place?

The answer to this question, of course, is that the selectors had no alternative. There were no prodigious young opening batsmen or prolific young pacemen ready to take their places – even though this tour specifically required batsmen who can play high class quick bowling (which Cook can’t) and bowlers who can bowl fast (which Broad can’t).

Think of it this way. Imagine if Peter Siddle was English. How many test wickets would he have taken if he’d played in over one hundred tests? Broad has taken 393 in 112 tests. Siddle took 211 wickets in 62 tests; therefore I think it’s fair to argue that if Siddle was English he’d still be in the team, have approximately 400 test wickets, and probably be described by all and sundry as a modern English great. But would his longevity reflect his ‘greatness’ or just the fact we had nobody any good to replace him?

Australia, of course, don’t have these succession problems with their bowlers. They were able to leave out Siddle a while ago (even though he’s never let anyone down) and bring in the likes of Pat Cummins, which has enhanced their cutting edge spectacularly. England, on the other hand, have had to make do with the same old warhorses irrespective of whether they’re past their best.

This Ashes defeat, therefore, is indisputably the ECB’s fault. The production line of young talent coming into the England side is probably the board’s single biggest responsibility. Yet for multiple factors – most importantly the number of people playing cricket and watching it on TV – they have failed.

What’s more, the ECB haven’t even made the most of the talent available. Fast bowling and quality spin are the clear difference between the two teams. Yet within the space of 24 hours, we’ve had Dawid Malan complaining that the English system ruins our young fast bowlers, and Mason Crane bemoaning how the scheduling of championship games in April and September (thus leaving the best months of the summer for white ball cricket) has hurt the development of English spinners.

None of this is rocket science. Anyone who follows English cricket closely can see it. And any idiot with a PC can start a blog and write about it. So why haven’t the ECB done anything about it? And why do they keep taking steps that will further erode the first class game and hurt our test team even further?

One has to assume that the ECB simply doesn’t care about winning the Ashes away from home. In fact, they probably don’t particularly care about England winning away full stop. Their strategy, it seems, is to cash in on the popularity of T20 whilst winning enough home tests to keep the crowds coming in and the social media dissidents at bay. 

James Morgan

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The Blame Game


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