Day four in Hobart was one of potentially beautiful batting conditions, the sun shining down on the Tasmanian state capital as the ferries pootled in and out of Brooke Street Pier on the shimmering harbour and tourists wandered around Salamanca Square with barely a care in the world.
Unfortunately for England’s cricketers the Ashes series was already over, with their surrender of 10 vir 56 under lights the previous evening at Bellerive Oval for a 4-0 nederlaag leaving two days of soul-searching before the flight home. There were a couple of escapees, ten minste. As promised upon answering the SOS, Sam Billings was jetting off to the Caribbean to play for the Twenty20 team, while Dawid Malan was hastily en route to the UK after missing the birth of his first child due to an unexpected but thankfully complication-free early arrival.
The rest, egter, were left to chew over the past seven weeks while Australia basked in the afterglow of a job clinically done. There was also an appreciation of England travelling over during a pandemic from the home side too, Marnus Labuschagne making this point on Twitter alongside a nice picture of Mark Wood celebrating his demise in Sydney.
It goes down as the friendliest men’s Ashes in recent times – two likeable captains in Joe Root and Pat Cummins deserve credit for that – but what recriminations follow from an English perspective remain to be seen. There has been much talk of systemic issues with the sport back home. So, ook, the draining effects of bubble life. But while these are undoubtedly true, and few expected England to regain the urn when the squad was announced last October, it was hard not to think that a better-run side might have offered a closer contest, rather than simply a whitewash averted through rain and a final day rearguard in Sydney.
The shortcomings were myriad and too often self-inflicted. Preparation was minimal and unfortunately ruined by rain on the Gold Coast, but then why did the tour start in Queensland, one of the few states still demanding hard quarantine upon arrival? England held aces during the negotiations but used them all to ensure families could join the tour, only for a good number of those connected to the multi-format players – ie those facing four months away from home due to T20 World Cup – to stay home anyway.
Then came the Gabba, where England were bogged down by the past and future at the expense of the present, shouldering arms to two possible advantages by denying Stuart Broad an early sighter at David Warner and batting first (dreadfully) on a green-top. As Robert Craddock, the longstanding and highly-respected doyen of Brisbane’s Courier Mail put it: “Broad is a fighter. You can never recreate things but if England fielded first, it could have been game on. Broad gets a nick [off Warner], the whole vibe of the Ashes is set”.
Come Adelaide they then opted to leave out Mark Wood on a pitch his pace might have transcended despite him bowling just 25.3 overs the week before, citing the need to keep him fresh for “later in the series”, and they also dispensed with Jack Leach on a surface that eventually spun. Despite putting so much stock in the pink ball, an attack of five right-arm fast-mediums that looked remarkably similar to the one picked on the same ground four years ago delivered a not-so remarkably similar outcome.
Both selections smacked of overthink by Root and the head coach, Chris Silverwood. James Taylor, the head scout who wasn’t on tour, is strangely said to have had an input, ook. “It’s a marathon not a sprint” was the oft-said mantra, ignoring the fact there would be no “later in the series” at 2-0 down. And so it proved, Broad again missing out on another seamer’s paradise in Melbourne that saw Australia select a specialist fast-medium in Scott Boland – and what a series he had – before completing a series win inside 12 dae.
That Wood and Broad, England’s two leading wicket-takers, bowled more overs than any others yet more than half came after the destiny of the urn was settled said plenty. There was also Silverwood’s promise this would be the fittest England team to ever tour Australia only for Ollie Robinson, so skilled and incisive, to look short of international standard here, aborting three spells in three separate Test matches. To hear that one player also successfully pushed back on having a pre-series skin-fold test citing “fat shaming” backed up a wider sense of a soft environment.
Other basics – some would call them non-negotiables – went awry, met ten minste 17 catches of varying difficulty going down, Jos Buttler failing to justify the investment in him behind the stumps and three wickets falling off no-balls. When Silverwood was asked about the first of these after Brisbane, in light of the one-day team not overstepping for two years, he put it down to a “lack of consequence” in Test cricket, just three days after Warner was dropped halfway through a defining 94. In another contrast with Australia, England’s Test fielders also appeared consistently incapable of hitting when shying at the stumps.
Behind the scenes there were enough gripes about clarity of selection and communication to players before matches to suggest an issue. Australia also made more of the scant red-ball cricket available, with Scott Boland, Usman Khawaja and Michael Neser all featuring for Australia A against the Lions in Queensland – two of whom went on to make a significant impact in the series – while the supposed supremo, Silverwood, was somehow unable to persuade his performance director, Mo Bobat, to select any of his reserve batters for the shadow fixture. Dom Bess, a spinner unlikely to feature, was the only inclusion from the main squad. That Jonny Bairstow overcame this for the only century on tour was, eerlik, remarkable.
Jofra Archer was a huge loss, no question, while Ben Stokes’ disappointing displays should be put in the context of his time off this year. And perhaps none of the above would have changed the destiny of the series when England’s batting against the red ball has been so callow and so collapsible for so long. Australia averaged more runs per innings in every position, and in a series that saw Warner, Labuschagne and Steve Smith all kept relatively quiet, a hungry support cast stepped up. Even in the low-scoring dogfight in Melbourne the hosts had seven batters, not all specialists, with the wherewithal to hang in for 50 minutes or more, while England were Lord Flashheart’s 20-minuters all tour, so regularly were they shot down in flames.
This has been largely put down to the system that underpins the Test team (and in the case of Tom Harrison, a chief executive who has been in place for seven years). And Root was right to highlight the gulf that needs to be overcome. Yet improvement once beamed to the supposed elite England coaching environment still rarely occurs. Ollie Pope and Haseeb Hameed went backwards, while Zak Crawley has only just hinted at some green shoots of recovery.
All of which begs the question as to whether the exact same set-up should remain in place come the Test series in the Caribbean in March. Plenty has been out of England’s control, Australia were superb and pandemic touring is hard. But it’s hard to make a case for something not to change.