Test cricket’s next challenge: how to avoid another lopsided Ashes series

On what was supposed to be the day after the Hobart Test, all was quiet. England had wrapped up an epochally anaemic Ashes defeat leaving enough spare days to squeeze in an embarrassing visit from police to the world’s meekest sunrise rager, telling off cricketers who had been drinking in their whites for longer than they had been required to play in them. The constabulary arrived to extinguish a cigar sparked by England staffer Graham Thorpe, who then decided to video the players present.

It ended up at a newspaper within a day. As batting coach of a team that had just been bowled out for 147, 192, 185, 68, 188 and 124, among other embarrassments, you for one thing might be short cigar-worthy moments, and for another might be inclined to keep your head down.

But no. That’s not the way for England. Head coach Chris Silverwood will try to hang on, despite being made sole selector a year ago and getting every team wrong since. Director of cricket Ashley Giles, one of those complex administrative jobs that apparently former Test cricketers are uniquely qualified to occupy, will try to hang on. Chief executive Tom Harrison will try to hang on – like his Australian counterpart James Sutherland after the sandpaper scandal, spruiking that his regime is uniquely suited to fix the problems it has spent years ignoring or exacerbating. And Joe Root, fine man, fine player, uninspired captain, will stay on, because everybody else’s batting is worse than his leadership.

With a day or two for the head to clear, it is hard to know what to make of the Ashes. The needs of marketing demand that it be presented as the great rivalry, the biggest of the big, the two oldest teams in one of the few five-Test series remaining on the calendar. The reality is most often likely to underwhelm. The wallpaper now is always 2005, the promise of heights that seem recent enough to still be relevant. Since then, 2019 has been the most entertaining, proving that teams don’t need to be stacked with great players. Flaws can be as absorbing – they just need to be evenly distributed.

Which means that after a series like the one we’ve just seen, it is reasonable to ask what is the point of England visiting Australia. Across four of the last five tours, the scoreline for the home side is 18-0 from 20 starts. Even the outlier series that England won 10 years ago only reversed the primacy, with three thrashings by an innings.

Even among that desert of competitiveness, this year’s effort somehow stands out. The two whitewashes completed in 2006 and 2014 were over quality teams: names like Pietersen, Cook, Trott, Bell, Strauss, Flintoff and Collingwood in the order. The scorelines were notable because they involved good players being overcome, in one instance by Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, in another by Mitchell Johnson’s fiercest hour. The class of 2022 did not have to be menaced out, or bounced out, or bewitched by spin. Their tailenders finished the tour as their top order had started it, giving away their stumps to all comers, part of a parade lacking all technique or temperament.

Australia’s struggles in England, both with and against the swinging ball, have been as stark at times. Trent Bridge in 2015 is the nadir, but even 2019 would have been a thrashing had Steve Smith been any other player. In Australia’s favour for the next round in 2023 is that plenty of Australians have been playing county cricket in recent seasons and will carry on doing so. There is debate about whether the championship can produce England Test players, but it’s very useful for polishing up Australian ones.

There has been recent talk about whether a reciprocal arrangement could see English players in the Sheffield Shield, but that is a much harder sell. Ten matches anywhere between October and April, six state sides, batting positions at a premium with 36 per round in the entire country. States want to use those to develop their own players, not those from elsewhere. They would take Root if he were available, but there is no clear gain in taking players without the record to demand it.

Ultimately, all that can put some spice back into the southern contest is for England to do what they did before 2010: breed a generation of cricketers with the resilience to tackle the change in conditions and the siege feeling of the tour. Quite how to do that can only be solved by the insight and wisdom of… Ashley Giles? He played 54 Tests, so that must be right. The reality is that four years will spin by quickly, and English cricket is highly unlikely to have undergone a great structural change. Fans will do what all sport fans have learned to do: embrace innocence, ignore experience, and hope it will be different this time.

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