England’s Test side are playing cricket worse than any side from this country since the turn of the millennium. In 2021 they played 17 Tests and lost 10 of them — the joint highest number of losses by any side in a calendar year. The latest Ashes series (yet another 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Pat Cummins’s Australians) has culminated in the sackings of batting coach Graham Thorpe, who has overseen the decline of many a promising young batsman, and head coach Chris Silverwood, a man who was arguably given an impossible job but who still looked to be out of his depth. Something is not right.
Two of the three men in charge of selecting England’s Test squad to tour the West Indies in March are in interim roles. Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood only took up their positions as director of cricket and head coach respectively within the last few weeks, with no guarantee that either of them will still be in those roles beyond this Test series. The only thing on either man’s mind, therefore, should be the next few games. It is baffling, then, that they would make such an earthshaking call as to leave out two of England’s best (ever) bowlers in Stuart Broad and James Anderson for a tour they have won only once since the 1960s.
The line trotted out was one of ‘looking forward’ and planning ahead, but this is exactly the attitude that saw England lose the latest Ashes series so emphatically. They rested both Broad and Anderson for first Test in Brisbane on a green seamer, and played both — but no spinner — on a dry surface in Adelaide which was plainly going to turn. England became so obsessed with planning ahead that they forgot to focus on the game in front of them, and the non-selection of two such greats feels like yet another case of the very same problem.
This cannot be a decision made based on performance — Anderson averaged 23 in the Ashes (the best of any of England’s bowlers) and Broad 26, which should not be scoffed at either. It seems in fact that the selection committee of Strauss, Collingwood and head scout James Taylor have focused more on the age of their players than their ability to perform in the next game, with Anderson turning 40 this year and Broad in his mid-thirties.
This muddled thinking is not merely limited to the bowlers either. Dawid Malan was England’s oldest batsman in the Ashes at 34, and although his performances dropped off significantly in the latter half of the series (not least due to his three months spent in the much maligned bio-secure bubbles), he was one of England’s better performers with the willow. He too, however, has made way. This was another decision made even more confusing when it became apparent that there had been no specialist number three batsman selected to replace him.
Again, the focus appears to be skewed far too far in the direction of planning for the future rather than the here and now. If the selection committee genuinely believes Dawid Malan is not England’s best option at number three, then they should have selected someone who is. Anyone who bats there in this series (whether it’s Stokes, Bairstow, Lawrence or Root) is plainly a stop-gap — not one of those players is best suited to batting at three. This then means that, come summer, they have to start again. Either they bring a fresh player in such as the promising Josh Bohannon (in which case, why wasn’t he selected for this tour?) or they return to Malan. Either way, failing to select a specialist number three batsman for this series will set them back at least three Tests. Ironic, considering they are trying so desperately to set things in place for the future.
But what exactly is the future of English cricket? Currently without a permanent head coach, they are not short of options to choose from. Two men have emerged as stand-out candidates: the first is Gary Kirsten — a hard South African who was initially pipped to the role by Chris Silverwood in 2019 on the strength of an inferior PowerPoint presentation — and the second is Justin Langer, recently sacked by Australia despite overseeing yet another successful Ashes series as well as Australia’s first ever World T20 Championship. Accusations have been levelled at the Western Australian that the players found his style too intense and it is rumoured that this is the primary reason for his departure this month. However, it appears to the outsider that intensity is exactly what this England side is lacking, and that there is a culture of ‘niceness’ preventing difficult truths from being aired. Think back to a decade ago, when England’s all-conquering side led by the abrasive Andy Flower were ranked number one in the world — it has since emerged in various players’ autobiographies that the camp was far from harmonious, and yet it didn’t stop them from winning.
What is clear, though, is that whatever the future holds for English Test cricket, it is almost certain to get worse before it gets better.