How do you solve a problem like English cricket?
Words by Simon Edwards, Comment Online Editor
It’s the hope that kills you. The run-up to the First Test of the Ashes on December 8th brought a few bright spots to lighten a seemingly predictable Ashes series between England and Australia: Aussie captain Tim Paine’s shock withdrawal from the team, replaced by Pat Cummins (bowlers can’t be captain!), the promise of an unseasonably damp summer, green pitches and cloudy skies more akin to Wolverhampton than Wollongong, and the return of Ben Stokes all offered hope that England might pull something off. Swinging balls and weakened opponents? We might actually win a game! And then Mitchell Starc knocked Rory Burns’ off-stump over with the first ball at the Gabba and English shoulders slumped: same old, same old.
There’s a few ways to try and capture the sheer ignominy and horror of this Ashes tour. The numbers speak for themselves: England’s tour batting average of 20.21 was the lowest of any Ashes series ever; the decimation in the Third Test was the shortest Boxing Day Test Melbourne has hosted since 1932; Australian Test debutant Scott Boland claimed eighteen wickets in three Tests, at an average of 9.56; on the final day of the Fifth Test, England’s openers finally established a reasonable partnership of 68 for no loss, before the entire team collapsed, losing ten wickets in 21 overs for 56 runs, throwing away an eminently winnable game and demonstrated that there were shambolic depths yet unplumbed.
While the numbers are shocking, and yet strangely entertaining –analysts have had a field day providing as many numeric humiliations as possible – the human story is the real meat of it. Moreso than any other sport, Test cricket is a cruel game, and this series was truly a sadist’s paradise. Jos Buttler’s stand in the Second Test is a typical example: with a win impossible but a draw feasible, England’s typically explosive wicketkeeper dug in, batting for over four hours, facing over two-hundred deliveries, batting for the team, the series, and potentially his own career. And his reward? He stepped on his stumps, got himself out, and walked off in utter humiliation as England collapsed behind him. The innings could’ve rejuvenated his Test career – now it’s barely a footnote.
The series is littered with these moments: a succession of nervous looking young English batsmen looking like fresh lambs to the slaughter as a seemingly endless stream of Australian fast bowlers pelted 90mph balls at them until they threw away their wickets out of sheer desperation. Jack Leach, England’s spin bowler, thrust onto an unsuitable pitch in the First Test after a year of going unselected, getting spanked for eight runs an over by grateful Aussie batters, and never making an impact in the series again. Even Joe Root, who came within less than two hundred runs of the all-time record for any batsmen in a single year, was cowed and ineffectual, balancing captaincy, batting, painful press interviews, replacing COVID-stricken coaches at net practices for the others, cutting crusts off sandwiches and getting hit in the nuts twice at close to 100mph. The pressure England was under was insurmountable, and no-one emerged uncrushed.
By contrast, the Australians made the most of an enjoyable series. Even with star batsman Steve Smith a little below par, every member of the Aussie squad had his time in the sun: returning batsmen and Sussex CCC captain Travis Head was man of the series after hitting two centuries, while Usman Khawaja hit a rare two centuries in a single test on his return to the side. New captain Pat Cummins was lead wicket-taker for the series with 23, a feat he has achieved in every Ashes series he has played. The unorthodox Marnus Labuschagne became the top Test batsmen in the world while comfortably handling England for most of the series.
Then there were the new bowlers: after the big three fast bowlers of Cummins, Starc and Josh Hazelwood rolled over England at the Gabba, Jhye Richardson replaced the injured Hazelwood and Michael Neser the COVID-afflicted Cummins at the Second Test, comfortably defeating England as if they were seasoned veterans. Then, at the Third Test, 32-year old Scott Boland made the sort of debut children dream about, claiming six wickets for seven runs in four overs, skittling England for 68 and claiming the Mullagh Medal for best performance at a Boxing Day Test – a feat made more significant as Boland was the first Aboriginal player to win the medal named for Australia’s greatest unsung indigenous cricketing hero. The depth of Australia’s bowling roster was a stark contrast to England’s squad: whereas England struggled to put bodies in front of the Aussie attack, the Australians happily drew debutants into the side who cut through England like a hot knife through soft butter.
By the end of the Second Test, it was tragic: Australians weren’t even enjoying it (much), commiserating with English fans as the fight left the team and its supporters. By the end of the Fifth Test, it was farcical: England collapsed again, Stuart Broad took a break from bowling to chew out an overly-enthusiastic camera robot, and the scent of village cricket wafted through the air. Was this what English cricket had come to? Pundits rushed to blame everything and anyone: the captain, the coaches, the counties, the Hundred, the schedule, the pitches back home, the impact of race and class on English cricket culture, the increasingly elitist reputation of English cricket as it languishes on pay-to-watch premium television, and anything else that might reasonably be blamed.
There was a brief point of hope that saved the series from total omnishambles status: the Fourth Test at Sydney was drawn, just, in a thrilling down-to-the-wire climax that encapsulated the very best of Test cricket. England’s bowlers were on fire, as they had been all series in spite of the team’s woes, and the Australians wobbled. Johnny Bairstow made a redoubtable century, Zack Crawley made 77, Ben Stokes finally came alive with two 60s, and it was enough, just, to prevent a whitewash 5-0 series defeat. Pundits flocked to remind everyone (with a hint of desperation) that this was what made Test cricket so great – the drama, the tension, five glorious days of sport.
Ultimately though, nothing sums up the series up quite like an anecdote drawn from the nets of the Adelaide Oval during the Second Test. A ten-year old Australian fan watching England warm-up asked opener Rory Burns, who had already had a shocking start to the series that was only going to get worse, if he liked cricket. “Sometimes, mate”, Burns reportedly replied.