Hope can rise from this Ashes debacle, if the ECB stops choking the golden goose
Chris Silverwood is taking the positives. Chris Silverwood was expecting this. Chris Silverwood has found, squinting through his Victorian eyeglass, something to build on here.
Watching Silverwood’s deeply weird performance in front of the cameras at the end of the third Ashes Test in Melbourne – batting away concerns, wincing in the sun, and wearing throughout the pitying smile of a man who knows that all of this is simply another stage in the vast, unknowable masterplan of Chris Silverwood – it was hard not to worry a little about England’s head coach; to search in vain for the line between nightmarishly bad media training and a man so embedded within the blue Lycra bubble he really has lost sight of the disaster unfolding around him.
There is little to be gained from dwelling on Silverwood’s own fate at the end of this series. He is now that familiar thing, a coach who has failed to manage the details, who is clearly out of his depth, and whose dismissal will, in the classic footballing style, provide a useful straw man, patsy and general distraction from the more profound failings of those above him in the hierarchy.
Still, watching Silverwood reel off his own game and biddable version of the ECB blame-avoidance handbook, it was hard not to feel a familiar sense of dissolution, of something deathly that has now found a concrete form in this southern Ashes series.
The usual factors in England Ashes defeats are all reassuringly present: poor preparation, poor conditioning, the fact that Australia are demonstrably better at cricket. But there is something else here too, a quality present in so many parts of British public life, something we might call Johnsonian dissonance.
Welcome, England cricket, to a place where no one is ever really accountable, where that thing you like, that difficult, unprofitable thing, is being taken away, run down and sold off right in front of your eyes by a cartel of bonus-hungry executives. Where nothing is really true, anything is possible, where Chris Silverwood really is taking the positives, and where the overwhelming reaction seems to be a kind of weary fatalism.
This is the most disturbing aspect to England’s Ashes disintegration, the shared conviction that this is simply a structural inevitability, born out of irresistible macro-forces.
We know the exculpatory arguments by now. The dying off of Test cricket around the world, something the England and Wales Cricket Board is apparently bound not to resist or fight against but simply to accept. The basic weirdness of a sport where you stand around doing nothing most of the time, where you can’t see the ball, an idea that frankly wouldn’t get past the first TV pitch stage these days. Not to mention the line pushed by the marketeers of the ECB that people are basically shallow and need to be given shallow things, that children can’t concentrate and only like noise and light and simple stuff.
So much of this seems to have been accepted as true that England’s on-field disintegration has come to feel like a referendum on the viability of red-ball cricket itself: evidence, finally, that a death foretold for most of the past 120 years has finally come to pass. In reality the more useful reaction here is not fatalism, but resistance. Because none of this inevitable.
Test cricket has always been an awkward thing, one of those objects, like poetry, or libraries, or the stubbornly over‑engineered Saab convertible, that defies the logic of the market simply by existing. It might have died after the war but for the indulgence of the state broadcaster. It might have died many times over in the decades since but for the fact people like and indeed love its difficult, unmonetised complexities.
Even now, at a time when red‑ball cricket has been allowed to enter a period of managed decline, like a post‑industrial northern city in the hands of the Thatcher government, it is possible to resist this process, to make different decisions, to protect things that have value.
The most immediate point is that there must be accountability or the gig is frankly up. Joe Root is a brilliant batsman and a popular presence in the cricket media. But the idea that he should remain England captain because there is no other immediate candidate capable of doing a similarly regulation job is terribly destructive.
Elite sport needs sharp edges. And there are already so many points of vagueness here. Why did England talk for two years about the Ashes and yet arrive without any real coherent plan? Why did they pick weird, unbalanced teams? Just because there are systemic problems doesn’t mean it’s not possible to be a good coach. Just because the County Championship has been degraded to the extent nobody, not even the players themselves, really knows the red-ball capacities of the current generation, doesn’t mean you can’t also be a competent captain.
And while we’re at it the notion of accountability must extend upwards – if not to the ECB’s chief executive Tom Harrison (which it should), then to the largely invisible Ashley Giles whose qualifications to be “managing director” of anything have not been made any clearer by his time in charge of England men’s cricket.
At which point we might actually be starting to get somewhere. For all the blurring of lines, it isn’t hard to draw the arrows here. The insipid state of England Test cricket in 2021-22, the competitive death of England’s most lucrative series, the progressive strangling of the real golden goose: all of this lies at the door of the ECB.
Why are England so poor at Test cricket? Because the talent pool is tiny, because this thing is essentially invisible outside of the pre-converted and those who can pay. The poverty of England’s red-ball team comes from exactly the same place as the revelations of institutional racism that drew such deeply unconvincing gasps of surprise from the chief executive once public pressure demanded some kind of response.
The ECB has overseen this decline in reach, knowingly and in plain sight, registering no sense of duty to anything other than profit and loss during the quarter century of its existence. This is a governing body that has awarded its own executive a £2.1m bonus for “promoting” the sport, while simultaneously allowing the shared national treasure that is Test cricket to wither in the ground, a scandal that should on its own demand another visit to the DCMS committee.
Little wonder at the end of all this we have that feeling of disintegration. This is an old England team. Root, Ben Stokes, Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad, Jonny Bairstow, Jack Leach, Chris Woakes, Rory Burns, Dawid Malan, Jos Buttler and Mark Wood are unlikely to come this way again.
At another time this might feel like a source of excitement, the chance to renew and refresh. Given a proper domestic season, and the will to fund, resource and promote even those things that don’t bring instant profit but which are very obviously the heart of this beloved, oddly enduring old sporting culture, it could still be again.