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First impressions last, but so does how you say goodbye. This dismal Ashes series ended just as it started, six very long weeks ago, with an England batter showing his stumps to an Australian, who duly knocked them over for an embarrassing golden duck.
Simply replace Rory Burns and Mitchell Starc, the combatants in England’s first lost wicket in Brisbane, with Ollie Robinson and Pat Cummins, England’s 99th, to learn the shorthand story of the worst Ashes showing Down Under in recent memory.
Clearly, there is stiff competition for that crown: series over in 11 days in 2002-03, whitewashes in 2006-07 and 2013-14, as well as the beige battering of four years ago. The count stopped on day three at Melbourne — 68 all out — and, although the whitewash was averted by a single wicket in Sydney, things still managed to get worse with the pitiful capitulation under lights in Hobart.
This one ended so badly — all 10 wickets lost for 56 — that seasoned Australian viewers, the sort who have played in these contests before, were left lamenting England, not laughing. Sure, they have been impressed by their own team — one that is better than most of us realised — this southern summer, but they wondered how things had become so bleak for England. Aussies love beating England, but they want a contest.
There is some mitigation. The ECB’s insistence on postponing, not cancelling, any cricket during the pandemic, with the bottom line in mind, has created an impenetrable backlog of fixtures. This was seen in the thousand-yard stares of those who left the UK in late September for the T20 World Cup before travelling to Australia for the Ashes. It makes the efforts of Dawid Malan, a new father six weeks early this weekend, and Mark Wood, the only Englishman to emerge in genuine credit, more impressive still.
Their preparation for the series was severely disrupted by unseasonal rain in Brisbane. That limited them to seven sessions of cricket when they were meant to get seven days. But it was fanciful to think seven days of intra-squad cricket, rather than tough first-class action, would have been enough to prepare for a long series so new to so many that England had so little success in the recent past.
And the loss of Jofra Archer and Olly Stone was a blow, especially given how Wood went. But Australia had to put up with absences of their own; Josh Hazlewood missed four Tests, new skipper Pat Cummins one, through no fault of his own. They rode it out.
England obsessed over this series but still got so much wrong. There was the toss at Brisbane. There was selection; Haseeb Hameed should not have started the series, let alone lasted four Tests. Stuart Broad should have played in Brisbane, Wood and Jack Leach in Adelaide. Rory Burns and Ollie Pope were clearly in no position to be brought back two games after being dropped and taking a public kicking from a coach.
Pope felt so short on support that at one stage it is understood he gave serious consideration to flying out his Surrey coach Vikram Solanki, who is expected to leave the county for the IPL, to work with him, off his own bat.
The basic errors, not just the poor batting but the simple catches and the string of no balls (a feature of their training sessions, not just games), made for insufferable viewing. Some of the fitness standards, and not just of Robinson (who has so much work to do if he is to be the ‘Branderson’ successor England require), have been unacceptable, and perhaps an unprofessional tone was set in the Brisbane deluge a couple of months ago.
It is typical of England — and, indeed, part of the problem — that they are playing Test cricket again in about six weeks’ time; they are two Tests into another 15-match year that will chew up and spit out more talented players. There is barely time to pause for thought.
They will continue to prepare inadequately for each series, continue to have no time to find refuge when a series is spiralling out of control and continue to have to turn to a domestic game that produces Test batters, spinners, fast bowlers, captains and coaches only “in spite of the system, not because of it”. Those are Joe Root’s words, by the way, but they are impossible to argue against.
Structural change is required, but so is an adjustment to personnel. Root should lead the team in the Caribbean, but time is up for Graham Thorpe, hunting for another job, Chris Silverwood, a good man and coach asked to do too much, and managing director Ashley Giles (above), who asked him to do it.
Players must take responsibility, too, whether on a permanent basis (let’s start with one of Root’s key team leaders, Jos Buttler) or just for the time being (Pope). In keeping with Covid times, this has been a cosy environment, but perhaps individuals need a shake.
This was a defeat that had it all, one that mixed a potent cocktail of three ingredients: England did begin unprepared due to certain circumstances; they are fighting against a system that has helped them win exactly zero of their last 15 Tests in Australia; but they also underperformed horribly, from the first ball to the last.