It’s the final day of the final Test of the Ashes. Spoiling under heat that could melt a blacksmith’s gloves, England are once more toiling at the SCG.
They’ve handed a spinner their Test debut – why not? The management just don’t have the quicks they need to succeed Down Under, which they readily admitted by Boxing Day, only a few weeks after assuring all and sundry that the Ashes would not be staying in the country without a fight.
Those who doubt the merit of public relations degrees need only look as far as the ECB. Nothing-to-see-here soundbites, including chestnuts such as ‘no knee-jerk reaction’ and ‘the team is still in good shape’ fly out of inboxes.
Out in the middle, though, England’s last tail-ender gets clonked just below the knee roll and that’s it for another few years.
Can you guess which series I’m referring to? It’s a multiple choice question: a) 2013/14; b) 2017/18; c) 2020/21; d) all of the above.
The brutal reality facing England is that there is no reason to expect any change in approach to an Ashes series in Australia when diddly squat has been learned from the preceding four years.
England play the same, tired hand not just in Australia, but in the sub-continent too – where pace is not just important but a pre-requisite for victory. One, even two, Test matches may swing your way but an entire series without cranking up the speed? Forget it.
The problem is that England seem to forget every time they pop back home. Get some nibble out of the wicket and all their worries fade away. They haven’t lost a series in England since the two-Test clash against Sri Lanka in 2014.
It is, of course, fiendishly hard to win a Test series away from home because no amount of training camps and Lions tours will condition players to be as familiar with foreign wickets as their hosts. For a board awash with cash like the ECB, though, the least you can expect is a long-term strategy and a competitive side.
Mason Crane conceded 193 runs on his debut.— Test Match Special (@bbctms) January 7, 2018
That is the most by any @englandcricket debutant & the 3rd highest by any England bowler. #bbccricket #ashes
Instead CEO Tom Harrison and managing director Andrew Strauss – a man who apparently knows how to win an Ashes series Down Under – now have India, 4-0 and Australia, 4-0 marked against their names in the space of 12 months.
Their National Performance Centre at Loughborough, in Leicestershire, is stuffed to the gills with new-age tech, thinking and facilities.
Under a huge tent that acts like a greenhouse, England prospects are invited to have a bowl in what is meant to replicate sub-continent conditions.
There’s a ‘personal development team and ‘performance psychology’ team in addition to the usual jumble of coaches, managed by lead pace coach Kevin Shine and lead spin coach Peter Such.
Andy Flower – the then England coach who promised no knee-jerks after that 2013/14 tour – is now the technical director of the entire set-up. They all pore over hours and hours of video content, presumably to tweak a bowler’s this or that.
There are so, so many programmes. The Young Lions. The (slightly older) Lions. The ‘Pace Programme’, which has undergone a rebrand, but been in existence for a decade.
It all sounds state-of-the-art, visionary even. But pace is not a label of a fancy, well-funded initiative – it’s the figure that appears on a speed gun. That a broken Mark Wood and a suspended Ben Stokes were England’s only options in handing their attack the required pep is embarrassing for an organisation that view themselves as being, like, really smart, as the leader of the free world might say.
Is the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, as Albert Einstein almost certainly did not say, or is repetition the mother of all learning, as a motivational speaker called Zig Ziglar once uttered?
Whatever the answer is, in this particular case, England need to stop listening to Ziggy.
Every cricket lover of a certain age is in apparent mourning over this West Indies team.
Where you once had Sir Viv Richards masterfully playing across the line, you now have the Hopes missing straight ones and living up to everything apart from their name.
Where you once had Curtly Ambrose, Malcolm Marshall, Courtney Walsh et al combining as the fastest fusillade in the business, now you have Miguel Cummins sending down deliveries that are all too wide and none too handsome.
The most surprising aspect of their demise is that people pretend to still be surprised. The Windies have not won a Test series over any team except Bangladesh and Zimbabwe since beating New Zealand in 2012.
Don’t forget, Sir Garfield Sobers started crying over the state of his beloved team in a press conference two years ago and, on the face of it, all of his tears were shed for nought.
Pay disputes, the rise of Twenty20 and the apathy over Tests, a bungling board and the loss of talent to other sports. The reasons are numerous but the solutions are few.
Or are they? Delve deeper than their pitiful display against Edgbaston, and the skin-deep analysis from the distraught and the nostalgic, and there is cause for optimism.
A new chief in town
Johnny Grave, an Englishman who was formerly the commercial director of the UK-based Professional Cricketers Association, was chosen to guide West Indian cricket into a brave new future after being appointed CEO of the board in January.
The initial reports are that he has been an even-keeled influence to a rocking Caribbean ship – and he has helped bring Marlon Samuels and Chris Gayle back into the fold for the limited-overs games.
One of the mistakes the higher-ups made was to impose a draconian eligibility criteria on the national side, with those not appearing in the domestic 50-over competition unable to represent the side.
Bringing back the golden oldies for one last blast of course does not get to the heart of the Test problem but Grave, who is well-versed in player-board relations, is at least thawing some of those icy communication lines out.
Most promisingly, as Grave told the Jamaica Gleaner, the West Indies board has secured a $48 million increase on their funding from the ICC up to 2023 and much of that money will go towards establishing a high performance centre at the Stanford ground in Antigua.
The West Indies are also expected to announce the first of their flexible contracts next month in a bid to work around their global T20 commitments rather than demonise its rise.
“We want to incentivise our players to play Test cricket,” wrote Grave. “Our Test players will have less opportunities to play in and earn from the domesticT20 leagues, so we need to compensate them for that by giving them higher retainer contracts, and we also need to contract our white-ball cricketers in order to incentivise them to play ODI cricket, as our ODI schedule will also clash with some T20 leagues, too.”
Grave also talked about needing to be ‘the most efficient cricket board in the world’ – the WICB has fewer support staff on their books than Warwickshire, Edgbaston’s home county – but there is no shortage of quality to work with.
Tons of talent
Rishabh Pant is the heir apparent to MS Dhoni for India but, a little more than 18 months ago, he was skulking back to the pavilion sharpish after being dismissed for one in the Under-19 World Cup final.
His adversary? Alzarri Joseph, the 20-year-old whose fast bowling was widely panned at Edgbaston but looked like the brightest young thing on show in Bangladesh.
The Windies won that final by five wickets and it marked the first time they ever won the trophy – having only reached the semis when Brian Lara and Jimmy Adams were just two promising teenagers in 1988.
The mission now is to ensure this generation is not lost obscurity and poor regional coaching before they are ready for senior international cricket. It’s one thing looking good as a teenager, but no use at all if the pathway stalls for the next five years.
Though it would be unfair to write the current Test side off – by and large a clutch of players in their mid-20s – the Windies looked like they had landed in Mars instead of England so alien were the conditions. And that captain Jason Holder did not immediately take the new ball under the floodlights – it all smacks of woeful under-preparation.
The future of West Indian cricket will be relying on this generation and the next for inspiration. The ball is rolling – time will tell if it’s going somewhere or merely been dropped.
Toby Roland-Jones is not being taken seriously. South Africa certainly learned he was no joke after five wickets in the first innings and three in the second, but outside the confines of The Oval boundaries, Roland-Jones’ success was met with a cheeky grin.
He was viewed as the everyday chap with a posh-sounding name who doesn’t bowl particularly fast and is getting on a bit, but nevertheless is taking it to the Saffers. Every post-wicket cheer may as well have been rounded off with a ‘go on my son’.
But Roland-Jones isn’t the havea-go hero you’re just as likely to meet in your local club’s pavilion as at Lord’s. He is a proper, Test-class bowler to be fawned over, just like Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, rather than someone to be faintly patronised.
The air of condescension started as soon as Roland-Jones started chipping way under gloomy, spitting clouds. ‘Great bowler in these conditions’ they crowed.
Well, Anderson, of nearly 500 Test wickets, is the archetypal bowler under grey skies – and he was hooked out of the attack in a bold move by captain Joe Root to accommodate the new man. Everyone else followed his lead.
One prominent journalist even suggested Alan Richardson, a highly productive if limited county seamer who never won a cap, would have been ‘unplayable’ in such conditions while others offered more English stalwarts of that ilk such as Dave Masters, Rikki Clarke, and even Kent’s chief dibbly-dobbler Darren Stevens.
They would only have ever touched 80mph on a very energetic day. Even though he comfortably exceeds that mark some of you, by habit, will have checked the speed gun following each of RolandJones’ wicket-taking ball and applied an asterisk to both barrels of his name.
Roland-Jones had watched Anderson and Stuart Broad bowl a touch short and immediately started pitching it fuller.
It was a change of tack that showed all his wiliness yet often on the international stage, if you lack the searing pace or simply don’t pass rigid physical parameters, guile or cleverness is sneered at as an inadequate substitution.
In fact, England have stumbled upon a highly consistent, classical seamer who perfected his game on the county circuit and delivered on debut like a player who is supremely confident of his ability.
By accident or design, they have finally placed their trust in polished county products as Tom Westley, who also showed promise as No3 batsman, plugged away at Essex for a decade before receiving his cap at the age of 28.
At one point during the first innings Roland-Jones conceded four runs from an overthrow. It may have knocked an ordinary rookie off his stride, but not a 29-year-old who has sent down nearly 17,000 balls in his first-class career.
He erred from a good line at times – he went for four an over in the second innings, a debutant can’t have it all – but he simply ambled back to his mark like he belonged. And he does. Roland-Jones also belongs in an Ashes squad, as neither flat tracks nor Australian sunshine should reveal any deficiencies.
He has taken apart some of county game’s best batting units on many benign wickets with Middlesex at Lord’s – until last year, results at the home of cricket were few and far between.
The next big thing can wait for now. The present generation, it turns out, are quite good.