As everybody knows by now, the most fun to be had in an Ashes series happens when the recriminations begin. Last time around the ECB tried to distract attention from an utterly woeful tour, largely handicapped by their own mistakes (i.e. Boyd Rankin, quinoa, Andy Flower and Boyd Rankin), by throwing KP under the bus. This time around it’s still not exactly clear who the scapegoat will be, but our money is still on one Alastair Cook.
But people aren’t so stupid as to be taken in by all that crap anymore. Well, most people aren’t. Some still believe KP is the anti-Christ and an anti-English saboteur all rolled into one. But most right-minded people recognise that the cause for English defeat massacre in Down Under Ashes is institutional, born of decisions made at the very highest level. In particular the singular failure of refusing to learn the right lessons from 2013/4, such that they are now being taught all over again.
Thus the ECB is drawing the ire of many already, and it won’t be so easy for them to escape sweeping and scathing criticism this time around. The corpse of Cook, even if Broad is thrown in for good measure, won’t placate the masses. A 5-0 thrashing will unleash an enormous storm of ill-will towards English cricket, denying clear air for the ECB’s shiny new T20 competition.
That T20 tournament has, understandably, along with the dismemberment of the County calendar and the cold-blooded murder of the Royal London Cup, already loomed large in criticisms of the ECB. For the next few months, English fans (those that have BT Sports anyway) will have the Big Bash rammed down their throats, as Vaughan and Swann coo in unison at all the pretty lights, gasp in astonishment at the sight of women and children at a cricket game and laugh uproariously whenever KP fails.
The ECB’s commitment to a similar tournament is understandable, given the sort of rewards it potentially offers, but critics are quick to point out the potential damage it will do to an already ailing County scene. What these detractors are forgetting, though, is the damage they fear being wrought to English domestic cricket has already been visited on Australian cricket. The Sheffield Shield is a limping carcass of a competition, suffering through repeated bludgeonings from an administration that seems to actively loathe it and wishes it would just bugger off and die already. And the less said about the One-day competition the better.
Back in early September Cricket Australia completed a Memorandum of Understanding between itself and the Australian Cricketers Association, after that long pay dispute which everyone seems to have now forgotten about. The MoU contains all the usual waffle but talks about T20 cricket quite a bit. And by quite a bit we mean almost exclusively. Cricket Australia understands where the money is, and it ain’t in Test cricket. The Big Bash is its darling, and its focus for the next five years is to capitalise on that while growing the women’s equivalent in unison. Amidst all the euphoria about T20 cricket, Test cricket barely rated a mention. And we don’t think the words Sheffield or Shield appeared once.
This is the model the ECB are now pursuing, a T20-centric orientation around which everything else just kinda fits in wherever it can. Or else drops off the radar completely. The impact this has had on the Australian setup is easy to see. The revolving door of the Australian batting lineup (Renshaw, Maddinson, Handscomb etc.) is indicative of a generation of players that struggle to match techniques with the demands of Test cricket. Those who have excelled on the Test scene (Steven Peter Devereux Smith and Warner) have done so because of T20 cricket, not despite it, and can thank the IPL in particular for making them who they are today.
The same traits can now be observed in the English setup where you have one genuine Test batsman – Joe Root (Cook is clearly done) and then a host who are struggling to make the grade. For every one that does seem capable of making that step up (Malan), there are a host (Ballance, Vince, Hales, Jennings etc.) who are failing. That English cricket is struggling to produce Test quality players is evidenced by the fact that nobody can really name anyone (other than Stokes) who could come in and improve the team. The ECB’s future plans for the domestic calendar will only make this worse.
What’s the solution to all this? There probably isn’t one. T20 cricket is where the attention is now, and the best Test fans can hope for is that at least T10 cricket doesn’t take off in any meaningful way. Because that sounds fucking awful. But without a dedicated focus on domestic First Class cricket England will struggle to produce Test quality batsmen, in exactly the same way that Australia struggle to produce Test quality batsmen. The end result is a continuation of poor results away from home, where techniques are tested the most. Thus teams will continue to be a mix of struggling/mediocre players, with the odd world class talent who manages through pure skill and/or determination to rise above the morass.
This isn’t an article proclaiming the death of Test cricket. That would be stupid, especially after the crowds and TV audiences for this Ashes. Rather, this is the level we are now at and we’d had better all get used to it. The only potential cure would be if national associations got together and thrashed out proper tour itineraries, instead of the rubbish that’s served up these days with undercooked pitches and woeful opposition line-ups. But with the increasing demands of T20 competitions on the calendar, there is fat chance of that happening.