The most honest – and most depressing – comment about England’s Ashes campaign came after the third day of the Perth Test.
Reflecting on England’s bowlers’ inability to make a dent in an Australian batting line-up that is, Steve Smith apart, good but unremarkable, the team’s assistant coach, Paul Farbrace, said: “There’s nothing that’s surprised us during the course of this series and the same in India last year.”
And it is true that, if anyone is surprised by England’s struggles in Australia, they simply haven’t been paying attention. This was England’s eighth successive Test loss in a row in Australia, after all. And the seventh in a row away from home following four in succession at the end of the India tour. All of which have been characterised by England’s bowlers struggling for inroads in conditions offering them nothing and their batsmen struggling for survival in conditions offering the home side bowlers plenty. Really, England travel worse than Southern Rail. And they will keep doing so until actions are taken (or more accurately, reversed) and the first-class county game is given the respect it deserves.
County cricket is not the problem here. It’s the solution.
The early years of this century were some of the best in the history of the County Championship. The introduction of promotion and relegation and the advent of four-day cricket helped create a tough environment (Justin Langer was among the overseas player to rate it as tough a cricket as he played at domestic level) which prepared players well for the challenges of Test cricket. How else was it that, at one time, four of England’s top seven (Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss, Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior) scored centuries on Test debut, while two others (Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen) made half-centuries? Meanwhile James Anderson took a five-for on debut and, before the end of Graeme Swann’s first over at that level (where he played alongside another fine spinner in Monty Panesar), he had dismissed Rahul Dravid and Gautam Gambhir. That team went on to win in India and Australia.
But by then the cloven hoof of the ECB had stepped in. They had introduced young player incentives (financial bonuses to encourage counties to pick young players) that had the knock-on effect of squeezing mature cricketers out of the game. They had squeezed the county championship into the margins of the season, which had the knock-on effect of negating the need for pace or spin bowlers. They started to take players out of county cricket for rest, Lions games and even strength and conditioning sessions, which had the knock-on effect of diluting the standard. And they cracked down on overseas players and Kolpak registrations, sending the counties scurrying between the rocks and stones for poor imitations. Neither Graeme Hick nor Viv Richards would qualify to play county cricket if they were starting their careers today as they did in their early years. How does that help?
Meanwhile the ECB are in the process of dismantling the MCCU system (through which almost 25 per-cent of England-qualified cricketers graduate), even though they pay nothing for it, they have poured millions into a centre of excellence that has produced very little – go on, think of all the fast bowlers and spinners who credit it for their development – and they have done nothing to improve the pudding-like nature of pitches that proliferate in England and Wales. Centrally-contracted groundsmen could and should have been introduced years ago.
As an aside, it is worth mentioning that, for many years, Stuart Meaker, the Surrey seamer, was the fastest bowler measured in trials at Bluffborough. And do you know what’s funny about that? He was fastest on his first visit. Before they intervened.
There were good intentions behind lots of these ECB ‘initiatives’. They wanted the counties to invest in youngsters and the best players to be spared the day-to-day grind of county cricket that can, of course, compromise effectiveness. No doubt the intentions behind Bluffborough are good, too.
Even the decision to push the county championship into the margins of the season is misguided, if well-intentioned. The idea was to create windows for white-ball cricket which would lead to improvements at the World Cup and make it easier to utilise domestic T20 as the vehicle for renewed interest in the game. From that perspective, the ECB may even have been right.
“If the ECB are judged by anything but financial criteria, they are a failure. But in modern sport the bottom line counts more than the top of the league”
But such moves come at a cost. And the cost is England’s ability to perform in Test cricket in anything but archetypal English conditions. Whereas every county in the land used to have a decent spinner bowler or two – maybe not Test class, but substantially better than you will find in England now – these days you will see county sides leave bowlers of the potential of Mason Crane and Ravi Patel in the seconds as the playing surfaces in the Championship do not suit them. And whereas most counties would try to develop a quick bowler – or sign one from the Caribbean or Pakistan or South Africa – now there are too many content to play on green surfaces and allow 70-80mph medium pacers to hit the seam and cause mayhem. There is skill and entertainment to be found there, it is true, but it will do nothing to help England win in Australia or India.
It was probably fitting that the end here – the wicket of Chris Woakes, caught behind off the excellent Pat Cummins – should come with a bouncer. This Australia attack doesn’t have the menace of the 2013-14 version – there’s no Mitchell Johnson, for a start – and it probably doesn’t have anyone with the skill of Ryan Harris, either. But it is, by modern standards, excellent. A feature of the series has been England batting on surfaces appearing to offer bowlers plenty and, a few minutes later, bowling on the same surface which appeared to offer them nothing. Australia’s extra pace and ability to extract life from such surfaces was a key point of difference between the sides. Another was the performance of Nathan Lyon compared to that of England’s spinner, Moeen Ali.
These are contrasts that go to the heart of the changes made to English domestic cricket in recent years. It’s not true that there are no young fast bowlers in England. And it’s not true that there are no good young spinners. There are a dozen and more seamers who are every bit as quick as the Australian trio we saw in this series. It’s just they are either injured (Jamie Overton and Olly Stone are two of several to fit in this category), or deemed too wild to gain regular cricket (such as Atif Sheikh or George Garton). And there are several spinners, not least Crane and Patel, but also Dom Bess, the Parkinson brothers and more, who could, given fair opportunity, develop into fine cricketers. But until the pitches, the schedule and the coaching are improved, it seems we are not destined to see the best of such bowlers.
But, as another away Ashes series slipped away – the seventh of the last eight to be won by Australia – a familiar routine started: looking for quick fixes and a someone to blame.
In such moments, the job of English cricket coach is as much pinata as it is throw-downs and catching practice. And Trevor Bayliss, the coach, probably didn’t do himself many favours in the post-match press conference. He admitted – far too honestly – that he “didn’t have the answers” and then appeared not to recall that he started as England coach ahead of the 2015 Ashes (“I didn’t know them in 2015,” he replied when asked if the team had deteriorated since then). Yes, he has a narrow skill set. And yes, he is neither a technical coach nor a genuine selector.
But he’s not the problem. He probably shouldn’t have been appointed – he has no knowledge of county cricket, few contacts within it and little time to gain either – but blaming him for this defeat would be like blaming the catering team on Titanic for the incident with the iceberg. He is a head coach of one team, not the director of England cricket. He cannot change the schedule or the pitches. He cannot summon pace bowlers and spinners from the earth. He is not an alchemist.
No, the problem is more fundamental than that. It goes to the heart of the game in England and Wales and the heart of the ECB.
If the ECB are judged by anything but financial criteria, they are a failure. But in modern sport the bottom line counts more than the top of the league and the fact is the new broadcast deal – 1.1 billion – is deemed a successful outcome. Losing in Australia and India (and the UAE and Sri Lanka) might be deemed collateral damage.
The ECB want to win Test series abroad. They really do. They just don’t want to win Tests abroad more than they want to make a fortune and inspire new followers of the game with white-ball cricket. Which means winning abroad will continue to be an aberration.
They could have had the best of all worlds. They could have continued to play T20 cricket on Fridays and List A cricket on Sundays. They could have scheduled the Championship, with three divisions if you must, throughout the season. And they could have stopped degrading and diluting the competition that produces their Test team.
It bears repeating as the message isn’t hitting home: county cricket is not the problem here. It’s the solution.