The lesser spotted Escape Goat, believed discovered by the Warner family, is only fleetingly seen. Examples of this rare beast abound, hidden away in museums as examples for the public to view. New sightings have been rumoured in Australia, where it seems they have their home. It is a strange animal, whose only evolutionary purpose has been to serve as a diversion for other creatures, generally to be found in St Johns Wood, London. Usually secretive and ignored by the wider world, they pop up whenever anyone starts asking awkward questions about disasters in Australia in particular.
The shambles of four years ago had an obvious culprit. Everyone knew it, everyone could write about it. All other incidentals could be safely ignored, all other factors dismissed. Just one person could be held responsible for everything, and if only that person was removed, all would be wonderful. If nothing else, that would buy four years for everyone else to forget, and by the time another trip to Australia came round, everyone could get behind “the boys”, and cheer them to victory, putting the damned colonials back in their place.
That it wasn’t going to happen that way should have been obvious to everyone, yet collective fingers went in collective ears, and a refusal to listen was more than a metaphor, it was literal. It’s not that a potential whitewash this time around was a racing certainty, for Australia are good but not exceptional, and England modest but not awful, but the distinct likelihood that it will now happen is not overly surprising either. The ECB deserve credit for one thing, they have managed to make those who have become indifferent rather angry. This must not be permitted.
Still, the players are always the ones who get the focus, not least because wider issues can be safely ignored. It’s so predictable. In the run up to the series it was correctly stated that for England to compete, their experienced players would need to perform exceptionally, and it’s true they haven’t done so. But it was equally stated that the new players would prove the weak link, and generally speaking they’ve done better than their peers. That England had managed to get themselves in a position like that was, naturally enough, ignored – the discarding of players who didn’t fit the character parameters is a particular joy of the ECB structure, but let’s not talk about those, after all no one in the media ever does. And of course the way first class cricket in England has been marginalised in the pursuit of T20 cash must never ever be mentioned, except by those few extremists who have been banging on about it and boring everyone by actually caring about the game itself.
No, those responsible cannot possibly be any of the administrators, who have created the environment in which English cricket exists, and cannot be the selectors who happily built a merry-go-round where cricketing ability is only one factor to be considered. Unfortunately, this time it can’t be Kevin Pietersen either, that useful idiot who was single handedly responsible for everything bad from the dawn of time, and the only reason for any 5-0 defeat.
Ben Stokes has to be one of course. Forgive me – that should be “New Zealand-born Ben Stokes”. His absence is undoubtedly a cricketing blow, and one that can be maximised and extended to be blamed for the poor shots or poor line and length of his colleagues. Those absent tend to perform incredibly compared to those who are present, and in that, nothing changes. Had Stokes been there, England would be romping to victory by now. It’s been a limited line of attack so far, but expect more as time goes on, especially if it gets worse on the field.
Who else can be targeted? Ah yes, the senior players. How perfect. Cook, Root, Anderson, Broad, Moeen – they will do. Now, it’s clear that of those only Anderson has done well enough to be generally excluded from the firing line, even though any kind of detailed analysis might raise questions over the detail of his performances. But since the figures look decent enough, probably best not to mention him, that would take proper analysis.
Cook is by far the most interesting name to come up as being culpable. It’s not that he has played poorly, for that is very obvious. It’s not even that he look technically adrift, for that looked to be the case from the first ball of the series. It is instead that the editorial line has gone from Greatest Ever to Time To Go with nothing intervening. Just three Tests. This blog has highlighted the declining returns from Cook over the last few years repeatedly, to the point it’s accused of being anti-Cook. Yet it was the reality, and the frustration wasn’t so much with him, it was with the way this was repeatedly denied by those who would write hagiographies at every opportunity and deny what they were so keen to say of others going through the same process in their careers. Hypocrisy is rarely admitted.
Now, apparently, it is time for him to go. Yet the point about Cook is the same one that should be about every player. Is he the best we have in his position? If so, then pick him. It really shouldn’t be a difficult concept to grasp, yet apparently is. Unless England can do better than him, then the calls for him to go are nothing other than jumping on a bandwagon and, somewhat deliciously given the history, meting out the same treatment to him that was given to others.
Then we come to the way Stoneman and Vince have apparently done reasonably well, but Root hasn’t. To some extent it’s a matter of expectation, but scoring a half century and getting out is not confined solely to Root, yet it is Root that all the focus is upon. It’s something of which he is acutely aware of course, but once more, differing judgements on the same outcome are as absurd as they always has been. Root’s conversion rate is similar to that of Cook over the last few years, something never mentioned then, and only mentioned in passing now as an excuse to give Cook an extra kicking. This is either a problem for everyone or no one – pretending otherwise is preposterous. Dawid Malan has done well this tour so far, and Jonny Bairstow has done reasonably. No one else has.
As for Moeen, his batting has been the issue. Without question. But his bowling is pretty much what should have been expected in Australia. English finger spinners don’t do well in Australia – even the exceptional Graeme Swann averaged over 40 there, and Moeen is no Swann. It’s not been great, and a finger injury hasn’t helped, but the apparent surprise at this is laughable. England even have a couple of leg spinners, but the one who is there wasn’t picked even when Moeen was supposedly injured, and the one who isn’t – who can even bat as well – has long been thrown on the scrapheap, less for his cricketing skills and more, it seems, because he isn’t the right character.
And finally Stuart Broad. A bowler who has been exceptional for England over a number of years, one known to be carrying injuries, one who even amongst the wreckage four years ago could hold his head up high. He had a quietish summer, certainly, and hasn’t been great on this tour. But now, at 31, he’s done. Past it. Finished. Broad is a spiky character, and not one who has generated much love among supporters, but this is his first genuinely poor trot in a while, and now the knives are out. No mention of playing him injured, no mention of his workload, no mention that there might be reasons of any kind, it’s time to move on, while of course keeping his bowling partner four years his senior.
Questions can be asked and questions should be asked. But we’re here in the same place again. Only a few should carry the can, and others can be excused. And above all else, it stops those difficult, awkward objections to the way cricket has been run in England. The likes of Graves, Harrison, Strauss and the entirely invisible Whitaker cannot, must be questioned. Ever. Nothing changes, not on the field, nor off. If Trevor Bayliss is to be in the firing line, who appointed him? Who appointed his predecessor? Who created the English cricket structure? Is it possible that those people could be responsible, in the smallest, tiniest way?
Gins all round chaps. It’s only Test cricket after all.