Picking over the Bones: Final Ashes Panel

In the early hours of tomorrow morning, the One Day series between Australia and England will get underway.  For all the protestations about how vitally important the short form of the game is, it’s hard to believe many will remotely care about the outcome.  Even mischievously using the women’s Ashes rules, England are currently 18-2 down, which does at least make the point that winning the ODIs and T20 by a landslide still doesn’t make up for the thrashing received thus far.  Should England do reasonably, doubtless that will considered evidence that all is well; should they do badly, then England will finish the four year cycle exactly where they started it in the one day rankings.  Exceptional work all round.

With that in mind, we have the final Ashes panel drawn from the members of the blog.  Our contributors are Gareth, a long time supporter of English players, but not necessarily the England team – being from Edinburgh may explain that.  He can be reached on Twitter @G_Funk81.  Joining him is CricketJon, and Silk who also contributes frequently in the comments section.

So gents, I have some questions:

  • How do you feel about the outcome of the series? Did you expect it, or has it surprised you?

Gareth: The outcome itself did not surprise me, I had predicted 5-0, however the manner of the defeat was not what I expected. If I think back on the series, with the possible exception of the evening session in Brisbane (I think) when Root and Stoneman were given a working over, and perhaps England bowling under lights (albeit with the game gone) I cannot really think of a gripping period of play that really had that edge-of-the-seat Ashes feel. Rather than being blown away (as is often the case) it was more a case of being ground down, inexorably and inevitably, at the hands of Steve Smith. Death by a thousand depressing, tedious cuts, drives, pulls and whips through midwicket.

Silk:  Please. I’ve blanked it out of my mind already. I’m sure the NZ series, with a refreshed squad and a new vision will do fine.

CricketJon: I saved this question until last. The outcome of the series fills me with sadness. Not because a team lost 4-0 because that can happen in sport. Its life. No…..its the missed opportunities, the promises made after the last Ashes tour and the sheer lack of self awareness from the people running the English game. In other sports and business (and never the twain shall they meet…ah wait) the buck stops at the top.

Did I expect it? Well I wasn’t surprised. I would now class this team as a group I would be happy to idle away a summers day on (on the telly) but gone are the days of losing several hours sleep (and the consequences of doing so) to watch an away Ashes series.

  • Who is to blame, primarily?

Gareth: I predicted 5-0 the moment I saw the squad. Therefore I would say it is the fault of the selectors. Now, that being said, I do not think there was a squad they could have named that would have won the Ashes, but I’m sure there were several  possible squads that could have been less predictably dire. Any follower of English cricket could have predicted James Vince’s batting average and modes of dismissal before he got on the plane. Why couldn’t the selectors?

I notice in the aftermath of (and often during) the series that county cricket took a lot of stick from pundits and journalists. Certainly those top-performing county cricketers such as Leach, Robson, Northeast, Porter, Collingwood et al should be ashamed of the fact that the circumstances of their upbringing, choice of county or “character” (the go-to word when they just don’t like someone) led to them combining for a disappointing total of no runs and no wickets in the series. Moeen Ali exceeded that on his own (barely)!

Silk: I don’t really want to think about that. It’s just too depressing.

CricketJon: To answer this objectively one has to look at selection, coaching and the gap between the four day county championship and test cricket.

The selections raised eyebrows for me not for the first time because of the public endorsements of players by Michael Vaughan and his “interest in ISM”. The press, such as they, are do very little to entertain the myth regarding conflict of interest on this matter. It suggests that Whittaker listens to so called pundits, some of whom change their mind far too frequently or make it up as they go along. This may be a generational shift in how the press operates but I cannot see why that should apply to selectors.

The coaching set up at Bluffborough is more concerning. We hear stories of great athletes at the input stage (Bunbury week) and observe over coached bowling dry partially injured players unfit for 5 day cricket at the output stage. [ Maybe that’s why they want to reduce to 4 day Test cricket? The gap would be less exposed. ] The sheer lack of upcoming talent to replace Broad and Anderson is stunning given the huge financial resources. I do not know if the volume of inputs has reduced substantially because fewer teenagers watch cricket now (and we all know why that is) but the output is unequivocally poor.

The four day county championship now suffers from an identity crisis. Once a fiercely fought  competition for over 100 years in the pre-digital era to that of a feeder to the Test team  (2000-c2015) it has now become a background element shunted into disparate fragmented components of the season that would be imaginable in the days when Richard Hadlee and John Lever would take 110 wickets a season. It is not difficult to see how this fails to prepare players for Test matches even in English conditions.

The governing body are responsible for all three aspects.

  • Which players did better than you expected, and who did worse?

Gareth: Dawid Malan managed to do something that the other batsmen all singularly failed to do and adapted his batting to suit the circumstances. I’ll be honest and admit that I really didn’t think he had it in him, but I take my hat off to him and really hope he can kick on from here and establish himself as a fixture in the middle-order. He seems a phlegmatic sort of fellow, and I like the cut of his jib (and the flow of his cover drive). I’m already hearing talk of moving him to three, so I look forward to our collective suicide by face-palm in five Tests time.

The list doesn’t so much taper at this point as combust into flames and hurl itself into an abyss screaming “bring back Martin McCague”. I had high hopes that Chris Woakes would cement a long-term spot but he was ineffectual. I don’t think eight and nine-over spells did him many favours though.

I’m continually perplexed by pundits who express surprise at Broad and Cook’s lack of effectiveness. Had they not been watching for the last twelve months?

I know we should be getting stuck into James Vince, but he really didn’t perform worse than expectations, and an average of 26, with two half centuries, is actually a lot higher than I expected. He should never have been picked in the first place, and probably wouldn’t have made my own personal squad if I was purely picking a squad of sixteen English cricketers called James.

But Vince’s tour’s is akin to a silver feather run lovingly down the brow of a sleeping Baby Jesus when compared to the catastrophe that was Moeen Ali’s tour. An absolute disaster, but he’ll survive because he’s “a free spirit” and English cricket has invested too much in him, and spent too much time besmirching alternatives (Leach is a chucker and soft, Rashid bowls too slowly and is soft etc) to drop him.

Silk: You don’t really want me to answer that, do you?

CricketJon: Malan did better than I expected and Bairstow did worse than I expected. It was a struggle for Moeen but the inflexibility of the Master Strategists made provision for him to be picked even when injured. How ridiculous. If someone is unfit such as he was in the first two Tests then someone should replace him. Alas there was no Plan B.

  • Which players should be moved on, and who should replace them?

Gareth: If Broad is going to bowl cross-seam, then take the new ball off him. Too valuable, especially abroad, to waste. If he’s not happy being first-change, bin him. I’d give Woakes a go with the new ball in NZ. Toby Roland-Jones will hopefully be available to fill that vacant “fourteenth right-arm FM bowler” slot.

I’d personally take Moeen out of the firing line for his own good. If they want the (conservative) batsman-who-bowls option, I think Samit Patel would have done no worse. Adil Rashid took thirty wickets last winter, which I thought would have been enough to say “let’s work with him and try to build him up” but his time may have passed. I think Crane may have to wait until Stokes returns to provide that balance England crave. If they think Patel is too fat and Adil is too Rashid, there’s always Scott Borthwick for the batting part-timer role.

In terms of batting, I think they should tell Root to bat three, Bairstow to go to four and drop the gloves, and tell the pair of them that England are now in the business of winning Test matches, not Making Sure Joe And Jonny Get To Do What They Like Best.

Bairstow is probably the second most likely batsman to make a hundred. You diminish his chances of doing that by batting him at 6/7 and making him keep for two days. Foakes seems like a real blue-chip prospect, so let’s see what he can do.

As for Root – get him in at a 12-1 stumble rather than a 30-2 crisis.

My team for NZ – Cook, Stoneman, Root, Bairstow, Malan, Livingstone, Foakes, Woakes, Broad, Anderson, Crane

Livingstone makes it purely because he can turn his arm over (as can Root and Malan to be fair) a bit. I’m keen on Joe Clarke also, I’d take him as spare batsman. With Hameed and Gubbins in the wings, Stoneman needs a score. I’d tell Crane not to worry about the first innings – he’s there to mop up the tail, get overs and hopefully bowl well on days 4 and 5.

Silk: I almost think we are all of us ghosts. It is not only what we have inherited from our father and mother that ‘walks’ in us. It is all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we cannot shake them off.

CricketJon: Vince is not a number 3 and given his selection for NZ I direct you to part of my answer to question 2. I do not know who should replace them because I have a full time job and do not have the time to analyse talent. I should point out however that Mr Bayliss does have a full time job but he, by his own admission, knows very little about county cricket. We therefore, in light of this worrying news, defer to Mr Whittaker and his line of engagement with pundits who change their mind (“it’s just an opinion, Mr Vaughan?”) too regularly. This does not have the molecular structure of a successful operating model. If there were shareholders involved in this as a private enterprise, then action would be taken. It does not apply here which I shall detail in the last question.

  • How did BT do with the coverage?

Gareth: If I never hear Graeme Swann again it will be far too soon. You can just tell he thinks Tim Lovejoy’s stint on Soccer A.M was the cultural highlight of all mankind’s achievements. Boycs was awful too.

Silk: No idea. I was listening on Radio 4 LW.

CricketJon: Whilst it made a refreshing change not to have to listen to Sir Horseshit talking about golf, alcohol, bbq’s, DK Lillee and how the best road in London is the one that leads out of it, it was significantly more toe curling listening to Graeme Swann constantly rehearsing for some hitherto unknown stand up. The Australians, Gilchrist and Ponting were unsurprisingly erudite and generally factual and objective (something which is only possible if they don’t work for Channel 9) whereas Boycott either became a bore or I had forgotten just how boring and dogmatic he was. Alison Mitchell was very credible and Matt Smith was an ok frontman. No material problems with Damien Fleming. I despise Michael Vaughan on the grounds that he simply makes it up as he goes along and caveats this M.O. with “it’s just an opinion”. He is nothing more than a 2017/18 lounge lizard. Cant believe I once adored him.

  • Were England that bad, or were Australia really good? 

Gareth: I thought Australia’s bowling was as good as we expected. Smith was outstanding, and most of their batsmen chipped in at key times. As I said previously, there was a grim inevitability about the way they ground England’s attack to dust. You cannot help but respect their preparation – they clearly saw what happened in the sub-continent last year where you can patiently accumulate 600 plus against England’s attack.

Silk: Stop asking me these questions. Why do you torture me so?

CricketJon: When Shaun Marsh spooned the ball to mid off at Brisbane, I was chuffed with just how well England stayed with Australia bearing in mind this was quite a few guys first tour. Brisbane isn’t easy. Its 30 years since anyone won there. It was the high point of the tour in terms of the outcome of the series. The rest of the match is history.

What really boils my piss is that two guys with 2.6m Test wickets between them were entrusted by a young captain upon winning the toss to take advantage of the conditions in Adelaide. The correct decision. Root was let down. They bowled the wrong length and if any proof was necessary look what happened throughout the match when they altered the length. We keep being told they are experienced warhorses and similar claptrap. Where does this rainbow end? I can understand human error, it happens, they are not robots but lack of concentration and application? The match was lost there and it was galling to see when Malan and Root batted so well in the fourth innings on the fourth evening just what might have been possible.

We have 4000 backroom staff or whatever the current number is. With the amount of time that gets forever lost in Test cricket (what other sport are you allowed to just piss off after 83 overs and short change the punters?) there was ample time for someone to send a message to the bowlers in the first half hour. Maybe they did and the bowlers weren’t listening? As David Brent would say “They wont remember”. I do.

  • How do England make sure it doesn’t happen again in four years’ time?

Gareth: Sack KP again?

I think they have to identify what was lacking and look at a group of about 8-10 players that they feel, in 4 years time, will, with careful nurturing and gradual integration into the side, provide the necessary tools to overcome Australian conditions. And look at skill levels alone, not what a nice bloke Liam Dawson is in the dressing room or claptrap like that. The skills? Pace bowling, reverse swing, skilful spin bowling and nous, ability to bat and concentrate for long periods and adapt.

Sounds simple doesn’t it? But isn’t that what selection is about?

Some of the short-termism of some selections made by England in the last 18 months (hello Liam Dawson!) shows just how non-existent the planning process was. Dawson (and Ansari before him) was never going to make the Ashes. Was he just there to have a dig at Rashid?

Silk: There is no health left within me. I am bereft.

CricketJon: Tear up the operating model and bring in people that have no conflicts of interest, are not obsessed with 20 or 10 over cricket and the money it brings and sadly bring it down to 3 Tests which is where it is eventually heading anyway.

  • What about the home Ashes? Who will win that?

Gareth: I have it too close to call. It really does depend on if James Anderson maintains his standards – England have little else but Jimmy remains a master of his craft. If Aussie can keep those three quicks fit they will be a handful on any surface (bar Melbourne!).

Silk: Please, make it stop.

CricketJon: Much rests on the pitches and overhead conditions. Please note that in 2015 the two tracks that were most like Australian conditions resulted in Australian victories.

  • England have a tour of New Zealand next, should they be worried?

Gareth: Very much so; they’re not Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood but Southee, Boult and Wagner are no pushovers, and if I were any of those three I’d be looking forward to getting stuck into Vince. New Zealand also have their own superstar batsman, and a good settled team ethos. They are consistently more than the sum of their parts.

Silk: ARGH. <thud>

CricketJon: Yes without a doubt.

  • Any Other Business?

Gareth: I know we give Peter Moores absolute pelters and rightly so. But he did identify Liam Plunkett as someone who could bowl bouncers with an old ball on garbage surfaces (Headingley 2014 etc). I was thinking about that as I watched Tom Curran run in. Using the old ball is a skill in itself, and one which England have lost sight of.

Silk: I would very much like to thank everyone at BOC who have put some much effort into following this crap, and writing about it. To write so well, and with such effort, about such crap is a magnificent effort. The long-suffering England support deserves you, but those Inside Cricket do not. More power to you.

CricketJon; Yes. I have said it already on this website. The debate should be opened as to precisely who the game belongs to. Furthermore the following (and previously written) questions need considering. It applies to any form of democracy and governance and the source of the five questions is the late and remarkable Tony Benn:

1, What power have you got?
2, Where did you get it from?
3, In whose interests do you use it?
4, To whom are you accountable?
5, How do we get rid of you?

Any difficulties arising from answering those questions raises an enormous red flag.

My thanks to all for their time and effort in answering my questions, and as always, comment below is very welcome.

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