Mixed feelings is the lot of most people for most eventualities in life – good things can happen, but with a caveat. Absolute certainty is forever dangerous, the prerogative of the zealot. Thus it is that England’s 5-0 demolition of Australia in the Meaningless Ashes series evokes several different responses and emotions.
To begin with, the pain of realisation that we are barely a third of the way through the white ball international schedule can be tempered with enjoying the clear irritation displayed by Malcolm Conn, as his beloved
Cricket Australia Australian cricket team were demolished by the side he gleefully reminded had been beaten by Scotland. Whether fans or press pack, looking forward to the latest surly, childish tweet from him was always a delight.
Equally, England’s batting line up repeatedly fired, and while Jos Buttler deservedly got many of the plaudits (especially for the extraordinary knock in the final match), he was anything but alone. Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow and Alex Hales were all at different times utterly devastating, while Eoin Morgan, without quite getting the volume of runs of his team mates, destroyed Australia’s bowling when he got going. An England batting line up where Joe Root appears to be something of the weak link has something seriously going for it.
Of course, for various reasons this wasn’t Australia’s best side, but the absence of players through suspension cannot be used as any kind of excuse, any more than it could in the winter when a player was missing from the England side for legal reasons. Injuries perhaps, for Australia lacked their primary pace bowling attack, but even there, justifying heavy defeat by complaining about absence is as pointless as it ever was, while belittling English success on the basis of the standard of opposition remains a curious national obsession.
Nevertheless, it can be said that it wasn’t Australia’s best team, certainly, albeit England too were missing a couple of players in the shape of Stokes and Woakes. The best teams available to both were largely selected, and to that extent it was representative. Of more importance is the relevance of the series itself, shoehorned into the heart of the summer, nominally as part of the preparation for next summer’s World Cup, but since that could have been equally done by extending Pakistan’s stay (and they did win the Champions Trophy last year) the reality that it was down to financial considerations is abundantly obvious. The crowds were largely decent, so the ECB will consider it mission accomplished.
Australia explicitly stated in 2011 that they were prioritising Test cricket, and the decline in their ODI performances since then intriguingly correlate with that, particularly given their Test performances have remained strong – the South Africa debacle notwithstanding. Yet, and here is where the excuses about missing players ring hollow – they have lost 14 of their last 16 ODIs. Pretending that the return of those players will make all well for next year flies in the face of poor performance even when all are present and accounted for, but above all else it makes interesting reading and Daniel Brettig goes into more detail here. When considering England’s alternate strategy of focusing on the white ball form of the game, whatever their protestations to the contrary, it is striking that there appears a connection, though India may raise a hand at this juncture. The marginalisation of red ball county cricket, reduction in Test volumes across the summer and creation of wheezes like The Hundred could be argued to have been highly successful in terms of creating the conditions for generating a strong England ODI and T20 side. To that end, the ECB could claim vindication for their strategy, yet they are unlikely to do so precisely because it’s a strategy that finds little favour with England cricket fans. It is, unquestionably, an irony to see the ECB succeed in their aims yet be unable to truly take credit because of the corollary impact and what it would say about them.
If the stated aim is to win the World Cup, then England are in good shape, with a couple of provisos. No team will be confident of setting England a score for the simple reason that no total seems safe from the destructive capabilities of the batting line up. The world record set two years ago was extraordinary, the pulverising of it in this series simply astounding. That 500 became a realistic prospect is something that seems scarcely credible, as was the rather odd feeling of disappointment when they didn’t get there. It must be said that pitches so flat that bowlers become cannon fodder for batsmen is fundamentally unhealthy, and by far the most exciting game in the series came in the final match, where bowlers had the upper hand, and the century from Buttler had real value because of the circumstances.
The belief of most cricket fans tends to be that these make the best matches, a proper balance between bat and ball and the excruciating excitement of a team limping over the line as true batting peril and hunting packs of bowlers come to the fore. Yet the likelihood is that those cricket fans are wrong. Casual observers probably watch to see the ball disappearing to all parts of the ground, caring little for the skill of the bowler, but enjoying the resounding thwack of willow on leather. This may be something of a depressing thought, yet the sidelining of Test cricket where that balance really does apply suggests there is truth in it, no matter what we might wish to believe. Put it this way, it’s more likely to receive a text to turn the television on because Chris Gayle is going berserk than because Liam Plunkett is rattling through the top order.
The final match also highlighted the potential flaw in England’s side, particularly when the ICC get hold of pitch preparation next summer – that England have a tendency to fall in a heap quite spectacularly from time to time. Some context is needed for that, for no one day side, no matter how strong, wins every game. England are defeated rarely, and if the semi-final last summer can be perhaps put in the category of a one off, it doesn’t mean that some caution about their prospects isn’t in order.
Perhaps for that reason the victory at Old Trafford was particularly impressive, for despite the collapse England still found a way to win. Or more specifically, Jos Buttler did. He is in an extraordinary run of form, whether at the IPL, in this series, or indeed in Test cricket. Whether this is just a purple patch, or whether he has found his feet in the wider game of cricket is a moot point, for this can be said of any player suddenly thrust to the fore through sheer performance. It is enough for the present to enjoy his extraordinary run and to hope that it continues.
The arrival of India will perhaps answer some of the questions underlying England’s level of performance, but it seems beyond question that they are among the favourites for next year. Buttler’s supreme displays have overshadowed players who in any other circumstances would be in receipt of unqualified praise – Roy and Bairstow actually scored more runs this series for a start.
This series was also played out in the backdrop of a football World Cup, which has deliciously highlighted both the appetite for watching event sport, and the invisibility of cricket to the wider public. The two England football matches have attracted extraordinary viewing figures – over 20 million for the game against Tunisia, and while the totals were lower for the beating handed out to Panama, the 83% of total television audience (when the cricket was on, note) is one of the highest on record.
Cricket isn’t football of course, and a World Cup is a seminal collective experience, but there are some observations that can be made from that. Firstly that a likeable team whom the public believe are deserving of support receive it, and secondly that the claims of the ECB over the years amount to so much nonsense. The near 10 million who watched the climax of the Ashes in 2005 were specifically discounted as a future factor when justifying the move to pay TV on the grounds that the digital age meant that such community viewing was no longer possible. Young people in particular apparently no longer consumed sport in such a manner, too distracted by social media to sit and watch a game.
The huge audiences for the football demonstrated that this was so much drivel. All ages watched the England football team, all ages cheered the goals. The cricket team could never hope to match those raw numbers, but it is beyond question that were they to move to the latter stages of next year’s World Cup, both the interest, and the audience would climb dramatically if it were widely available, not least because it would be promoted across all media, social or otherwise. Instead, even if England were to win the thing, it will remain a niche occasion. It is this in particular that remains unforgivable, that the ECB blew the opportunity offered to a sport that had captured the public imagination as on few occasions previously. Cricket is not football, but the shared national experience when our team does well is something beyond price, and really does inspire a generation.
The football team may not have beaten anyone of note yet, but kids across the country were kicking footballs afterwards, just as in 2005 they were taking a bat and a ball to the park. For all the protestations about the viability of the professional game without Sky’s money (how on earth did they survive before 2006?), this fundamental importance has been ignored. The argument these days appears to be an almost apologetic one, that ok yes, perhaps they have destroyed the game in national consciousness, but it’s too late now and they can’t survive by changing tack. It is weak, defeatist nonsense driven by self-interest.
Buttler should be a household name. Roy should be a household name, Hales should be a household name, the captain Eoin Morgan should be a household name. Children should be trying to emulate Adil Rashid and make their friends look foolish with one that grips and turns. But they aren’t, and after a series where whatever the caveats, England were both exceptional and thrilling, this is the most disappointing part. Forget for one moment the debate about red ball and white ball cricket, when England really do have a team that can inspire a nation, hardly anyone saw it.
It is that, above all else, that can never be forgiven.