There’s a story of a cricketer ahead of the 2017/18 Ashes tour who, for a moment, thought he was going to make the squad. Amid the sense of pride at seeing their name on a list of potential bolters was one reservation. Had he made the cut, he’d merely be another rabbit in the headlights given how the series was expected to go. His fears were shown to be well-founded as England recorded a humbling 4-0 defeat. Those he knew in the squad spoke of an utterly dispiriting few months in Australia, riddled with uncertainty, anxiety, and a degree of mistrust among the group in each other’s worth and motivation.
One imagines there are many others like him right now after a humiliating innings defeat at the MCG put England down and out just 12 days into this five-Test series. An urn spurned just two days shy of the quarantine period they would have had to undertake had they got the nod to travel Down Under. And among those bitterly embarrassed to have been a part of it, perhaps some jealously at those who have not made the cut. The adage of being a better player out of the side reflects back on those involved, already dubbed the worst bunch to dare compete in this historic series.
As Joe Root’s men trudge out of Melbourne with two matches to play and a 5-0 scoreline incoming, it is important to outline some truisms. There remains an ingrained desire within most male cricketers to play Test cricket, and especially to represent their country in an Ashes. But it is also true that over the last few years, both relationships have been severely tested and are close to breaking point. Among the wreckage of all Ashes, losses are clues to what led to the crash. And the black box of 2021/22 contains issues pertaining to selection. It might not seem it, but the group England has right now was the best available to them.
However, the way they have been utilized speaks of a lack of faith in all but a few. A distrust exacerbated by how much stock is placed in any series against Australia, but one prevalent for a while. The broader spectrum of the selection process has been quietly unraveling in the background, well before the director of men’s cricket Ashley Giles took the peculiar option of giving Chris Silverwood greater autonomy by appointing him the sole chief selector eight months ago. One regular criticism has been around communication.
Another to suffer from this muddled thinking was James Bracey, mooted as a top-order option given his work for Gloucestershire but playing in the New Zealand series earlier this year as a wicketkeeper at number seven. The idea was to ensure he would not go uncapped ahead of this winter, but two ducks in three innings in an unfamiliar position underlined a counter-productive experience for the 24-year-old. The result is an uncertain atmosphere among the Test team that afflicts newcomers. Of the 15 full-time batters to have debuted from 2015 onwards, four were in the XI at Melbourne, and it is no coincidence the one who has any kind of comfort is Dawid Malan, the most self-sufficient.
A player who, beyond a sound technique, has a required level of selfishness to operate almost independently to the general malaise, not least because he has been burned before when he was dropped unceremoniously three years ago. Those lower down the food chain are also exposed to this incoherence. ECB coaches often bemoan how many high-profile batters “hide” themselves lower down the order in Championship games. But when one asked outright what position he should bat to improve his chances of selection, he was told in no uncertain terms that it did not matter.