It's not the coach, captain or players at fault, it's the whole rotten system

August 04, 2021

In 2008, a guy in his mid-40s named David removed the protective mats which lay at the bottom of a ski slope in Italy with the aim of using them as a sledge. A few minutes later poor David - let's not give his surname; his family have suffered enough - flew down the slope and into the rocks at the bottom which those very same mats had been put in place to protect people from. David, who was killed instantly, was subsequently named as a recipient of a Darwin Award.

The point of all this? English cricket is well on the way to earning a Darwin Award of its own. For if you decimate your domestic first-class competition over a number of years, if you prioritise white-ball cricket to the exclusion of the oldest format, if you work your top players until they break physically and mentally and if you pick a side who haven't - in some cases - played any red-ball cricket for more than six months, you are effectively removing the safety mats on the ski slope to use as a sledge.

Maybe that's the biggest disappointment in all this. That nobody is even surprised when England lose six wickets for 22 runs in 59 balls anymore; they've twice suffered worse collapses in home Tests in the previous two years, after all. No one is surprised when there are four ducks in an innings anymore; it's the third time it's happened in their last five Tests, after all. No one is surprised when, after Jos Buttler has been kept scoreless for his first 15 deliveries in Test cricket, he feels for one outside off like a blind man reaching for a rail; it's the third time it's happened, after all. Really, what did you expect? If you're surprised by any of this, you haven't been paying attention.

There is some mitigation. This India attack is outstanding. It is relentless, skilful, varied and hungry. On what is basically an old-school slow seamer, they maintained pressure all day, they gained movement in the air and off the seam and they scarcely delivered a poor ball. Jonny Bairstow and Rory Burns, for example, can console themselves in the knowledge they were the victims of excellent bowling. England can only sit back and wonder about the ability of a side to leave out R Ashwin. It is entirely possible that, in any era, England may have struggled to deal with this India side.

But it is Test cricket. So quality bowling is expected. And England's inability to withstand such pressure for the requisite periods of time is hardly new. Only one player in their side, Joe Root, averages as much as 35. The poverty of their batting has, at times in recent years, been masked by the miracle that is Ben Stokes. But let us not pretend this is an aberration; it is the continuation of a recurring theme.

In such moments, it is inevitable there will be calls for heads. And it is true that, before the end of the Ashes, the futures of Joe Root and Chris Silverwood may well not be secure. Equally, there will be questions asked about Graham Thorpe, the batting coach, and several of the batters.

But you might as well blame the tea-boy on Titanic as any of these individuals. These people do not decide the schedule; these people are not responsible for marginalising the County Championship or responding to fixture congestion by squeezing in an extra white-ball tournament.

They are not alchemists. The idea that results will change radically if a couple of different players are selected is laughable. This team really isn't miles away from the best England have though you suspect it would be stronger for the inclusion of a spinning all-rounder. If only they had one with nearly 200 Test wickets and five Test centuries.

There's no point just blaming the Hundred, either. Clearly it has not provided ideal preparation for a major Test series. And clearly those saying 'give it a chance' need to reflect on the dangers it poses and the fact that, for many of us, every ball matters in Test cricket, too. But it has only just started, for goodness sake. England's problems in this area have been recurring for a few years. The Hundred is not the cause of this issue; it's a symptom.

No, if you want anything more than a piƱata you have to look higher up the food chain. If you want responsibility, you have to look at Tom Harrison, the ECB chief executive, and the ECB board (including its former chair) which has empowered him to make a series of self-defeating decisions. Harrison, a man who has been seen in public less often than the Loch Ness Monster over the last 12-months, risks being remembered in cricket as Dr Beeching was with railways or Margaret Thatcher was with coal mines. If the policies he is pursuing go unchecked, they could destroy the red-ball game.

But he may have looked around Trent Bridge, noted the packed stands and considered it an excellent day. It's only when they are hit in the pockets that they will realise the folly of what they have done. That day will come but, by then, many of our current administrators will have sailed off into a golden sunset.

It's not over, of course. This was only day one of what could, in theory, stretch to a 25-day epic. We've seen England come back from poor starts before and this wouldn't be the wonderful game we cherish if it was predictable. But we shouldn't allow miracles to distract us from a growing body of evidence. We shouldn't ignore the sound of fire alarms shrieking in our ears. Now Eden is burning and still some pretend they can't smell the smoke. It's not the coach or the captain or the individual players at fault here. It's the whole rotten system.

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