Five stages of grief with England

Five stages of grief with England


In affectionate remembrance of English cricket, which died (again) in Melbourne on 28 December 2021.

Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. RIP.

The body will be cremated and the Ashes will remain in Australia.

Short presentational grey line

OK, so maybe this latest England defeat at the hands of Australia is not being greeted with the dismay of the loss at The Oval in 1882. You have to go back to before World War One to find a time when England regularly won down under, so it is no surprise the tourists have been beaten once more.

However, it is the feeble manner in which Joe Root’s side have surrendered that lends itself to a stark sense of mourning for the state of the England Test team.

It was the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who theorised that grief comes in five stages.

To have watched England in recent years is to have experienced them all.

Stage one: Denial

England have been in decline for the best part of a decade, a mediocre side hiding in plain sight.

Yet, denial has been aided by a long unbeaten home record and the individual brilliance of a few world-class players.

The signs were there. Just two teams – Sri Lanka and South Africa (both twice) – beaten away from home since the beginning of 2013, only Root and Alastair Cook averaging more than 40 with the bat in the past decade, an over-reliance on James Anderson, hot-shotting the gloves from keeper to keeper, mishandling spin, a slip cordon more likely to catch smallpox than an edge.

The cracks have really started to open in the past 12 months. One win in 12 Tests, the worst home summer since 1999, the demise of that proud unbeaten record in the UK. No team has ever lost more matches in a calendar year than England’s nine in 2021.

Nothing causes introspection within English cricket quite like an Ashes defeat. It was only a Ben Stokes miracle at Headingley that prevented Australia winning the urn two years ago.

Now it is all laid bare. The denial can continue no longer.

Stage two: Anger

There are multiple reasons for this Ashes humbling and England’s overall slide: a lack of preparation, injuries, Pat Cummins’ piercing blue eyes.

However, most of the anger is being directed at a domestic system that is perceived to leave batters ill-equipped to cope with the demands of Test cricket. “The Hundred”, “ECB”, “county” and “Tests” were all trending on Twitter on Tuesday morning.

And, while it is true that facing Darren Stevens on a sticky dog at Canterbury in April is a different sport from Mitchell Starc shoving the ball up your nostrils at the Gabba, it is not as simple as blaming it all on the county calendar.

It is certainly not a problem unique to England for batters in the national team to play little or no red-ball cricket outside the Test arena.

And the first-class game has still provided opportunities for players to put together a decent body of work in order to earn a Test call-up.

Dom Sibley made nine hundreds across two years before his England selection, Rory Burns had five successive seasons of making more than 1,000 runs and Ollie Pope has taken advantage of batting at The Oval for most of his career by possessing a first-class average in excess of 51.

At best, all three have stood still since being called up by England. At worst, it is hard to argue that they have not regressed.

Further back, Keaton Jennings, Sam Robson, Adam Lyth and Nick Compton all made hundreds early in their Test careers before fading away.

The county structure is far from perfect but wouldn’t need much tweaking to improve. Is it not a bigger concern that England, with an army of backroom staff, are not making players better?

Stage three: Bargaining

This latest embarrassing episode in English cricket history can be compared with another chastening moment down under, the first-round exit from the 2015 World Cup. Root himself has noted the parallels.

In response, England took one-day cricket seriously, set their stall out to win the 2019 tournament and did just that.

But there is no such thing as a free lunch and the bargain for that success has been a knock-on detriment to the Test team, either in the shape of the tank-sized gap between Jonny Bairstow’s bat and pad, or the pursuit of a World Cup double which saw players left out of Tests but kept fresh for a T20 tournament England did not win.

That is not to say red-ball and white-ball success cannot be achieved simultaneously. Australia have won the T20 World Cup and Ashes in the space of six weeks, while New Zealand are world Test champions having made each of the last 50-over and 20-over World Cup finals.

England have also had to make choices during a Covid era in which they have played more than any other team.

The bargain for keeping the show on the road in a time of bubbles, isolation and quarantine has been to rotate players, which Root admitted was to the “detriment” of performances in India, when results really started to unravel.

Stage four: Depression

Past, present or future, England can give cause for depression.

The past? In their past 29 Tests away to India, Australia and New Zealand – the world’s top three teams – England have won only once and suffered 21 defeats. In the past five years alone, they have been bowled out in a single session on five occasions, one of which was by Ireland.

The present is trying to stay awake on the dark, winter nights, only to have your dreams stalked by Cummins, Starc and co. The rattle of Burns’ leg stump, Jos Buttler’s iron gloves, yet another Australian fast bowler plucked from nowhere to deliver homing missiles at the edge of English bats.

The future? Try not to think about Jofra Archer’s elbow, or the paucity of options to relieve Root of the captaincy.

And whatever you do, don’t contemplate what life will be like when Anderson retires.

Stage five: Acceptance

Perhaps the best way to deal with this is accept the fact that England are not very good at Test cricket and that more pain is on the way before things are likely to get better.

Anything other than defeat in the final two Tests in Australia would feel like a good result, after which England could be looking for a new captain, coach and the majority of a team.

How many of the current line-up are nailed on to face West Indies in the spring? Root, Stokes, Ollie Robinson, Mark Wood and probably Dawid Malan. Anderson and Stuart Broad will be in the mix if they want to be, but England must see every series they remain available as a bonus.

After that come a home series against New Zealand and the rearranged fifth Test against India, both of whom were better than England last summer, before the visit of an improving South Africa, which looks far from a gimme.

Next winter includes Test series in Pakistan and New Zealand – England will not start as favourites in either – before the next Ashes in the UK in 2023.

By that time, England will not have lost a home series to Australia in 22 years. As of now, that record would appear to be in huge jeopardy.

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