It was another World Test Championship table, Wisden‘s unofficial version, that effectively woke England up to its last most urgent crisis of competence, way back in 1999. That summer famously finished with Nasser Hussain, England’s new captain, being booed off the balcony at The Oval after England’s 2-1 loss to New Zealand – and like the winter just gone, the defining trends were a series of batting collapses from established players, and an air of fatalism at the merest hint of adversity.
It was a focal point of anger that somehow hadn’t materialised throughout a preceding decade of, let’s face it, distinctly intermittent glory, but if history is repeating itself, then it’s not from an entirely equivalent footing. Once again, England’s Test team has been substandard for a while – just as in the 1990s, their rare bright spots have been sufficiently compelling to distract from the marquee moments of defeat that have dominated the era. By 1999, however, most of the major changes that would revolutionise the coming decade were already on the cards.
These included Hussain’s appointment, of course (although it would take Duncan Fletcher’s arrival as coach to unlock his true potential as a leader), but more significantly, the creation in 1998 of the ECB as a unified body to oversee all levels of the game in England and Wales. This cleared the way for the introduction of central contracts, and began the process by which England’s Test players could be treated as elite international athletes, rather than reluctant loanees from their counties.
But now, 23 years later, here England are again. At rock-bottom by pretty much any measure that matters, but without so much as a footstool in situ to begin their long, and long-overdue, traipse back towards the standards expected of one of Test cricket’s Big Three teams.
Far from being the sport’s impending saviour, the ECB of 2022 is arguably too cumbersome to cope with a crisis of this variety. The pandemic revealed it to be a lumbering corporate machine with more financial imperatives than sporting ones – and until it splurged all its reserves on the setting-up of the Hundred, Tom Harrison, the lame-duck chief executive, would probably have hailed that fact as proof that English cricket had “entered another paradigm”.
Instead, the ECB currently lacks a full-time chairman, a full-time director of cricket and a full-time head coach, and also lacks any genuine cricketing nous within its boardroom. Andrew Strauss is back in an interim capacity, and emitting all manner of reorganisational vibes, but as he’s made clear from the outset, his family circumstances will win out over any petitions to make his role full-time.
“Sometimes it amazes me that he gets questioned, because of how it feels within the dressing room,” Collingwood said of the speculation coming Root’s way. “You can see the passion, the drive. There’s a real hunger to get it right. These aren’t just words coming out of his mouth. He’s desperate to get the team back to winning games of cricket.”
It’s been a common theme of the tour for England – this insistence, against any lasting evidence other than the positive noises coming from those very people making the noise, that the dressing-room has been a happier and more harmonious place on this trip than it had been in the Ashes, and consequently a better place.
And if that has sounded like a veiled criticism of those who didn’t make it onto this tour – James Anderson and Stuart Broad, in particular, but maybe also men such as Rory Burns, whose sullen demeanour in Australia was considered unbecoming of a senior batter – then Root hasn’t exactly gone out of his way to downplay the notion.
Speaking to BT Sport in Grenada, and responding to a direct question from David Gower about “the people who weren’t here”, Root said: “I thought the attitude throughout the whole thing has been brilliant, and in that respect we have definitely made big improvements.” There’s not a whole lot of equivocation there.
Happy dressing-rooms, however, aren’t necessary the most dynamic ones – a point that Hussain made in his Daily Mail column while calling on Root to quit. “It’s such a cop out to leave out people who are perhaps difficult to manage and pick a team of 10 yes men and yourself,” he wrote. “The whole point of captaincy, and the aspect of the role I enjoyed the most, was trying to get the most out of people who did things differently.”
But who, realistically, could take over? Ben Stokes is the only player in the current squad with an equivalent stature to Root, but his reluctance to embrace the role is understandable, both within the context of his allrounder status (and England’s prior experience of handing the captaincy to such talismans) and the very personal circumstances from which he is only just beginning to find his best form.
Beyond that, there’s Broad – a man who laid out his manifesto in no uncertain terms at Sydney during the Ashes, and who would provide the sort of spiky non-conformism that could jolt this squad out of their discomfort zones. Admittedly he’s 36, but the evidence of his absence in the Caribbean was that he’d still walk back into the team as an attack leader – as would Anderson, of course, although he’s even older and even further leftfield as a captain.
And after that, rather as Root has intimated with his intransigence, there are simply no realistic options. Zak Crawley and Dan Lawrence need to focus on their own games before worrying about anyone else’s; Burns has already been burnt, while his replacement Alex Lees – England Lions’ captain last winter – is someway short of proving himself a long-term alternative. As for Sam Billings, for all that he was chirpy behind the stumps during his emergency Test debut in Hobart, if he is a genuine contender, then we really are back in Chris Cowdrey territory.
The desperation is such that even Eoin Morgan has been floated, more than six years after he last gave the County Championship more than a passing consideration. If that pipedream was ever to have had any merit (and it genuinely would have done once) then it would have been in the aftermath of the previous Ashes in 2017-18, when it was all systems go for the white-ball revolution, and when England – with some funky thinking from Ed Smith, the new national selector – found a sufficiently dynamic line-up to lure Jos Buttler and Adil Rashid back to red-ball cricket too.
And so, given the ECB’s boardroom torpor, and the manifest lack of alternatives, perhaps it truly is a case of making do with Root as captain for the foreseeable, and hoping against hope that a structure can be built around him that helps to inculcate the values that have been seeping out of England’s Test cricket for years.
He is, after all, the most experienced Test captain in England’s history, and yet at no stage of his five-year reign – except, maybe fleetingly, in that pre-pandemic window in 2019-20 – has Root overseen a squad for which the red-ball game has been the unequivocal priority for English cricket.
Perhaps, like Hussain in 1999, he just needs the right man alongside him – and an abrasive micro-manager such as Justin Langer would undoubtedly reach the parts of his game that fellow nice guys Trevor Bayliss and Chris Silverwood were never able to challenge. But somehow you sense that the window for quick fixes closed a long time ago.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket