England at rock-bottom but rudderless ECB will struggle to cast Joe Root adrift

England at rock-bottom but rudderless ECB will struggle to cast Joe Root adrift
Say what you like about the World Test Championship table, but it doesn’t half concentrate the mind. There England are, rooted to the foot of the standings having won a miserable 12.5% of the available points in their three series to date for the 2021-23 cycle, and not even the asterisk attached to the incomplete series with India can provide any mitigation. This team really is producing the worst Test cricket in the world right now.

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.

And it is against that backdrop that we arrive at the sadly compromised status of the captain, Joe Root – arguably England’s finest Test batter of the 21st century and as such one of the ECB’s few unequivocally blue-chip assets, but one whose most primal desire to stay at the crease for as long as possible (a trait that hasn’t often rubbed off on his team-mates of late) is currently coming across as an obstinate refusal to face up to the realities of his tenure.
“I’m very passionate about trying to take this team forward,” Root said in the wake of the Grenada defeat. “I feel like the group are very much behind me. We’re doing a lot of really good things. We just need to turn that into results.”
It’s entirely possible that Root is as right to stand his ground as he is wrong. Just as Ashley Giles, England’s since-sacked MD, was correct in his assertion after the Ashes loss in Sydney that a mass cull of the existing hierarchy – himself included – would only be “setting up future leaders for failure”, so it could be that Root knows, more viscerally than anyone else could ever fathom, that he alone has the stature to contend with such hopeless circumstances.
That said, a mere two months have elapsed since the horrors of Hobart, and already Root’s England have come up with an even more insipid display. Never mind hitting rock-bottom, their performance in Grenada was more akin to spinning out into the void like an astronaut unmoored from a space-station – a team so disconnected from the gravity of their situation that there no longer feels like any limit to how far they could drift.

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