To half-quote Dickens, it was the worst of times. England’s Test side began 2021 as a source of pride, and ended it as a punchline.
In the era of Sky money and central contracts, of skinfold tests and goji-berry breakfast bars, they somehow regressed to the 1990s, when ‘laughing-stock’ was part of the job description.
Elsewhere, respite was not easy to find. Covid-19 continued to reduce the players to pawns, as they moved in and out of bubbles to allow fixtures to be fulfilled — at least those which suited the ECB — and television contracts to be honoured.
The abysmal display in the Ashes series completed a miserable 12 months for English cricket
Australia players celebrate in Melbourne this week after clinching the series by going 3-0 up
And the Azeem Rafiq racism scandal that brought down Yorkshire — a proud county reduced to a symbol of English cricket’s half-hearted attempts at multiculturalism — cast a long, depressing cloud. At the start of a new year, it shows little sign of lifting.
Meanwhile, as English red-ball cricket looked in the mirror and was shocked by what it saw, the ECB ploughed on with the Hundred, aimed at attracting a new audience after years of irrelevance and invisibility behind a paywall.
Handed every advantage going — the plum weeks of high summer and school holidays, cheap tickets, free-to-air coverage and the PR heft of a governing body — it could hardly fail, but was hailed as a triumph by interested parties nonetheless.
What, though, did it say about priorities? As England succumbed to heavy defeats at Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne — each bringing fresh trauma, psychological and statistical — it was clear we had arrived at some kind of tipping point.
The mood on the ground was febrile. Fans who had been constantly told that Test cricket remained the priority began to doubt the administrators’ motives. After all, weren’t these the same half-dozen suits who, in 2020, had presided over the loss of 62 jobs at the ECB while they waited to cash in on a bonus scheme — a reward for delivering the Hundred — worth more than £2m?
Azeem Rafiq’s explosive racism allegations brought down Yorkshire and stunned the game
This, we were told, was how things worked in the corporate world, as if a basic salary of more than half a million (after a pay cut) was not enough to attract the talent.
Dare to mention cricket’s soul or its spirit and you were branded an idealist. Yet most simply craved a healthier balance between financial imperatives on the one hand and the game’s integrity on the other; between the endless jargon of ‘stakeholders’, ‘customer experiences’ and ‘key-performance indicators’, and the basic joy of runs and wickets. The ECB are full of good people, but their top brass rarely got it right.
There were, let it be said, reasons to be cheerful. The women’s Hundred was a long-overdue olive branch to, yes, half the population after the wasted years since Heather Knight’s England won the World Cup in 2017. But even the success of the double-header format, with women’s games played before men’s on the same day at the same stadium, was serendipitous, forced on the organisers by the pandemic.
Joe Root, too, was a beacon — and, like all beacons, a warning. His year’s Test haul of 1,708 runs — bettered in history only by Mohammad Yousuf and Viv Richards — was the work of a player who finally understood big scores did not equate to selfishness. Innings of 228, 186 and 218 at Galle and Chennai had the stamp of greatness, while six Test centuries equalled England’s record.
But he also shone a light on mediocrity. Next on the list was Rory Burns, on 530, and with a technique so convoluted he was treated in Australia like a circus act and dropped after two Tests.
Joe Root’s batting was a beacon – his year’s Test haul of 1,708 runs is bettered in history only by Mohammad Yousuf and Viv Richards
England ended up losing 3-1 in India and were 2-1 down when India hurried out of Manchester
If anyone summed up the laissez-faire nature of England’s broken coaching system, it was poor Burns, planting his front foot outside off stump to Mitchell Starc’s first ball at the Gabba, and bowled a split second later by a half-volley behind his legs. And if anything summed it up, it was the sight of Burns and Haseeb Hameed preparing for the third Test in the MCG nets by batting on one leg.
To no one’s surprise, the flamingos soon yielded to more ducks: the Melbourne meltdown took England’s calendar-year haul to 54, equalling their world record set in 1998. They were making history, all right — just not the kind Root had demanded.
Supervising the shambles was Chris Silverwood, a good man handed powers beyond his competence. After England were bowled out that morning for 68, he insisted there were ‘positives coming out of this’. For fans back home who had forked out for BT Sport and stayed up late on a cold, dark night, this must have sounded like the ravings of a madman.
It was all such a pity. For a while, Silverwood’s common-sense template of big first-innings runs and a varied attack capable of taking 20 wickets seemed to be doing the job. England had started 2020 with a 3-1 win in South Africa, then saw off West Indies and Pakistan at home, and Sri Lanka away. When they won the first Test in India, the Ashes jigsaw was threatening to take shape.
The jigsaw, though, became an obsession, and captain Root increasingly resembled captain Ahab, his journey defined by a single quest.
The women’s Hundred was a long-overdue olive branch after wasting the 2017 World Cup win
Rest and rotation, a well-meaning policy made more important by the exacting demands of bubble life, had the inevitable side-effect of robbing England of their best Test team. They ended up losing 3-1 in India, 1-0 at home to New Zealand and were 2-1 down when India hurried out of Manchester, using the pretext of Covid to ensure they reached the IPL.
If we count that as a defeat, it was the first time England had lost four Test series in a row since the last millennium. So obvious did it become that Silverwood no longer had the confidence of his dressing room, that Gary Kirsten, beaten to the role two years ago, raised his hand again — before the position was even vacant.
England’s decision-making was desperate. The sacking in April of national selector Ed Smith by managing director Ashley Giles had handed Silverwood a level of influence not seen in English cricket since the days of Ray Illingworth, who died on Christmas Eve, taking memories of a happier Ashes tour, in 1970-71, with him.
Sadly, Silverwood was not up to the task: at every fork in the road, England chose the cul-de-sac. They batted at Brisbane when a green pitch and grey skies demanded they bowl. They omitted Stuart Broad, the 2019 nemesis of Australian opener David Warner. They picked left-arm spinner Jack Leach, after ignoring him all summer.
England lost in the men’s T20 World Cup semi-finals thanks to some outrageous batting by New Zealand’s Jimmy Neesham
The loss of Jofra Archer to a chronic elbow problem that may yet end his Test career was a blow. But it was baffling that England’s first over of the Ashes was bowled by Chris Woakes, who had not done the job since 2016. And it was baffling when their fastest bowler, Mark Wood, was not chosen on a flat pitch at Adelaide. So much planning, so little substance.
Isolating with his family in a hotel room in Melbourne on Friday as the team flew to Sydney, Silverwood deserved sympathy. The pitiless nature of international sport means he will soon be looking for a new job.
As for Root, the loyalty of colleagues and the absence of credible alternatives — Ben Stokes had only just returned from a break to look after his mental wellbeing — suggest he will stay on as captain. But while his batting was unimpeachable, his on-field tactics, too often, were not.
Had England won the T20 World Cup a few weeks earlier, the Ashes tour might have begun with a spring in its step. But New Zealand’s Jimmy Neesham turned a semi-final target of 57 in four overs into a cakewalk, and questions were raised about Eoin Morgan’s future as white-ball captain.
Disappointment on the field was one thing. But England’s entire tournament had been overshadowed by the Rafiq affair back home, with daily press conferences in the UAE dominated not by thoughts about next day’s game, but by grand laments about the state of race relations.
Few sights all year were more poignant than a tearful Rafiq speaking before a parliamentary select committee about his treatment at Yorkshire. And if he himself was no saint, then the courage and persistence of his whistle-blowing were a game-changer. Lord Kamlesh Patel was air-lifted in to cleanse the Headingley stables, and promptly sacked 16 staffers. Indiscriminate, said some; a necessary purge, said others. But, as high-profile personalities in the cricket media were cancelled or sacked, it was clear there was no turning back in the belated drive for equality.
The future of coach Chris Silverwood (left) is in doubt after presiding over the Ashes shocker
In many ways, it was a theme that defined the year, as priorities became skewed and decisions were made on a whim. The ECB’s last-minute withdrawal from a brief goodwill tour of Pakistan, who had visited the UK twice during the pandemic, was one of the most shameful acts ever perpetrated by the body.
The Ashes, by contrast, was considered too big to fail, and soldiered on through innumerable PCR tests and Covid diagnoses, dragging weary cricketers with it. The Pakistan debacle said little for ECB chairman Ian Watmore, and English cricket’s leadership vacuum was soon exposed once more at a meeting to discuss the future of the county structure.
Watmore, ill-prepared, quickly lost his job, leaving a chief executive, Tom Harrison, who had staked his credibility on the Hundred; a managing director who had invested everything in a failing coach; and a captain being asked to lead a side forged in the tepidity of county cricket.
If some credit was due to administrators for keeping the show on the road during the Covid chaos, it was hard to escape the suspicion English cricket ended 2021 in more need than ever of purpose and direction. With Test matches still to come in Sydney and Hobart, we may be waiting a while yet.