Stuck in a cycle, English cricket seeks escape

If there is one group more into cycles than the Dutch, it’s English cricket. Whether on an Ashes or World Cup rota, the comforting time constraint is four years: enough for initial teething problems, some introspection, developing consistency and then a full tilt at the spoils. Often, the schedule places both events on separate shores. While the phenomenon was set to occur in Australia during their 2014/15 season, a sensible shunting gave them the best part of a year in between. Next summer, however, England have the perfect storm.

While the ODI side is ranked number one, having seen off Australia and India in five and three matches this summer, respectively, the Test side is still scrabbling around, yet to decide on the best lycra, saddle in need of a change and no gauge on vaseline supplies. Rarely have England looked so unsettled a year out from a domestic Ashes series. The next month-and-a-half against India, the world number one in Test cricket, will either bring them up to speed or send them to the tarmac.

It’s hard to make heads of tails of this England side. If you were pushed off the fence, you would be comfortable labelling them an average Test team. The numbers would cushion you: only 10 of the last 30 home Tests have been won, in an era when everyone wins at home. There is undeniable talent within the squad, but the collective consistently falls short. They are a side that somehow moves in circles yet stays in the same place. There’s a reason they sit fifth in the ICC rankings.

Joe Root and others around the set-up have used media engagements to talk about the captain’s vision for a more expressive and cohesive team. After one win and one defeat, there’s been a lack of opportunity to showcase any kind of improvement in manner or mood. The intense period of five matches in the next six weeks against a side of India’s quality will either solidify or skewer that feeling in double-quick time.

The importance of this “Kumbaya” spirit is as much for the public as the players themselves. England’s white ball revolution has not only made the limited overs sides exciting to watch but also created a sense of fun – the sort that suggests if you’re not involved, you’re missing out, like hearing the throes of a raucous house party down the street.

This was most noticeable during the prolonged stay in Australia when at the start of January – three months into the tour – the limited overs squad rocked up and lifted some down-trodden souls to an impressive 4-1 ODI win over the hosts. Even Root, rough as guts at the end of the fifth Test, perked up, compiling 226 runs at an average of 75. It’s telling, too, that Ben Stokes wanted to do the brunt of his injury rehabilitation as a glorified cheerleader during the return Australia series in June.

A large slice of credit goes to Eoin Morgan for cultivating that atmosphere. It goes without saying that the one player to have thrived as a result is a certain Adil Rashid. Root will have seen across the last two months how Morgan has harnessed the leg-spinner’s undoubted skill. The point has been made that Root has known Rashid since the Yorkshire age-groups, but it’s worth remembering that at the first opportunity to pick him, Root instead opted for Liam Dawson. And then a young, untested Mason Crane. This after Rashid had toured the subcontinent and registered 30 wickets against Bangladesh and India, more than any other Englishman in that 2016 winter. Anyway, he’s there now.

The trading of blows since Thursday’s squad announcement has been a cocktail of unedifying, unbecoming and tedious and, depressingly, not unexpected. It did, though, sum up a theme of the summer. Dissenting crowds, rough-housing in the aisle, disinfectant in the lager. Yep, you guessed it. The Hundred.

Every new nugget that reaches the public domain is ridiculed to high heaven, expectedly though perhaps not fairly. The lack of concrete information from the ECB – they’re waiting till November – means it’s open season on that front. Is it too churlish to say India have arrived just in the nick of time?

That being said, the next few days will serve as evidence to back-up the governing body’s drive to engage a new audience. There will be close to 10,000 tickets unsold on each of the first two days of this, England’s 1000th Test. This is partly because of a Wednesday start, but that does little to alleviate the sense of dread. Warwickshire have some of the best marketing heads in the country, along with strong ties with the local South Asian communities. It’s India – the number one team in the world. Virat Kohli – Virat Bloody Kohli! – and yet, there will be spares.

Don’t expect an “I told you so” from the ECB, though. This summer has been a struggle. The cash reserves have dropped considerably – down to GBP 8.6m from GBP 73.1m in 2016 – as they look to invest in research and development around the new tournament for 2020. Cuts have been made across departments, notably on the playing side with the shutting down of the pace programmes and overseas placements. Their coffers have also not been helped after striking a lower deal than expected when selling their broadcast rights to the Indian market.

Star India’s GBP 1.97 billion play for the five-year television and digital rights of the Indian Premier League meant Sony Pictures Network – Sports picked up the exclusive India rights for all international cricket played in England during the period of 2018 to 2022. It is the first time in more than 10-years that the ECB rights are not with Star. Unconfirmed reports within the broadcast industry suggested the deal struck by Sony with the ECB was lower than what Star had paid previously for the rights.

The whole picture isn’t as jarring as it may seem at first reading. Next year is, after all, that World Cup and Ashes extravaganza, while 2020 welcomes the start of a Sky and BBC five-year deal to the tune of GBP 1.1billion. Nevertheless, the real-world ramifications of cost-cutting have created a temporary dark cloud around the ECB.

With that in mind, England and its supporters need more than a series win from this. They need to be satiated beyond whatever brilliance is contained within those 22-yards, ideally with the sort of drama and theatre that elevates art and performance to greater heights.

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