Seven weeks ago, at the start of the Ashes, Joe Root made a strikingly clear statement. “Of course it will define my captaincy,” he said. “I’m not naive enough to think that it won’t.”
He was right and there’s no wriggling out of it now. To lose one Ashes series 4-0 may be regarded as a misfortune, as long as the captain is inexperienced. To lose two that heavily, when you have been in charge for more Tests than any other England captain, looks like a reason to resign.
Root is an honourable person who may come to this conclusion now that he’s back home with his young family. If he doesn’t quit, the England and Wales Cricket Board could well stand by him. An organisation whose predecessor once churned its way through four captains in one summer, in 1988, has lurched to the other extreme. The last Test captain to be fired was Kevin Pietersen, 13 years ago this month.
It is all a far cry from the 90s, the golden age of the Ashes fiasco. As yet another series went horribly wrong, a howl would go up in the shires: “Sack the lot of them.” Whisper it, but we could do with a little more of that now.
Root needs to return to the ranks because he has never been a natural captain and he is getting worse. His win/loss ratio is 1.08 (27 Tests won, 25 lost). If you look at the league table of the 18 England captains who have lasted at least 20 Tests, Root has fallen from eighth equal with MJK Smith at the end of January 2021 to 13th, just below his immediate predecessor, Alastair Cook.
Against the top three teams – Australia, India and New Zealand – Root’s ratio plunges to 0.42, whereas it is 3.33 against the rest. Genial though he may be, he has become a bad-team bully.
Even his batting, which can be so glorious, is patchy. Since the start of last year, he averages 81 when Jos Buttler is there to share the tactical burden and 22 when Buttler is missing. All four of England’s victories in that time have come with Buttler present and it now looks as if his Test career is over.
In the chain of command above Root, even allowing for the stresses of the pandemic, it is hard to say who is the weakest link. The head coach and chief selector, Chris Silverwood, is well out of his depth: England’s best performance of the Ashes came when he was not there and in Australia and India he has tended to pick a team for the previous Test, not the one in front of him.
Silverwood’s boss is the director of cricket, Ashley Giles, who has been no better. He was wrong to abolish the role of national selector, wrong to oust Ed Smith and wrong to give Silverwood so much power. The post England could manage without is not Smith’s old job but Giles’s current one. They don’t need a director of cricket as well as a performance director (Mo Bobat) and a chair of the cricket committee (Andrew Strauss).
Giles’s boss is Tom Harrison, the ECB’s chief executive. He could have resigned over the handling of the Yorkshire racism saga; he could have resigned last week; he could, at the very least, have turned down the hefty bonus that awaits him. Instead we keep hearing that he is “unimpressed” with what he has seen of the touring party. The feeling may well be mutual.
Not one of Root, Silverwood, Giles and Harrison has done enough to retain the confidence of the cricket-loving public. Who, you may wonder, would do better? It’s all guesswork, but we can at least make sure the guesses are educated.
Everybody agrees England’s red-ball cricket needs a reset. Happily, they have someone who has conducted one before, with spectacular results. It was Strauss who saw, in 2015, that something drastic needed to be done about England’s white-ball cricket. He sacked the captain, his old opening partner Cook, and promoted Eoin Morgan, who turned out to be the most successful England captain since Mike Brearley. So put Strauss in charge: it barely matters what his title is.
The coach will have to be someone with plenty of Test experience and a firm hand because Root and Silverwood have been playing good cop, good cop. Gary Kirsten wants the job, Jason Gillespie probably does not, Alec Stewart may or may not. Any of them would surely outshine Silverwood.
The captain needs to be commanding, intense and interested in tactics and strategy. When Ben Stokes took over from Root in Adelaide, England suddenly shaped up. He has the presence and the clarity and he did superbly with a bunch of understudies in last year’s one-day series against Pakistan. But he seems reluctant, so Strauss will need a plan B.
B for Broad, that is. England’s best performance of the Ashes, off the field, was Stuart Broad’s press conference in Sydney. He was bolder, clearer and sharper than anyone else in the camp had been. He is a natural analyst and a fierce competitor: even as a stopgap, he would be an upgrade. He should be offered the job on three conditions – that he rebuilds his batting, gives himself the odd game off and lets someone else handle the reviews.
Good leaders know their limitations.