According to reports, the England team took a charter flight to Hobart. Watching them play on the first day at the Bellerive Oval it looked more like they had travelled by ancient sailing bark, and arrived, like Abel Tasman, soiled, sore, and ship-worn, half-starved after six months picking weevils out of biscuits. Battered, cut, and bruised, suffering from strains, niggles, aches and breakdowns, a loss of form, and a lack of faith. Between the 11 of them it felt like if you cherry-picked the best bits from each they could just about cobble together one fit, functioning, and happy Test cricketer.
The record books show this is the shortest Ashes tour the team have ever taken, but from the look of them, it must be starting to feel like it’s dragged on awfully long.
The brief elation they, and everyone else felt, after Joe Root had won the toss on a grassy, damp, green, and unexpectedly familiar sort of pitch and Australia fell to 12 for three, gave way pretty quickly once Marnus Labuschagne and Travis Head launched their brilliant counterattack. England started to fall apart almost as soon as Root made his first bowling change. Chris Woakes, hopelessly short of form and good-feeling after being dropped from the team, seemed to have forgotten how to do the one thing that’s always come so naturally to him, and couldn’t settle on a line, or a length. Mark Wood wasn’t doing much better.
Then Ollie Robinson went off injured just after lunch, and, when he came back on again, spent the rest of the day hobbling geriatrically around the outfield, sometimes throwing the ball back underarm from the deep. With Ben Stokes unable to bowl because he came into the game carrying a side-strain, the only option Root had left was to bowl himself, which is how England ended up delivering 10 overs of part-time off-spin in conditions which were tailor-made for seam bowling. The score at stumps should have felt encouraging, but spoke, instead, of an opportunity missed, and a chance let slip.
So, as the day wore on, thoughts drifted along, away from what will happen in this game to the more pressing question of what will happen when it’s all over. Fortunately, the ECB chief executive Tom Harrison was on hand to fill us in on the details. Harrison gave an interview to the BBC in which he talked through some of his ideas for the future. Have you got the appetite for more of this? Harrison hardly ever gives interviews, and yet, as soon as he does speak up, he has the odd knack of making you feel as though you’ve already heard enough.
Harrison explained that we were in fact looking at this latest series defeat all wrong, and it was really “a brilliant opportunity for us to come together as a game” to “reset the importance of red-ball cricket in our domestic schedule” and “recalibrate how we play first class cricket in the UK”.
This would be more convincing if Harrison hadn’t spent the last seven years in charge of the very same system he’s now blaming this failure on. It would have helped his case, too, if the single biggest impediment to that recalibration he wants wasn’t the eye-wateringly expensive white-ball tournament he launched that’s now sprawled across the middle of the summer like a doberman on a sofa.
Harrison also returned to another of his recent themes, “the volume of cricket”, and again, he’s entirely right. There is too much. The question is whether he’s noticed that a large part of it is down to the fact he just launched a needless fourth format of the sport. There was another odd little irony when he spoke about the one tangible measure he has taken so far. He said that he had written to Cricket Australia asking them to help set up a system where English players could play in the Sheffield Shield (they can hardly get a game of first-class cricket in their own country, after all). More cricket, then, for the men who he says need to play less of it.
There’s a grain of a good point here, too. If you looked with the right kind of eyes you could see how Labuschagne and Head have benefited from playing in English county cricket in the way they set about England’s seamers on a green pitch in Hobart. But there are only six Shield sides, and competition for places on them is pretty fierce. Good luck persuading them that they should also be helping to develop young English players. Besides which, this current England squad actually has plenty of experience in Australian conditions, whether it was in Grade cricket, or the Big Bash, or on A tours. It is one of the things the ECB have got right in the last few years.
That’s before you even consider the question of where, exactly, they are going to find time for this in the schedule. All that aside, it’s a fine idea, just way down the list of things England need to fix. They should maybe wait until they broach it with the players though. If they tell this lot that they are going to have to spend any more time in Australia, they might just end up with a mutiny on their hands. Although funnily enough, listening to Harrison, you wonder if that might be exactly what English cricket needs.