Last week, I left a question hanging as to why anyone would want to captain a cricket team? This was in the context of the complexity and demands of the job, irrespective of the standard of cricket being played.
At international level, the spotlight is permanently focused on the captain by the media and followers of the game.
After the recent conclusion of the second Test match between Australia and England, it was not difficult to know which of the two captains would be able to answer the question positively.
As discussed in earlier columns, the captain of Australia in this match was a previous captain who had been banned from the role for his involvement in a ball-tampering transgression in 2018. His reintegration into the leadership team, as vice captain, had been achieved for the first match of this Ashes series, when his successor as captain in 2018 stood down following his own self-inflicted transgression.
Then, the new captain for the first match tested positive for COVID-19, after dining out. Consequently, he had to isolate and stand down from the second match, paving the way for the vice captain and former captain to assume full leadership, three years and nine months after being removed.
It would be hard not to imagine his feeling of elation when a comprehensive victory over England was sealed in the final session of the final and fifth day of the match, despite some belated defiance from England’s lower order. The rewards of captaincy would have been clear.
In the England camp, there were very opposite feelings. Its captain Joe Root was the brunt of more criticism and, in turn, he redirected some blame onto his bowlers for “not bowling the right lengths” in the conditions. Public rebuke of this nature is unusual and is unlikely to sit well with the bowlers. It also hints at tensions within the camp. These appear to be being addressed by a round of frank discussions.
A former Australian captain said: “If you can’t influence your bowlers on what length to bowl, what are you doing on the field?” Australian cricketers, past and present, are never slow to play up the weaknesses and travails of their English counterparts. There is a surfeit of current material. The decision of England’s captain to bat first in difficult conditions in the first Test, coupled with selection that was considered to be flawed by many observers, set the tone for the series. It will take a significant upturn in performance for England to achieve parity with Australia.
Criticism of England’s bowlers by Root and a statement from the coach standing by the original team selections, hint at a siege mentality. It may also reflect deep disappointment with the way that the match conditions at Adelaide did not work in favor of England. The match was a day-night one played with a pink ball.
The first day-night match was played between Australia and New Zealand at Adelaide in late November 2015. Since then, a further 15 have been played, with Australia hosting and winning eight. The Australian authorities are keen on the format because long, warm nights by the coast are suited for attracting spectators to an evening of cricket.
At the outset, there was an issue with what type of ball was most suitable. The white ball, used in limited-over cricket of 20 and 50 overs duration, would deteriorate too much before a new one was due after 80 overs, whilst it would be difficult to pick it out against white clothing. The visibility of the traditional red ball was not good enough under lights. The search for a ball color, which would provide acceptable levels of visibility and durability, involved experiments with orange and yellow before pink was decided upon.
Even so, there were reservations, especially from Indian players and authorities. These focused on the visibility of the ball under lights against bowlers of extreme pace, the extra layer of lacquer which may enable the ball to swing in the air more than a red ball and, in certain locations, evening dew might make the gripping of the ball more difficult, especially for spinners.
There have been aberrations in performance in several of the matches. India, for example, were bowled out for 36 by Australia. Noticeably, none of the men’s day-night Tests have ended in a draw and the conditions are more of a challenge to batters.
Thus, there were high hopes for England in Adelaide. Australia’s captain and quickest bowler was missing, courtesy of COVID-19, another quick bowler was missing through injury, two of the quick bowlers who were playing were nursing side strains and another, with only two Tests to his name, was returning after three years of shoulder rehabilitation. On the English side, both experienced seam bowlers, omitted for the first Test, were picked for conditions deemed to be favorable to them.
In the event, Australia’s batting lineup proved more than up to the task. This was not the case for England’s fragile lineup. Root is one of the finest of his generation but even he cannot paper over all of the cracks. There are signs that the pressure is beginning to tell on him. The third Test begins at Melbourne on Dec. 26 and, unless England’s batsmen can improve, the prospect of a 5-0 series defeat that seemed improbable three weeks ago looms large.
Until 2000, only one Ashes series, in 1920-21, had ended 5-0. This was to Australia on home soil. In the last 21 years in Australia, the home team has won two series 5-0 and one 4-0, with England’s only series triumph in 2010-11. This time, Australia has turned itself around from having a captaincy crisis, a dearth of Test-match cricket, and doubts over the form of its core batting, to being in almost total control of the series. The crisis has been transferred to England. Its captain may be asking, why me?