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Cricket news - Don't hate the players, hate the game
Tea was when it felt on. Maybe not realistically, on a pitch turning square and keeping low, with 11 overs until a second new ball and Pat Cummins bowling like a man who had a date with destiny. Lucky destiny.
It was easiest to believe then. The end just about coming into view, even though there were 36 overs and over two hours to negotiate for safety. England only had four wickets left, but one of those was Jos Buttler who had held firm for 96 deliveries and walking off with him for the interval was Craig Overton who had seen off 47 himself. Runs were irrelevant at this point.
England had been in this position before, against this same side albeit very different personnel. The events of Cardiff in 2009 are still talked of with great reverence, and refreshers were provided of those final moments of that battling draw in the lead-up to this series. It dominated the discussion ahead of day five, too.
Of Collingwood's steel, Anderson and Monty finishing the job amid a clown car of support staff barreling onto the field with drinks, gloves and anything else to kill time. A young Bilal Shafayat and a wardrobe-sized physio, a duo that may as well have been Del Boy and Rodney as Batman and Robin, a naff Brit-comedy scene tipped over the edge by Ricky Ponting's turn as unamused villain.
So even when Buttler departed after consuming just 15 more balls, the late resistance of Overton and man-of-the-moment Jack Leach was expected. And as they took over an hour out of the game and the threat of bad light entered into minds if not the equation, Old Trafford found its voice and willed a repeat. Lord's made them believe. Leeds made them dream. Manchester could take them higher.
Leach was struck and milked what he could. Off went the helmet, so too the glasses and out came that lens cloth. A slighter physio arrived on the scene, flanked by about four extras. Shafayat otherwise occupied. The histrionics were just as pronounced. The result was anything but.
The last time England gave up the Ashes on home soil was in 2001 and since then you could argue that the team and its fans have been spoiled by 2005, 2009, 2013 and 2015. But it felt like a seminal moment. For the first time in 18 years, Australia came here with a plan and pulled it off and England could do nothing to stop them.
During the World Cup, an Australia A side toured the shires, while a number of individuals called them home for the start of the season, plying their trade in the County Championship to fully engross themselves in these conditions. Fitting, then, that a Leach repeat was nipped in the bud by the leg spin of Glamorgan's Marnus Labuschagne and a smart catch but Matthew Wade, who played his way into this series with some off-broadway performances.
It is worth revisiting the events post 2001. What followed was a reassessment of the domestic structure. Not simply how English cricket picked their Test side, but a step-up in professionalism brought about through the introduction of central contracts which, while introduced a couple of years before those relinquished Ashes, formed a solid foundation to evoke structural changes.
On the cusp of a new Ashes cycle and the opening throes of the World Test Championship, there is no better time to begin.
Indeed, winning the inaugural WTC and finding a way to regain the Ashes in Australia must form the cornerstones of any performance-related goal. The strides made in limited-overs cricket since 2015 have made the format in England relatively self-sufficient, which should hold them in good stead for next year's T20 WC. That same drive must now tilt back towards the red ball. Within that must come a blueprint for the Test side. Specifically, what they want in a batting order, before deciding if those component parts are present in this squad. You can argue even the senior bats have been bred on indecision.
Jason Roy and Joe Denly's one-to-four swap ahead of this make-or-break fixture was a gamble unlikely to pay-off, even if Denly held his own in the second innings for a second fifty in as many Tests. But even established players are still playing musical chairs.
Joe Root started the summer at four and moved up to three a week later. Buttler started the Ashes at five and will finish it at seven. As for Jonny Bairstow, stepping back a few paces gives you the broader picture: since the start of 2018, he has batted in every position between three and seven. Moeen Ali, with turns in each of one to nine remains the poster boy for modern English Test indecision.
One particular reason for the bigger players having to jump around has been how hard newcomers have found it to bed into the system. Roy is the latest but he certainly won't be the last.
The team environment is not so much of a factor because this group are a pretty welcoming bunch. However, changes such as the move by the ECB in 2015 to award incremental contracts instead of allowing players to earn them has created unnecessary jeopardy among those looking to break into the Test side, especially as batsmen. The two players currently in possession of incremental contracts are both bowlers: Tom Curran and Jofra Archer.
Previously, an uncontracted player could earn an incremental deal by accruing 20 points of a year-long period, starting on October 1, through either playing Tests (five points), ODIs or T20Is (two points each). It offered stability and a degree of comfort. There was no looking over your shoulder. And it meant there was no great financial disparity between you and the person sat next to you in the changing room. It may seem trivial, but being an outlier when it comes to wage can be as isolating as a loss of form.
Perhaps one thing that does not need to change is the captain. Because the issues Root has stem from the above factors. Also, and this is no feather in his cap - there are simply no alternatives.
As much as you can laud the tactical nous of the game's most successful captains, it's no coincidence they led world-beating sides. Now, England aren't exactly going to take a page out of Marvel's book and just throw a few superheroes together and see what sticks. But they can - indeed, must - address issues that have left them with a mishmash of misfit talents.
It is always about this time, with an urn gone, when big reactions are called for or discouraged. And while changes are needed, they must be done with a focus to rectify a system that has left the Test side in such a mess. They do not just need a new direction but a new identity altogether.
The players may have spurned the Ashes across the 18 days of cricket. But the system had set them up for a fall long before.
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