No pressure, Joe, but the future of Test cricket depends on this Ashes series


Show caption Joe Root’s batting has been excellent for most of this year, including centuries in the summer against India. Illustration: David Lyttleton No pressure, Joe, but the future of Test cricket depends on this Ashes series Barney Ronay England players are weighing up what a Covid-affected Ashes tour would be like, with the prospect of being locked down for 10 weeks @barneyronay Fri 1 Oct 2021 20.00 BST Share on Facebook

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At first glance it seems a minor oddity that the two longest-serving England men’s Test cricket captains of all time are the current one and the one before him. Every linen-shirted custodian of the Golden Age, every hair-oiled gadabout, every ringlet-tossing 1980s fancy-boy: Joe Root and Alastair Cook have got them all covered.

There are of course some important footnotes to this. Firstly, this has been an era of unprecedented stability. The sacking of the England captain, once an annual committee room power play, the high-summer burning of the wicker man, has been swallowed up by the move into more corporate structures. We deal in eras now.

Secondly, and oddest of all, even their most compliant friends in the media would be hard-pressed to claim either Cook or Root have been notably good captains. Cook’s leadership was defined by a kind of opacity. A way of standing. A pair of mirrored sunglasses. A series of blandly interchangeable statements in front of a board covered with adverts.

Root is a bit different. As Test cricket itself drifts along there is the same feeling of time simply passing, glossed by the fact Jimmy and Broady will glide though enough opposition top orders to keep the win/loss numbers looking decent.

There has been a growing authority in recent times. Root’s own batting has entered golden gleaming-blade territory, with that glorious sense of perfect angles and perfect rhythm, a cricketer for whom batting has become a kind of dance, a geometrical ballet.

To date the best parts of Root’s captaincy have occurred away from the actual cricket. In the last year and a half his decency and good humour have been a vital part of keeping the whole rickety caravan from sliding into the nearest ditch. England cricket has needed a good bloke more than a fine tactician, and it has been lucky enough to have one in place.

And now we have this, the current Ashes shemozzle. The question of whether to tour remains in the balance. The ECB is currently providing a briefing for the players on what concessions have been wrangled out of Cricket Australia and, more keenly, the politicians. Everything England have said publicly on this so far should be seen as a lever for those negotiations. Root himself has been understandably non-committal, although the sense is that he will go.

It is to be hoped this is the case because his presence is vital, not just to the credibility of the tour, but to the continued good health of the Ashes, and beyond that to the shrinking frontier, the melting icecap that is international red-ball cricket.

Root’s captaincy may have lacked outstanding moments, or any real sense of mission. But right now he has a chance to do something that could define it.

The concerns are obvious enough. The players are anxious about being locked down away from home and family for 10 weeks. Selection for the T20 World Cup would expand this to five months on the bounce. Jos Buttler has two very young children. These are not reasonable demands. Add to this the confusion over quarantine rules if families do visit and the fear of “snap lockdowns”, and it starts to look like a mild form of sporting purgatory.

This is what Root must balance in his own mind and it remains an entirely personal call. But with great player power comes great player responsibility. The fact remains, if Root says no the tour will slide into irrelevance. If he says yes, as England’s captain, and their only high-class player under the age of 35, it will at least survive as some kind of entity.

Steve Smith acknowledges the crowd at the Brisbane Cricket Ground, or Gabba, in the first Ashes Test in November 2017. Photograph: David Gray/Reuters

And this does matter more broadly, because red-ball cricket isn’t just in a state of existential crisis, it’s dying. It is easy to zone out on this while the English summer can still conjure its annual mist of beery full houses. But around the world that falling away has been violently accelerated by Covid-19. Downgrading the Ashes to the point where it becomes a grudging development tour could be a misstep at just the wrong time.

The debate here is not about whether Test cricket will simply die off anyway. It is about whether we really want that decision to be taken for us by the pandemic: its shortfalls and land-grabs, the sporting equivalent of empty-shelf panic-buying.

Postponing for a year has been suggested, but there are hard, survivalist commercial reasons why the ECB wasn’t prepared to kick the Hundred down the road. Right now this sport is being divvied up and reimagined. Cricket’s own great reset is in progress. The right kind of noise will affect profoundly how that plays out.

Over to you then, Joe, and no pressure. So what is the balancing act here? Family and welfare will of course take precedence. England’s touring team is also being asked to take the weight of Australia’s unusually neurotic response to the global pandemic, with the added twitchiness of an election year.

Certainly there is something galling about the spectacle of Australia’s captain mind-gaming out at the world from within his own sealed borders. The UK has suffered 130,000 Covid deaths. People have struggled horribly, have stared this plague in the face for the last 18 months. The cricketers have played on through all this. So spare us the shit-talk please, Tim Paine.

On the other hand, for all the concerns over schedules Root has been away for just one extended period during the whole 18 months of pandemic-cricket. He has played six Test matches and three ODIs since March, all of them in England.

A lot of tosh has always been talked about leadership, captaincy and duty to the wider good. Give it a few more months and Root will be top of that list, the longest-serving England captain of all time. The fear is he might end up being the last one of any real importance.