“You can change me, change the head coach, change the captain. But we’re only setting up future leaders for failure. That’s all we’re doing. We’re only pushing it down the road.”
For Giles is right in one sense. His departure alone cannot atone for a decade of decision-making that has rendered England’s Test cricketers incompetent in the one series that they profess to value above all others. You only need to compare the clueless techniques on parade in the Ashes with the rip-roaring precocity of England’s white-ball starlets at the Under-19 World Cup to recognise that English cricket’s problems are self-inflicted pathway issues, rather than an inability to cultivate talent per se.
The buck tends not to stop in British public life anymore, but if it did, then surely the man in the ejector seat would be Tom Harrison, the ECB’s Teflon-coated CEO, whose skills as a TV-rights negotiator have long since been subsumed by his ham-fisted stewardship of the sport’s most recent crises. Truly, it defies belief that such a slick boardroom operator can be made to look so out of his depth so often by such a mediocre generation of politicians as those currently represented on the DCMS select committee. And while that precise issue may be a digression from the matter at hand, it all feeds back to the same sense that the ECB has become unmoored from the most fundamental cricketing values on which the sport’s reputation lives and dies.
Of all the faults that Giles may possess, he cannot be accused of lacking empathy for his sport. But in spite of the swirling mood music of English cricket, he is wrong in the broader sense, in the inference that his players had no means of influencing the contest that would define many of their careers. The defeatism in Giles’ Sydney sentiments chimed with a fatalistic tenure as England’s director of cricket, one that will come to be remembered as much for his responses to the Covid outbreak as for the grim ending in Australia, but one which was ultimately too enabling of the mediocrity that engulfed it.
In the aftermath of the World Cup win in 2019, two key decisions contributed to an undeniable sense of drift for what would turn out to be the sharp end of Giles’ tenure. And damningly, both decisions stemmed from the same desire to give his players what they wanted in times of duress, as opposed to what they needed to keep pace with the sport’s highest standards.
First, there was Giles’ pre-pandemic decision to promote the popular but unchallenging Silverwood to the role of head coach across all three formats. It was a legacy, no doubt, of Giles’ own uncomfortable period as England’s specialist white-ball coach between 2012-14, when his squad’s requirements invariably came second to those of the Test coach, Andy Flower. But the appointment also failed to reflect quite how divergent the formats had become in the interim, a process exacerbated by Trevor Bayliss’s desire not to mix his messages on the Test front while his white-ball world-beaters were going hell for leather.
“It was the events of Strauss’s first match in charge, against West Indies at Sabina Park, that set in motion everything else that came to pass, and demonstrates the simple differences that a change of regime can offer”
At that precise moment, with Covid still raging and with a limited ability to tinker teams beyond their already expanded training bubbles, there was some logic in accepting that Smith’s role could be furloughed (to use the vernacular) rather than made redundant in the literal sense.
But to judge by the frazzled selection calls made throughout a wretched Ashes tour – most notably the omissions of Broad and James Anderson at Brisbane and the dumping of Jack Leach in Adelaide, but also the uncritical acceptance that England’s fringe players couldn’t be shoehorned into an otherwise pointless Lions fixture against Australia A – it’s clear that some external influence would have been helpful to freshen up the stale air inside England’s bubble.
And so, in that regard as well as several others, the return of Andrew Strauss as England’s white knight is clearly a welcome development. The timing is ironic, too, for it was in the lead-up to another new year Caribbean tour in January 2009 that Strauss first rode to England’s rescue after a very public humiliation. On that occasion, he and Flower picked up the pieces of the Kevin Pietersen-Peter Moores debacle, and set in place the standards that would in 2011, almost two years to the day from his appointment, culminate in England’s first series win in Australia since 1986-87, and their most-recent individual Test victory Down Under.
Alastair Cook, an at-times incredulous witness to England’s inadequacies during his stints as a BT Sport pundit this winter, was a part of the team that got routed for 51 on the fourth and final afternoon of that first Test in February 2009. “We were told that was totally unacceptable as a playing group,” he said, reflecting after the Hobart defeat confirmed this winter’s 4-0 scoreline. “It was not good enough given the resources we have and the ability we had. Do something about it, or we’ll find someone else.”
The fall guy on that occasion was Ian Bell – and coincidentally, he is the player that Ollie Pope most resembles in technique and also, at this precise juncture of his faltering career, in temperament. Bell was famously banished to the beach for boxing sessions in a bid to “toughen up”, before returning to become the player that England needed to meet their heightened standards in the push to world No. 1 status.
It’s too simplistic to suggest that history is about to repeat itself simply with a change at the helm, but Pope – and Zak Crawley, and Dan Lawrence, and other young talents whose progress has stalled in the past 18 months – does not deserve for the message from on high to be one of “stuff it, we’re all doomed”. Even a glimmer of hope can go a long way for an ambitious sportsman.
And that’s where Strauss comes back in, to attempt what he has done in various England guises throughout his career – from the single-handed manner in which he won the 2009 Ashes, to the exhaustive military-style planning that went into the 2010-11 triumph (a win that looks more incredible with every passing failure since), right through to his initial three-year stint in the very role that Giles took on in 2018, when Strauss’s awful family circumstances demanded that he step away from a job half done.
It’s the fate of an executive that you are judged on the toughness of your calls, and therefore not everything that Strauss did in his initial tenure met with favour, either at the time or in hindsight. But you cannot fault the clarity of his decision-making, from the sacking of Peter Moores, just days into the job (a point that won’t have been lost on Silverwood…), to the final excommunication of Kevin Pietersen, to the relentless white-ball focus that delivered so gloriously in 2019, even if the collateral damage is now coming under scrutiny.
For that reason, some might argue that Strauss is the wrong man to put back in charge – but really, who better to row back on a project that has served its time than the man who instigated it in the first place? At the very least, at a time when the ECB boardroom has never been more lacking in cricketing nous, Strauss can stroll back in with the officer-class plausibility that still cuts a disproportionate dash among county chairmen, and get things done simply by dint of his proven reputation.
That, for better or worse, is the system as it currently stands. It can be changed, but only a select few have the clout to make it happen. Strauss, former England captain and knight of the realm, may yet succeed where Giles, more of a loyal foot soldier, so clearly failed.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket