Ashes 2019: Joe Root’s England head to Lord’s looking to find form and themselves
Two years into his captaincy, it’s still impossible to say what Root’s England actually represent
The old proverb goes that teams searching for inspiration at Lord’s should always look up, rather than down. This will certainly be true of England if they fail to tame Steve Smith and the Australia pace attack this week: should they fall short again and go 2-0 down in the series, divine intervention would be their only remaining hope of regaining the Ashes urn.
Back-to-back Tests in the middle of Ashes series have the opportunity to create their own unstoppable momentum. Not since 2002-03, when England picked up a consolation win at Sydney after getting thumped in the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne, has a team come back from losing the first to win the second. And so the brutal three-day turnaround between Lord’s and Headingley next week offers England both opportunity - win this, and they’re favourites again - and ultimatum - lose, and the Ashes will most likely be gone within a fortnight.
“Don’t expect any miracles,” Jofra Archer warned ahead of a likely Test debut on Wednesday, and yet in England’s hour of strife, the lust for conquering heroes and quick fixes remains as stubbornly instinctive as ever. Not since Kevin Pietersen stepped out on this same turf 14 years ago has as much expectation been invested in an English Test debutant. But expecting him to shoulder the burden of an underperforming collective is both unfair and unrealistic.
If England are to turn this series around, it will not be through feats of individual brilliance, but by a return to yeoman values: immaculate lines and searching lengths, discipline in the field, unstinting concentration with the bat, wickets sold at the most inflated of prices. It will require the underperforming middle-order to live up to its billing. And in the second anniversary of his ascent to the captaincy, it will require Joe Root to discover what has thus far eluded him in 29 Tests: an identity, a coherent method, a means of knitting this band of ill-fitting talents into something larger than the sum of its parts.
Two years into the job, it’s still impossible to say what Root’s England actually represent. How do they want to play their cricket? How do they expect to win Test matches? And - just as importantly in this format - how do they expect to draw Test matches? A record of 15 wins and 12 defeats (with just two draws) suggests this is a team still caught in the grip of two impostors: a free-flowing, crowd-pleasing expressiveness that looks great when it works, but which they are nowhere near good enough to sustain on a consistent basis.
Test cricket is about perseverance and adaptation, and if the former was lacking in the supine fourth innings at Edgbaston, then it is the latter that will be tested here. The inclement weather forecast (with rain scheduled to afflict much of Wednesday’s play) and the fine coating of grass on the surface suggest that this is a game that will move forward in a hurry. The last five Lord’s Tests, which have seen totals of 85, 38, 107, 130 and 123 (and only three scores of over 250), also indicate a feast of wickets.
And so, in the absence of James Anderson, step forward England’s great fast-bowling hope. No: not Archer, although his immaculate repertoire of seam and swing techniques, honed over three superb seasons with Sussex, will be more than handy here. But perhaps it’s a little much to be expecting a debutant whose entire first-class experience has been in Division Two and who hasn’t played a red-ball game in 11 months to be the change-maker. Instead, don’t be surprised if it’s Chris Woakes, the lord of Lord’s, who decides this one.
Woakes still has something of the air of a young learner to him, but he’s 30 now, has played almost as many Tests, and if ever there were a time for him to make the step up to senior status, it’s now. His record at Lord’s - 69 with the bat, 10 with the ball - certainly catches the eye. But it was his low-key excellence at Edgbaston, dismissing all of Australia’s lower-order - including, finally, Steve Smith in the second innings - allied to his increasing maturity with the bat, that suggests he may be on the cusp of something big.
Five-match Test series, certainly in England, are too epic to simply be cracked open by bursts of individual brilliance. Supremacy needs to be earned, wrought, wrestled; weaknesses covered up, leaking holes plugged. England aren’t going to discover the new Steve Smith in the next few weeks, and they aren’t going to unearth a Test spinner as good as Nathan Lyon (who needs just four wickets at Lord’s to overtake Dennis Lillee on 355). But they can make sure their five worst players perform better than Australia’s worst five, and in a tight series that may well be enough.
It is why England have replaced Moeen Ali with Jack Leach; Leach may be a less spectacular player than Moeen, but on current form he is a more reliable performer with both ball and bat. It is why Joe Denly, not Root, is the key player in England’s middle order if he plays: if he can tough it out for two sessions under the highest pressure for his place, then nobody else has an excuse not to raise their game. It is why Rory Burns, following his century at Edgbaston, now has the opportunity to become an unlikely star of the series. From Ashley Giles in 2005 to Stuart Clark in 2006-07, from Chris Tremlett in 2010-11 to Ian Bell in 2013, Ashes series are where the meek become heroes.
But in order for them to do so, it’ll take a small shift in mentality. It’ll require England to narrow their horizons, not broaden them. It’ll require them to recognise that they might be white-ball world champions, but in this format they’re nowhere near as good as they want to be. And so, it’ll require a return to the basics of the game: cash in when the going is good, knuckle down when things get tough. This isn’t the stuff of viral videos and fire emojis and sexy marketing campaigns. But unless you have the team of a generation to call on, it is the only reliable method of succeeding at Test cricket.
Australia have a similar method, one helped along by their enviable conveyor belt of fast bowlers - James Pattinson out, Mitchell Starc in for this one. But the batting still looks dangerously reliant on Smith, the middle-order is largely untested in lush English conditions, and Cameron Bancroft doesn’t look like he’ll last the series. The reason that Australia are 1-0 up is that they’ve thus far managed to avoid these flaws being exposed. If England are to have a hope of clawing their way back into this, they’re going to have to start scratching.