Ashes 2019: Farewell Trevor Bayliss, the invisible guru who leaves English cricket largely as he found it
The Australian brings his four-year reign as coach to an end this week leading to questions over the legacy he will leave behind
The greatest trick Trevor Bayliss ever pulled was convincing English cricket that he existed. As the 56-year-old Australian brings his four-year reign as England coach to an end at The Oval this week, there remains a mysterious void at the heart of his legacy, one that goes beyond the question of whether England are a better or worse team than the one he inherited. After four years of riches and hitches and unprecedented turbulence, perhaps the more pertinent issue is whether Bayliss actually changed anything at all.
After all, he took over a team fifth in the Test world rankings, and barring a victory in his final game, that is exactly what he will bequeath. He took over an inconsistent side with gaping holes in the batting order, mercurially underperforming all-rounders, a beleaguered captain and a pace attack worryingly reliant on James Anderson and Stuart Broad. A side that could give anyone a game on their own turf, but often looked utterly bereft in foreign conditions. The untrained observer would be forgiven for wondering whether anything has really changed.
In a way, then, this is partly a philosophical question: a window into the invidious powerlessness of the modern coach, beholden both to the system above him and the players beneath him. Yet even within this framework, Bayliss has always painted himself as custodian rather than insurgent. Even the remarkable World Cup victory, a product of four years’ planning and fine-tuning, is one for which Bayliss was happy to deflect the praise. “It’s an achievement by the players,” he insisted on Tuesday in his final media engagement as coach. “As a coaching staff, we’re lucky enough to be involved with them.”
If Bayliss was determined not to associate himself too strongly with England’s greatest triumph, then he was equally set on swerving the blame for their vices. On Bayliss’ watch, scores of over 400 have become commonplace in one-day cricket, and scores of under 100 routine in Test cricket. Defeat at Old Trafford on Sunday sealed a first Ashes failure on home soil for almost two decades. Yet for Bayliss, the problems are more embedded: the relentlessness of the international schedule, the lack of world-class talent coming off the production line in county cricket, which he wants to see reduced from 18 teams to around 10. He rejected the suggestion that the often reckless aggression displayed by England’s Test batsmen was a product of his own coaching ethos.
“It’s not as if it hasn’t been about playing the ball later and not leaving big gaps or not throwing hands at the ball,” he said. “That’s exactly what they’ve been working on. But do they get enough time away from the game to actually work on those things? Does the competition promote circumstances where that can be put into practice? There are the questions that have got to be answered. That gets back to the wickets we play on, the strength of competition.”
Bayliss is right, of course. Blaming him for decisions taken at board level to push county cricket out of the peak summer months, or to reduce funding for high-performance overseas camps, or even for societal or generational shifts, is clearly absurd. And besides, the coach is merely one link in an arcane chain of power that incorporates director, selector and captain, with very little transparency over who is responsible for what.
Despite all this, however, Bayliss still bears a good deal of responsibility for what has happened once players have arrived in camp. It is a shocking indictment of the team culture that of the 29 players given England debuts during his time in charge, not a single one has yet gone on to win 20 caps in any format. Are we to believe there was not a single viable international cricketer among them?
A hard-line view would be that Bayliss inherited a rich talent pool that he did very little to supplement. However, that would be to overlook the development of players like Jason Roy and Adil Rashid in white-ball cricket, of Ben Stokes and Chris Woakes in all formats. Even so, too many players have stagnated in recent years - Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler, Joe Root, Moeen Ali - to be entirely coincidental. The fielding, a particular Bayliss focus, has regressed after a strong start. The evidence suggests that there are times when Bayliss’ stubborn hands-off approach could have used a little modification.
“It’s not as if I just let it flow without anything happening,” he argued. “All the coaches, we’re always talking and discussing individuals. There’s different styles of coaches that can have success in different ways. I made a pact with myself to keep doing things the way I’ve done it. It’s been successful over a long period of time, and I’d like to think it’s been reasonably successful in these four years as well.”
And of course, he’s right about that too. Because ultimately, you can stack up all the issues with the Bayliss regime - the revolving door of opening batsmen, the serial shuffling of the batting order, the inability to unearth genuine match-winning bowlers or triumph away from home - and lay against them the greatest single day in the history of English cricket. If England’s World Cup success had many fathers - Stokes, Jofra Archer, Eoin Morgan and Andrew Strauss among them - then it would take the most cussed of judges to deny Bayliss his share of the credit. Without his knowledge of the one-day game, without his relentless focus on fielding and fine margins, or his occasional kicks up the backside, it’s easy to envisage how England’s golden summer might have gone badly awry.
He freely admits that the Test element of the job - a strand he maintains has always been equally as important as the one-day side - didn’t always go to plan. But he backs Root to continue as captain - “I think he’s getting better all the time; sometimes you can only be as good as the players you’ve actually got in the team” - and fancies England to spring a surprise Down Under in a couple of years’ time.
How does he rate his own time in charge? “I’m a hard marker, so I’ll say five (out of 10),” he said. And weirdly, it seems like a fitting epitaph to a man who in his enigmatic sunhat and shades often appeared to be hiding in plain sight: England’s invisible guru, its umami sage, its immaculate house-sitter who turned up, kept the show on the road, and ultimately left everything pretty much as he found it.