Under the Pump Down Under: The Ghosts of Ashes Past Haunting England Cricket

“They talk about planning and preparing but they haven’t done it! […] Who the hell's going to do the planning?“

Out of context, you may be forgiven for thinking these quotes relate to the current Ashes series down under. Indeed, would you be surprised if I were to have located a cricketing time-machine and to actually be quoting from the 2025/2026 post-Ashes analyses? I'd wager not…

In fact, these were the words of a, even by his own exacting standards,  *remarkably* grumpy Geoffrey Boycott at the close of another crushing Ashes defeat for England in 2017/2018.

There have been many explanations over the years for why England have succumbed in such an assured manner to the men in baggy greens. In spite of all this, one thing has been, and remains to this day, painfully clear to England fans: whatever the à-la-mode masterplan for a given tour is, it never seems to deliver results on the field.

In 2017/18 Ashes post-series analysis,  BBC chief cricket writer Stephan Shemilt noted that Joe Root's men managed to fire multiple (thankfully proverbial) bullets into their collective feet. Assuming this is something England cricket wish to avoid, what should happen to make sure no further misfires occur?

Two things: understand the cause and implement solutions. Only then might such an event be prevented from happening again.

While England are capable of winning down under, England are currently staring down the barrel of yet another crushing series defeat at the hands of the Aussies. It is becoming clear that England Cricket are simply neither learning the lessons, nor implementing the solutions required if they are to realise their aspirations of consistently winning the Ashes on foreign soil.

Lessons Learnt?

The lifeblood of English cricket, namely the fans and, by extension, the media serving the interests of those paying fans, have made England’s issues in Australia plain.

The ability of English players to deliver on Australian turf is continually thrown into question. Openers should be the the best prepared batsman to resist a fresh bowling attack with a brand new cherry in hand, yet statistics show this is not the case with England. While Rory Burns will be forever immortalised after being castled on the first ball of the Ashes, the best England has to offer doesn't just struggle as a one off. Quite astonishingly Burns trails only Indian master-batsman Jasprit Bumrah in terms of test cricket ducks this year. Looking back to the last series, the same rings true: Steve Smith was leading run scorer (687), with England’s closest competitor in Dawid Malan fourth on the list (376).

Furthermore, the common fan identifies with England’s now paradigmatic inability to capitalise on in-game windows of opportunity down under. This is something I like to call seizing defeat from the jaws of victory;  rather than simply squander an opportunity, they stamp on it, throw it into the bin and then incinerate it for good measure. To look at one example of many, at the Gabba in 2017/18, England were 246-4 in the first innings before slumping to 302 all out. In this most recent test at the same ground, England reached 223-2 in the second innings, only to lose their next 8 wickets for just 77 runs. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to recognise that something’s afoot.

If delivering on the pitch is difficult, then surely England must have learnt the importance of getting the off-field decisions correct. Unfortunately, the reality may indicate otherwise. Observers have bashed England’s team selection in no uncertain terms, even before the final team sheets had been published. BBC Pundit Phil Tufnell suggested that England selecting Jack Leach was akin to them throwing him a ‘hospital pass’, while veteran broadcaster Jonathan Agnew even went as far to say that ‘England  [were] destined to lose first Test to Australia with [their] wrong team selection’.

Beyond selections and staff, structural issues have been highlighted as areas to improve to ensure success down under. Fundamental questions arise over preparation: are the players prepared to play in foreign conditions? Is test cricket actually the priority in the context of an ever increasing pick-and-mix style assortment of lucrative white-ball commitments?

Hope for the Future?

Years of heartfelt pain and anguish for England supporters have served to confirm one thing; neither changing the odd batsman here, nor having the rub of the green there, wins  series in Australia.

A fit-for-purpose captain is perhaps a more important consideration, but a dissection of Joe Root’s decision-making as captain, not as a batsman, in this debate is deserving of another piece. Regardless of this, the ultimate hope England has for the future is not that they’ll unearth the next Don Bradman, rather that England Cricket is in a position to enact the structural change necessary to enable England to perform at a world-class level, be that on a muggy June day bowling first on a green seamer at Trent Bridge, or chasing 200 to win on a cracked fifth day pitch under the unrelenting Western Australian sun at the WACA.

Alas, up until now, it would appear that England are happy to talk the talk in this regard, but when its time to walk the walk, they disappear as quickly as a rarefied English first innings lead at the MCG.

There is a clear trend in test cricket. With the exception of a few superstars of the game, some of the most formidable test match players prioritise the longer format in earnest. (That being said, I do recognise the irony of this comment, given that Cheteshwar Pujara technically won the IPL with CSK this year…). I am careful to state that the eternal class of Broad and Anderson and playing white-ball cricket are mutually exclusive, but their reliability, longevity and ability to deliver when it matters the most has been simply unfaltering since their 'retirement’.

Stuart Broad and James Anderson, who made their last international white-ball appearances in 2016 and 2015 respectively (ESPNCricInfo).

With this in mind, why not make absolutely certain in the minds of players that red ball cricket is the pinnacle for which they should be striving? As is clear in my article about The Hundred, the fact that Jos Buttler does not clearly hold test cricket as the most important format should perhaps ring as many alarm bells as his recent lack of form.

What England has tried up until know has almost exclusively failed, so why not try something new? Put some internal rules for this in place. How about there being a requirement to play a certain amount of red-ball cricket if you wish to be in contention for selection? To contextualise this, for example, one of England’s best test match players Ben Stokes has made only three County Championship appearances for Durham in the past five, yes you read that correctly, five years.

Why not look at building on Michael Vaughan’s suggestion of extending pre-season tours so that the first few rounds of county cricket can be played in foreign conditions?

In addition, cricket is a multi-billion dollar industry. Players do not only earn a living through cricket, which is not the case in every sport, but they earn a very healthy one at that. If there aren’t enough players who would grab the opportunity to play test cricket, in the knowledge it would mean prioritising the longer format above all else, then English test cricket is in deep trouble.

It would be neither an instant, nor a perfect fix to the issue, but at least this would constitute a starting point from which reshape the system that has led to England having won only once in Australia in the past 24 years. And hey, if it doesn’t work, we can go back to doing what’ve we’ve always done.

Accountability for a Modern Game

‘Get over yourself, it’s just a game of cricket!’ I hear you cry. A valid point which, in the context of world events over the last two years, holds weight. Where it falters, however, is that cricket in England is not an amateur sport. Hard working people spend an all-too significant proportion of their income to support England while they watch their representatives flounder on the largest stage of them all.

With cricket becoming an ever more lucrative business, processes of accountability must be robust and unrelenting, lest we risk cricket becoming commercialised to the point of obsolescence.

Concluding Thoughts

It is important to acknowledge the plethora of difficulties all cricketing organisation have had to handle over the last two years, and this must come into consideration when looking at England’s most recent performances.

But, as history shows, England struggling in Australia is independent of any virulent malefactor. So too must be any potential solution.

Rest assured this piece is not intended as a personal attack on English cricket per se; other nations struggle to play well away from home. This is a plea for English Cricket to change in the hope that they can better serve the interests of those who are the heart of and soul of cricket: the fans who frankly deserve much better.

With Christmas around the corner, England would do well to take the lead from one Ebenezer Scrooge: learn from history, that you might have a change in fortunes. It is time for change; England have been haunted by their ‘ghosts’ of Ashes past for long enough.


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