Ashes 2019: Eat, sleep, collapse, repeat as England succumb to same old problems once again

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England's captain Joe Root reacts after losing his wicket: AFP/Getty Images
England's captain Joe Root reacts after losing his wicket: AFP/Getty Images

Eat, sleep, collapse, repeat. Never let anyone describe this England team as inconsistent: on a milky white day in south London, with the Ashes already gone, they decided to play the hits, slumping from 103-1 to 205-7 in two hours of slow-motion car-crash batting. And even if this was a less spectacular implosion than some of their recent efforts, in a way it was a much more appropriate emblem for a side drifting serenely, forgettably, monotonously into obsolescence.

The last two sessions were essentially the last few years of English Test cricket in microcosm: periods of extreme competence and pockets of fleeting defiance, set against a prevailing mood music of graceful subsidence. Tim Paine put them into bat on a good wicket; the Australians generously shelled three catches; Rory Burns and Joe Root assiduously built a platform. It was all fine, and then by some imperceptible trick of the light, it wasn’t. Once again, England had over-promised and under-delivered.

It wasn’t a full-blown disaster: a score of 271-8 may end up being vaguely competitive, especially if the ball swings for England’s fast-medium trio as helpfully as it did for Mitchell Marsh, or if Steve Smith decides to walk with the mortals for once. They may even pass 300 courtesy of Jos Buttler’s cathartically agricultural half-century, the cricketing equivalent of a diner who finally gives up on using a knife and fork and realises he much preferred using his fingers.

But then, this is where we are with England at the moment: a barely adequate sort of side, a will-this-do sort of side, a weathered Savile Row suit being held together with pins and tape. And currently, nobody embodies this mood of wistful, yearning disappointment as well as their captain.

Root made 57. You could scarcely have picked a score less likely to settle the debate over his career. On one level, it was definitely Some Runs, which is of course much better than No Runs, and thus sufficient for his advocates to argue that he had done his job. Equally, it fell quite some way short of Lots of Runs, which is arguably the benchmark any world-class batsman sets for himself, and one Root has been hitting far too rarely of late.

It’s now more than two years since Root hit a first-innings century in Tests, a run going back 28 innings. By way of comparison, Kane Williamson has made five hundreds in his last 28 first innings; Virat Kohli eight; Steve Smith 10. Root’s failure to convert promising starts into big match-winning scores have been analysed to death over the last few years, yet often as an adjunct to England’s wider issues, an irritating offshoot of a much wider problem. But what if we’re coming at this the wrong way around? What if Root’s struggles and England’s struggles are actually the same problem?

As ever, the initial auguries were good. After the early loss of Joe Denly, Root began with positive intent, driving well square of the wicket, which is often a sign he is in decent rhythm. And despite being dropped three times - once by Peter Siddle at long-leg, once by a diving Paine, once by a flying Smith at second slip - by the time he had brought up another warmly-received half-century, passing 7,000 Test runs in the process, it was possible to wonder whether the worst had passed, whether at the end of a long and painful series, Root’s luck had finally come in.

At which point, something happened. Having reached 56 in a tidy 113 balls, Root ground to a virtual halt. His next 27 balls brought just a single, as first Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon before tea, and then Pat Cummins and Marsh after it, were simply allowed to bowl. Wide half-volleys went unpunished. Leg-side deliveries were dabbed tentatively to fielders. Drives were checked into defensive blocks. Pulls to the shorter deliveries were considered, and then aborted. It was almost as if, having reached 50, Root had decided to start over.

As any tortured athlete will tell you, flaws and neuroses can spread like cracks in a windscreen. First comes the diagnosis, then the introspection, then the second-guessing. Having spent so long playing his natural game after reaching 50 and getting out, and then bedding down and getting out, Root seemed to have lost sight of the very essence of building an innings: feel, adaptation, flow. It was with an almost plodding inevitability that he would finally receive a delivery with his name on it, and after six scoreless overs, it arrived from Cummins, finding a perfect length on off-stump and hitting the top of that stump.

It was a fine ball, but not quite as good as Root made it look. His mentor Michael Vaughan had a similar habit during his fallow periods: making decent balls look unplayable. Watch the delivery back and it’s almost like a catalogue of Root’s technical glitches over the last few years. The back foot retreats uncertainly into the crease, a hangover from when he tried to adjust his initial trigger movement earlier in his career, only to open up a vulnerability to full straight deliveries.

The front foot bobbles a fraction, but otherwise barely moves: evidence of his attempts to correct the previous flaw, which left him wary of committing his front pad too early. And yet despite the lack of foot movement, his hands are drawn forward, conscious of trying to play the ball earlier to negate the lateral movement. Root’s technique is an unhappy amalgam of all the various remedies he has applied to his batting over the last few years, well-meaning voices shouting over each other, a method endlessly fixed and unfixed. It is, in short, a mess.

Root once again failed to turn a half-century into a big score (AFP/Getty Images)
Root once again failed to turn a half-century into a big score (AFP/Getty Images)

Clearly the problem isn’t a lack of hard work. On the contrary, Root is occasionally guilty of paralysis by analysis: subjecting himself to extra net sessions, chastising himself at the crease, thinking himself into stasis. The hunger for improvement is always there, just behind those tired eyes. It’s a similar story with his captaincy: an endeavour into which he has poured his heart and soul, his sweat and tears and occasionally his sleep and his sanity, and at the end of which he is no nearer clarity than when he started.

This is Root the batsman, which is also Root the captain, which is also - by no coincidence - Root’s England. It’s not hard to draw a straight line from Root’s inexhaustible thirst for technical tweaks in his batting to his endless tinkering in the field to the interminable churn to England’s batting order: an organism suffering death by a thousand adjustments, and yet still living in eternal hope, striving for the magical alignment that will make sense of the whole enterprise.

Perhaps it’s telling that England’s best moments in the series - the percussive first morning at Edgbaston, Jofra Archer’s concussive spell at Lord’s, Ben Stokes’s mindless violence at Headingley, Buttler’s red-blooded savagery here - have come not when England have engaged their rational brain, but switched it off. Perhaps this is a team that thinks too much for its own good. Perhaps Root is a better batsman when he forgets to bat and simply bats. Then again, perhaps that’s overthinking things. One thing is for certain: until England can find a way out of their forest of neuroses, it’s hard to see them ever achieving the heights of which they are capable.

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