England's gruelling 2021: Can Joe Root's team avoid being frazzled before they even touch down in Australia?

Nick Hoult
·5 min read
England's Ben Stokes talk between balls on the third day of the second Ashes cricket Test match between England and Australia at Lord's Cricket Ground - AFP
England's Ben Stokes talk between balls on the third day of the second Ashes cricket Test match between England and Australia at Lord's Cricket Ground - AFP

Get ready for what could be England’s busiest ever year in 2021 with the potential for 18 Test matches and 37 games of white ball cricket including a Twenty20 World Cup in India and an Ashes tour.

It all adds up to a possible 128 days of cricket in a gruelling 12 months that will begin in the burning heat of Sri Lanka and end in the even hotter atmosphere of an Ashes tour in Australia. In between, 2021 will feature ten Tests against India and four matches that have been added to the calendar for various covid reasons.

England will play two Tests in Sri Lanka in January to fulfil a tour scrapped in March but the England & Wales Cricket Board is also currently organising an additional Test series at home with New Zealand  that is outside the future tours programme but will provide added revenue for counties that host Tests and have been hit hard by the pandemic.

Assuming England play four Tests in Australia before Dec 31, which has been the convention on every tour since the early 1990s, it will take England to 17 Tests in 2021. 

If they qualify for the World Test championship final, which remains a possibility, then it will be 18 Tests with that final likely to to be a six day match just to add to the workload. England have only once before played as many as 17 Tests in a calendar year and it ended with an exhausted Alastair Cook resigning as captain after a 4-0 defeat in India in 2016.

What are the chances of Joe Root being similarly frazzled by the job in Australia come the end of next year and follow Cook’s lead

England’s Ashes prospects are low down on the list of global covid concerns but to those involved, particularly Root, the series could be career defining.

He will become the first captain to lead England on two Ashes tours since Johnny Douglas a century ago. It is a significant achievement and piece of history.

But it will also likely be his last opportunity to beat Australia having suffered one series defeat and a draw as captain. Root told me in an interview in February, pre-covid, about how he was gearing everything towards winning in Australia, adopting the same targeted mindset that enabled England to build for the 2019 World Cup. Everything is building towards Brisbane in November. 

 Jos Buttler, Rory Burns, Ben Stokes and Joe Root of England  - Getty Images
Jos Buttler, Rory Burns, Ben Stokes and Joe Root of England - Getty Images

But Covid has added to the complications. The four extra Test matches in 2021 add significantly to the workload.

It will take some careful management of players to ensure Root has the best chance of achieving his captaincy goal. The days of cricketers demanding to play every match are over because England rely too heavily on multi-format players.

Root, Stokes, Jos Buttler and Jofra Archer are four of their leading Test players but instrumental in white ball cricket too. 

Stokes, Buttler and Archer will be the core of the team that competes in the Twenty20 World Cup in India in October that precedes the Ashes tour. Chris Woakes as well. 

England will not win the Ashes unless at least two of Root, Stokes and Archer have good series. To do that, they need to be refreshed. Tired players do not win Australia.

Ashley Giles, the team director, is aware of this challenge and carefully working out how to navigate the problem. Split squads between formats will become a regular feature and rotation for Test matches. In covid times, expanded squads are necessary to cover any outbreak of illness. That means a lot of downtime for players not in the first XI. It makes pastoral care more important than ever with players locked away from family and friends.  

England regularly played seven Tests in a summer until last year so the players are used to such a busy home season. 

But with extra tours to Sri Lanka and Pakistan (talks over a T20 series in January are advanced) and a Twenty20 World Cup as well they really do not need the New Zealand series added to their diaries.

England in 2021
England in 2021

It will be played outside the World Test championship, and have little meaning apart from providing cricket for Test grounds that are struggling financially. Finding ways to make up for huge financial losses while balancing England’s Ashes hopes is a tricky decision for new chairman, Ian Watmore. 

He is yet to see at first hand the taxing nature of Test cricket. He intends to go on an England tour this winter, if covid allows, to see for himself the challenges faced by England cricketers. Colin Graves, his predecessor, did not fully grasp the physical and mental demands on players until he went on the last Ashes tour. It was an eye opener for him.

In white ball cricket, the itinerary is less clear but potentially just as demanding. It is still to be decided how many one day games England will play in India in February. But assuming they play three T20s and three ODIs, it means England will play five different countries in bilateral white ball series. They are due to go to Holland for three games at the start of the English summer before home series white ball series against Sri Lanka and Pakistan. There are also T20 and ODI series scheduled in Bangladesh in October before the Twenty20 World Cup.

England could play a total of 37 white ball matches next year (assuming the Twenty20 World Cup remains in the same format with a maximum of seven games) on top of 18 Tests. One thing is for certain, in 2021, England supporters will not be lacking in cricket to watch. Whether they can see it in person, is another issue altogether.