The Ashes are coming, the Ashes are coming. And yet, if you were paying attention to cricket over the past couple of weeks, you may identify with a lack of enthusiasm. You may identify instead with a weariness, a wariness, a general swirling malaise. Australia and England, that pair, where those leading the game and those leading the teams have been draping themselves in the inverse of glory.
The two captains, as per the pre-series marketing, have dwindled to one captain, meaning that 100% of the remaining captains and 100% of the former captains in this series exist under a cloud. Australia’s anointed repairer of reputation, Tim Paine, resigned his commission via the national tradition of a teary public apology after his homespun erotica attained belated publication. England’s blameless golden child, Joe Root, has always been fiercely claimed as the property of Yorkshire, and thus must remain so, as a teammate who, Azeem Rafiq said in his testimony to a parliamentary hearing, was oblivious to racist chatter.
To describe Cricket Australia as an administration in turmoil may falsely suggest that this is an exception rather than a norm. It would also be overly kind in suggesting the possible visitation of trouble from outside. In reality, the text messages were coming from inside the house. For at least five years CA has been a rolling maul of incompetence, where a high attrition rate of failed executives and directors has been balanced by enough new substitutes joining in to keep the whole mess ploughing relentlessly on in the same direction. There are decent people in the place but so far they have been kept on the sidelines, ignored as they shout directions towards something better.
Nobody needs 1950s prurience about relationships any more. But even if Paine’s is the kind of story that only concerns those within his marriage, the fact remains that Cricket Australia held an investigation into the workplace conduct of their new captain after he had led the team in a total of one Test match. Soon afterwards, in November 2018, at the same time as their hired hands were emblazoning “Elite Honesty” on large placards on the dressing room wall, all parties elected to bury that fact. Despite the ongoing threat of it becoming known, they never got out ahead of the story. They sat quietly and hoped it would do the same.
All of which is before you come to the issue of consent or otherwise. CA this week restated its 2018 findings that the messages were mutually desired, but won’t address why the recipient now disputes this. They also state that the interaction was a one-off, despite the familiarity in the correspondence strongly indicating that this is implausible. As with Yorkshire and Rafiq, conclusions from cricket authorities investigating themselves are not worth the paper that they don’t get printed on.
Then you have the England and Wales Cricket Board, claiming shock and dismay at Rafiq’s testimony that they have just spent 15 months not listening to, letting Yorkshire try to run down the clock. All the while, they were asking England players to wear nice T-shirts before each match with slogans about cricket being a game for everyone. They have hosed fortunes on a fortnight’s play in the needlessly divisive Hundred competition, rather than investing those resources and ingenuity to elevate the county T20 tournament, and the top suits this year paid themselves £2.1m in bonuses to congratulate themselves on their wise financial stewardship last year in sacking 62 staff to get through the pandemic.
It all correlates with the English Test captain’s milquetoast response to Rafiq, a smoothie of motivational quotes about moving forward together, in that way that makes Root an ideal study in the Yeats formulation about the best lacking all conviction. When Root carries England with his batting, it only emphasises the contrast. He will need to do plenty of that in the upcoming series.
Teams can come to reflect the failings of their boards, just as the other way around. The Ashes boards along with India are responsible for so much, dominating the International Cricket Council as they do. Their recent schedule announcement gives India five major events in 10 years, including two out of three 50-over World Cups, while Australia and England take three events between them. By season’s end, 14 of Australia’s past 19 Tests will have been against India or England.
Both CA and the ECB will be desperately hoping that come Brisbane, attention will shift on to the field. But they’re hardly set for a 2005 barnstormer. And anyway, some of the heroes of 2005 have recently had a fair bit of gloss taken off. Instead, two already ordinary teams now look like something more tawdry and tarnished, a tired routine relying on too few stars, going through its paces to churn out some more money for the Old Firm. It’s hard to feel inspired. It would really be something to have people leading the game who could manage that.