24.12.17

The Dying of the Light

Australia is where English cricketers' dreams go to die. Joe Root knows this all too well.

Joe Root, rising 27, with his wispy would-be beard, and that hardening of eyes and features which stress produces, is at one of life's cusps. Until recently he always looked young and carefree, apart from when he was out. In the aftermath of Perth, in the harsh, unforgiving forcefield of the cameras and the microphones and the pundits' egos, he started to look, for the very first time, just a little bit old. Like many another man before him, he is starting to experience the uneasy feeling of his life changing as it turns on the wheel of the England captaincy and the difficulty of playing Test cricket in Australia. He has played in seven Test matches in Australia and he has been on the losing side seven times.

With a few exceptions, Australia - big old Australia with its huge grounds, its vivid light and scalding sun, its flies, its harsh, sarcastic crowds, its batsmen and its fast bowlers - has always been a difficult place for English teams to triumph. Go there with a Larwood, or a Tyson, or a John Snow, together with a crystal clear tactical plan, and you have a chance. Catch Australia at a point where they are rebuilding and you have a strong side touched by genius, and you have more than a chance. Other times, like now, forget it.

In some senses what has happened recently is neither as shocking nor as debilitating as the pitiless defeats of 2006 or 2013. The absence of Ben Stokes tempered expectations, and there are other things to cling on to; Craig Overton's spirit, Dawid Malan's burgeoning confidence, James Vince's cover drive. With this said, though, there is the inescapable feeling that old certainties are ebbing away. Jimmy Anderson is there, 35 and still running in with his customary liquid rhythm. He is barely tainted by age, but time is not his friend, while for Stuart Broad and Alastair Cook things are worse. They are younger but they have fallen further and more quickly, leaving them wide open to the old sporting cliche: how much do you want it? When you have been there and done it so often, how readily can you muster the energy to rage against the dying of the light? You can deny that there is a problem - that much is easy - but what are you going to do about the fact that you can't take wickets or score runs?

As the sun rises so the light dies, and for Joe Root, and for England, there is a wider sense that the skies are darkening; that before long they may be looking for two opening batsmen instead of one; they may be looking for someone with the potential to take wickets with the old and new balls, and make aggressive lower-order runs; they, if they are Root himself, will be looking for a way to turn fifties into big hundreds in the manner that is second nature to Smith or Kohli. And all this in an environment of marginalisation and complacency; where those taking game-shaping decisions are more interested in promoting a putative competition which there is little evidence many people want, while relegating to the season's margins the type of cricket which could produce another Stuart Broad or Alastair Cook. And where the expectation is always that there will be an early season greentop on which England will win the toss and Anderson will go through a shivering group of Sri Lankans like a hot knife through the butter in the Lord's dining room and all will be right with the world. England keep making 400 and losing matches by an innings, but that happens in countries abroad about which we know little and care less, apart from when the Perth seagulls or the Chennai vultures are circling.

Who needs Josh Hazlewood or Ravi Ashwin when you can bowl a side out for nothing in unfamiliar conditions and think you're a good team?

In truth the embrace of marginalisation for money began years ago, when, after the greatest home Test series anyone had seen, English cricket hid itself behind a paywall. Stuart Broad was just starting out on a professional career, Alastair Cook was on the verge of international cricket, and Joe Root was 14 and already good. To him, then, little mattered beyond playing the game, and he had all the answers.

Now, as 2017 closes in Melbourne, he and his side face only questions. Finding the answers to them will take a lot longer than five days, and many more dreams will die before they do so.

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