1) Revive the lost art of batting time
In the second half of the Ashes series, England’s batsmen hinted at a move away from “it’s the way we play”. They need to run with that mood – or rather crawl with it, and forget about doing everything in a hurry. The only way to win in Australia is to go huge in the first innings, and England need to develop players, especially in the top three, who get high on dot balls. A change to the domestic schedule, so that four-day cricket is played in the middle of the summer on flatter pitches, perhaps with a Kookaburra ball, is essential. When England won in 2010-11, they batted for 150 overs, or five sessions, in four of the seven innings. Under Joe Root’s captaincy they have failed to do so in 62 attempts. Yes, batting has changed – but not that much. In Australia, frisky cameos with the bat win only contempt.
2) Pick players on substance rather than style
The player with the highest batting average during Joe Root’s captaincy is Ben Foakes, with 41.50 from five Tests. He was dropped in the West Indies, two games after being Player of the Series in Sri Lanka. The removal of such a quiet achiever was symbolic of an era in which England have been seduced by potential, style and white-ball form. It evokes the Gerrard-Lampard years of English football, when the national team looked infinitely better on paper than on the pitch. England’s ODI swashbucklers bat in such a persuasive style as to brainwash us into thinking they have, or might, score more runs than is actually the case. A change of culture is overdue. It wouldn’t be easy to leave out players as obviously talented as Jonny Bairstow or Jos Buttler – but then it should not have been easy to drop the best wicketkeeper in the country, especially when his batting average was higher than the rest.
3) Crack the Steve Smith code
There are some strange jobs in the world: pet food taster, armpit sniffer and cricket live blogger are all paid professions. The ECB should add to the list by appointing a Director of Steve Smith Studies. For the next 26 months, the ECB should undertake the kind of analysis of a single sportsman that has never been done before. They need the kind of Eureka moment that Douglas Jardine had when he came up with Bodyline as an antidote to the industrial run-scoring of Sir Donald Bradman. To achieve that, they should study footage and data, think outside boxes, leave no theory unexplored, and pick brains around the world from Wasim Akram to Nasser Hussain to Ian Chappell. If Smith averages over 100 for the third consecutive Ashes, England will have 0% chance of winning.
4) Start planning now
The two triumphant Ashes tours of the modern era, 2010-11 and 2019, had one thing in common – the kind of planning usually reserved for a military operation. Joe Root says preparations for 2021-22 start now – but England said exactly the same after the last tour of Australia, and nothing much has changed. A decent first step would be to consult Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower about the marginal gains – not so much 1 percenters as 0.01 percenters – they achieved before and during the 2010-11 series. English cricket also needs to do more than pay lip-service to the avoidance of burnout. In particular, they need to manage, on a micro and macro level, the workload of Jofra Archer, the kind of fast bowler England have craved on Ashes tours since John Snow wreaked havoc in 1970-71. Calculated sacrifices will have to be made. England are scheduled to play 10 Tests against India in the nine months before the next Ashes tour. Huge games, all. But if they are really serious about winning the Ashes, Archer needs to miss some of them.
5) Change the captain
It would be delightful to wolf down humble pie as Joe Root lifts the urn in January 2022, but all on-field evidence suggests he is never going to learn the art of captaincy. The main argument for retaining him seems to be that there isn’t anybody else. That isn’t strictly true, and ignores the fact that other captains would not come with such great opportunity cost – Root averages 53 in Tests when he isn’t in charge, as compared to 41 as captain, and 34 since the end of the 2017-18 Ashes. England have sacrificed their only great batsman for a mediocre captain; the trade is unlikely to get much better. When Root was England’s Player of the Series in the 2015 Ashes, captaincy was a thing of the future and he had the most infectious smile in world cricket. It would be lovely to see it again.