England have three Test matches to play before they are thrust into the cauldron of an away Ashes tour. The here and now is, of course, always the most important, and to look beyond such a thrilling series with world number two India seems borderline sacrilegious, but it remains necessary to take some stock of where the side sit on their grandly planned Test journey.
For when Chris Silverwood took over, forming his coalition of constraint with captain Joe Root, there were two overarching goals: to be the number one Test team in the world, and to win the Ashes in Australia.
The first of those goals, clearly, looks imperceptibly distant in the face of such a resurgent India team and cultured New Zealand group, never mind the mediocrity of the Three Lions themselves. Australia are nowhere near their best, but England’s red-ball journey since 2019, setting off with so much optimism, has seemingly gone round in one big circle.
Indeed, they have three Test matches to solve the same problems the last two years have been dedicated to. At the top of the order, Dom Sibley, England’s weapon of mass-absorption, was supposed to tipify old-fashioned tactics of big runs irrespective of time taken.
That project has failed, Sibley dropped along with the great middle-order, double-hundred hope Zak Crawley. Rory Burns, despite some stiff-necked hundreds, has been dealing largely in ducks otherwise and averages just over thirty. Of genuine mental toughness no doubt he is made, but Pat Cummins will not be fearing for his figures at the sight of the Surrey man.
Dawid Malan has re-entered the fray to fill England’s endless void at number three. Obviously susceptible to balls pitched fuller than good, the T20 record-breaker looks a fragile option in England, but showed some suitability to Australia with his 140 at Perth and series average of 42 in 2017/18. All the best to him, but his is another short-term, regressive solution.
England’s seam attack is, shall we say, in need of some monitoring. Root will be desperate not to over-bowl James Anderson when the 39-year-old inevitably makes the trip down under, and Stuart Broad, 35, is currently nursing another damaging injury. The rest of England’s bowlers are evidently injury-prone, with Mark Wood set to miss another Test after sustaining a shoulder knock at Lord’s. Olly Stone has a history of getting hurt. Jofra Archer has been entirely ruled out for the winter.
Away from seam, England’s spin department, although not as central in preparations for December, is something of an unsolvable puzzle. Jack Leach, six months ago England’s premier off-spinner, can not get a game, and has been duly sent back to his county after the return of Moeen Ali, no doubt a manifestation of England’s batting insecurities, brilliant cricketer though he is.
An article listing England’s well-publicised problems is perhaps not of much use. Comparing their current state to the ambitions of two years ago, given a global pandemic that continues to turn the predictable into the impossible, is perhaps a little perverse. The Ashes, as the ICC World Test Championship governs the red-ball calendar, is by no means the be-all and end-all, either.
However, as this India series progresses we are bearing witness to a team, and a set-up, that has failed to change any real misfortune it was suffering from in 2019. Joe Root is the victim of a complete lack of depth in the county game and a schedule that only serves to thin the scratchable surface, but some responsibility still lies with England themselves, rather than solely the corrupt system.
And yet, it was still this year that Root and his side dispatched a brilliant India team in their own back yard at Chennai. It is a team so defined by its capriciousness that victory in Australia is not a total impossibility. With Justin Langer under fire and the Aussies still reeling from their own capitulation at the hands of Team India, this could be an entertaining Ashes tussle between two sides fighting their own separate crises.