English cricket must aspire to more than Giles’s brand of middle management
With an impeccable sense of timing, Ashley Giles flies into Sydney next week to join up with the England squad ahead of the fourth Ashes Test. I know what you’re all thinking: if only he’d arrived earlier. How differently things might have panned out had the “Managing Director, England Men’s Cricket” been able to effect his unique brand of managerial direction earlier in the series? Perhaps, like Glenn McGrath in 2005 or John Snow in 1974-75, the Giles Effect (Conjecture) seems fated to remain an arresting counterfactual in the footnotes of Ashes history.
Instead, Giles arrives with the Ashes gone and English cricket in varying states of disarray. The captain, Joe Root, is said to be quietly seething at the manner of this defeat and the entirely foreseeable missteps that have led to it. Chris Silverwood, the man whom Giles decided to make the most powerful England coach of the 21st century, will probably end up leaving his job. However Tom Harrison, Giles’s boss and the chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board, still gets his share of a £2m bonus pot. So let’s charitably call it a mixed picture.
Of course, such is the level of public anger at this latest Ashes debacle that it is not entirely beyond the realms of possibility that all four of the above could be out of a job in the next few weeks. Silverwood feels the likeliest to go; Giles as the man who appointed him might also find himself dispensable collateral; Root will probably be given the right to go on his own terms should he wish; Harrison is beginning to show the strain of almost seven years at the helm, to the point where he has largely ceased being able to communicate in coherent English sentences.
For fans and pundits still stinging from the manner of this latest Ashes debacle, perhaps this would classify as a necessary purgation, a long-overdue cleansing of the stables: an opportunity to burn down the entire festering structure and build something afresh. Which feels instinctively right at a time like this, with England’s defeat widely being described as their worst in Ashes history. And yet perhaps the real lesson of this series is not about who needs to go, but who needs to come in.
After all this is – by recent standards, at least – a remarkably thin top team, consisting of no chairman, no chief selector or full-time selection panel, and a bare minimum of coaching staff. Silverwood’s absence from the Sydney Test after a close contact tested positive for Covid has merely underlined the paucity of coaching expertise on tour. Paul Collingwood has left to concentrate on the white-ball tour of the West Indies, Jeetan Patel and Jon Lewis are also isolating, and so pretty much the entire setup is currently in the hands of assistant coach Graham Thorpe.
In a way this is a pretty good metaphor for the organisation as a whole: a setup that has been brain‑drained, hollowed out from the inside. It is no secret that the last two years have had a punishing impact on the ECB’s finances. Staff have been furloughed and laid off. Reserves have been whittled down. Programmes have been cut. The official selection panel has been trimmed from four in 2018 to just one: Silverwood, whose latest brainwave was to leave out both Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad on a green wicket in Brisbane.
Perhaps some of the pruning was necessary: certainly there have been times in the past when Team England on tour felt more like a circus. But these days there seems to be a distinct absence of expertise at the heart of the setup: the innovation and imagination and life experience and variety of voices that moves a team forward, rather than simply keeping it running. For all his faults national selector Ed Smith was one such voice: a man prepared to embrace the heterodox, posit the wacky idea, imagine the world a shade of Joe Denly.
Andy Flower was another, and the decision to retain his services as Lions coach after the 2013-14 Ashes was a quietly inspired move. But perhaps the biggest loss was Sir Andrew Strauss, the man responsible for remaking English cricket twice: first as captain from 2009 to 2011, and then as director from 2015 to 2018, where he put in place the white-ball-oriented strategy that helped England win their first men’s World Cup.
This is not to argue that any of them is necessarily the right man right now, or that any of the current occupants necessarily deserve to stay. The broader point is that any successful team needs a surfeit of hard thought as well as hard work, an ability to see round corners and approach problems in new ways. With respect to both, neither Silverwood nor Giles really fit the bill: the latter having overseen a gentle regression of the white-ball side as coach from 2012-14, the former now having done the same to the Test side.
In Silverwood’s determination to “take the positives” from England’s third Test defeat there were echoes of Giles’s infamous claim in the wake of the humiliating defeat to the Netherlands at the 2014 World T20 that England had “warmed up well”. They are middle managers, factotums, details men, personally admirable and perfectly competent. They are the bread and cheese of any self-respecting organisation. But you also need people who aspire to more.
Instead, Silverwood and Giles were given the keys to the palace, and in the process we learned a good deal about the ECB’s attitude to Test cricket. That with a base level of competence it would essentially look after itself, while the more viable revenue streams were explored instead: 50-over, 20-over, 100-ball. Replacing the men themselves will be easy enough. Replacing the philosophy they embodied will be several degrees harder.