Even with the Ashes gone, the inquests under way and his future under the spotlight, Joe Root was talking a good game ahead of the Sydney Test. “For us it’s a must-win game,” he said. “I know the series isn’t winnable, but it’s a good opportunity.” On the Australian side, meanwhile, Steve Smith was urging his team to turn the screw by making it 4-0. “We’ve wrapped up the series which is great, and we want to continue winning,” he said. “That’s important.”
So far so routine, although in the spirit of transparency it seems fair to point out that the above quotes were taken not from the current series, but from the corresponding mismatch in January 2018, four years ago to the day. Well, they do say one of the best things about Test cricket is its timelessness.
And so once again the Ashes circus arrives in Sydney smelling faintly of rust, ennui and elephant shit, as players and broadcasters desperately try to inject a little jeopardy into this long-moribund series. Nathan Lyon insists there is no such thing as a “dead rubber when you’re wearing the baggy green”. There are World Test Championship points at stake, after all, and places for the forthcoming tour of New Zealand to be contested. As for England, the quadrennial fit of introspection and ritual bloodletting, the comforting fixation on County Championship schedules and ball manufacturers, has perhaps obscured the wider implications of another hopelessly unequal encounter. This is, we are constantly told, a flagship series: a yardstick for the health of the game as a whole.
What, then, does it say when India and South Africa are currently serving up a more compelling show than anything seen in Australia over the last month? This is hardly a new phenomenon, either. It is 39 years since a men’s Ashes series in Australia reached its final Test with the fate of the urn in the balance. In England it has happened just twice in my lifetime – in 2005 and 2009. The lack of alarm over this should be alarming in itself. The bare minimum we demand of sport is that it has consequence. Yet by the end of this series, 27 of the last 88 Ashes Tests will essentially have been cold product, nothing riding on them but pride and broadcasting contracts.
Is there not a better way of doing this? Part of the issue is that Test cricket itself has changed. Five-match series made sense in previous eras because of the frequency of draws and washouts. No such need exists these days. The last 23 Ashes Tests have produced two draws. That drops to one from the last 32 in Australia, home of some of the most favourable batting conditions in world cricket. Increasingly a five-match series – particularly where one team is demonstrably worse than the other – feel like an elaborate form of torture, a way of forcing imploding teams to keep imploding until there is nothing left.
Even a theoretically-close series gains little from being drawn out over its full length. Both the 2015 and 2019 series felt pale and drained by their conclusion, and not in a good way: flawed sides taking wild swings at each other, exhausted players desperately trying to cling to the precipice.
The virtue of a long series used to be in their ebb and flow, the possibility of redemption and learning. But with schedules trimmed to the skeleton and warm-up games hunted to extinction, that hardly happens any more. The simplest solution would be to cut the Ashes down to three or four Tests, perhaps with an optional decider in the case of a tie. But there is a more radical alternative out there, taking its inspiration from the women’s Ashes, which has flourished since switching to a multi-format competition in 2013. Three Tests, three one-day internationals, three Twenty20s: the overall winner being either the first to a certain number of points, or to win two series.
Fewer days of cricket overall, but a more varied and textured challenge, and arguably a truer test of systems and cultures, which at its heart is what the Ashes was originally supposed to be about. Teams would be forced to strike a balance between red and white-ball structures, between specialists and all-format players.
Bigger squads and more rest days would give the series a chance to breathe in a packed calendar. At least once a decade we would probably be treated to the sight of the Ashes being decided in the final over. And really, we need to decide what we want this cherished and venerable competition to be in the modern age. A museum piece, a fading heritage tour, a sort of fancy dress historical re-enactment that bears less and less resemblance to the cutting edge of the sport with every passing iteration?
At the very least, it’s time to consider whether five compressed five-day Tests every couple of years really is the best way to settle and sell this oldest of rivalries. (You could, if you were feeling particularly daring, even combine men’s and women’s Ashes under a single banner.) Or, alternatively, we can keep rocking up in Sydney every four years with empty platitudes and crossed fingers, hoping that things will be different this time.
And maybe they will. Doing nothing is certainly an option. But as the game fractures and old certainties erode, it’s increasingly hard to argue it’s the best one.