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Stuff that matters

During the discussions that preceded the postponement of England’s one-day series in South Africa last December, Tom Harrison is said to have sent an email to Ashley Giles, with their South African counterparts still included on the chain, asking who exactly was running the tour.

It transpired the answer to this pointed question from the chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board to his director of cricket – albeit one unlikely to have been tapped out in reply – was their players. Covid-19 had breached the team hotel and, with fears over what this could mean for onward travel so close to Christmas, Eoin Morgan’s men simply downed tools.

Nine months on and cricket’s administrators have received another reminder of where much of the power now lies in cricket. The cancellation of the fifth Test at Old Trafford followed a physio contracting the virus and then a letter signed by members of Virat Kohli’s squad on the eve of the match stating an unwillingness to compete. Despite passing their PCR tests that day, and attempts by the ECB to encourage a rethink the following morning, they simply wouldn’t budge.

As well as ruining plans for around 90,000 ticket-holders and the global TV audience, leaving an army of casual workers unpaid from the lost days and prompting a debate about the influence of the Indian Premier League in the UK, the missing fifth Test has left England’s cricketers slightly scratching their heads. Did they lose the series 2-1? Did India forfeit the fifth Test for a 2-2 draw? Would a rearranged fixture next year count as the finale or sit alone? The answers to all this may not be known for weeks, with the two boards in disagreement, insurance a factor and the International Cricket Council likely to preside.

As it is, following a full debrief on their efforts at 11am on Friday morning, Joe Root’s side have now dispersed. Some are heading to the IPL, while others have managed to withstand its potent tractor beam and will head back to their counties. Ollie Robinson and Jimmy Anderson will probably stick their feet in buckets of ice for a spell, even if the pair were spared having the strap on the bowling boots for a fifth successive Test in six weeks.

Both would have played the fifth Test, it transpires, with Mark Wood replacing Craig Overton and Jack Leach down to once again miss out. And elsewhere the word is that Jonny Bairstow was set to get the nod ahead of Ollie Pope at No 5, despite the Surrey man top-scoring the previous week. Bairstow may continue to frustrate – he looked bristlingly good and yet squandered five starts in seven innings – but it seems England are not ready to quit on him just yet.

Even in the unlikely event of the ICC awarding England the fifth Test, a summer that began with Root stating his aim to win all seven Tests against New Zealand and India ended with one win from six out on the park. This does not augur well for their Ashes prospects at the end of the year, although if there is a crumb of historical comfort to be found, it’s that England lost series at home to the same opponents back in 1986 before going on to triumph in Australia that winter.

Root’s form has at least been celestial, Rory Burns typically scrapped hard up top and Chris Woakes offered a reminder of his all-round class during his one-off return. And in Robinson, England appear to have found a gem of a seam bowler. The 27-year-old has discovered what it physically takes to play Test cricket – and a good deal about its off-field scrutiny – but claiming 28 wickets at 19 apiece, chiefly through out-skilling batsmen, made for a superb start.

Elsewhere it remains a case of fingers crossed. Crossed that Ben Stokes feels well and able to return from his break for mental health reasons; that a 39-year-old Anderson can have an impact with the Kookaburra ball; that Stuart Broad is back fit and firing after a calf injury; that Wood, as the last 90mph man standing, stays fit; that Haseeb Hameed’s encouraging return after a five-year absence is not scuppered by a combination of those low-slung hands and the bouncier pitches down under.

They are also crossed that Cricket Australia and their government can find an agreeable solution to issue of quarantine for players and their families. England are expected to wait until the first week of October before naming their Ashes squad – the red-ball specialists depart a month later – and there are now said to be around five or six players who may well shoulder arms to the tour if the provisions don’t meet expectations.

This will sound diva-ish to some and certainly Tim Paine, Australia’s Test captain, has recently questioned how any cricketer could consider declining the Ashes. But these are unique times for the sport and if there is one thing we have learned over the past year, it’s that the minds of players are not easily changed once made up.