Adam Gilchrist’s autobiography True Colours: My Story is one of the great “unreliable narrator” sports books. Not because there’s a single false note in its 500 pages of tearful, heartfelt authenticity, but because it’s not really His Story but is instead a meditation on his own obsession with certain concepts – Australianism, Baggy Greenism, Good Blokeism, and above all the good health, the sacred vibes of the Aussie Test team.
Changes of personnel are agonised over. Gilchrist worries endlessly about morale. There are 34 entries in the index under the heading “Team Feeling”. In the Gilchrist universe Test cricket, teamship and the teamship of Test cricket are sacred, ineffable things, to be preserved at all costs, seals unbroken.
There is a temptation to send True Colours windmilling across the room four pages into another damp-eyed interlude on Warnie’s response to being dropped (short version: smokes fags, threatens to quit). But Gilchrist is clearly on to something. A suspension of disbelief is required in all sport. We have to feel that things matter, minutely, in this landscape. Otherwise the whole thing starts to sag.
At which point, enter England 2021, and the mildly encouraging return to sporting reality of the Test at Edgbaston. There was a thrilling interlude on day one as Dan Lawrence battled through an afternoon session where he seemed to be menaced at every turn by obstacles, tripwires, ghosts, strange noises.
Lawrence came into the second Test averaging 24. He has his own way of playing, founded in his bottom‑handed strengths. At times he addresses the ball like a man preparing to flip a pancake. At Edgbaston he walked out into the middle of another England micro-collapse, with Trent Boult snaking the ball around his toes.
But Lawrence is also a bold, likable cricketer. He dug his nails in, goggle-eyed at every deviation, every flick of the Boult wrist. He batted beautifully. Or rather he batted in the way Test players must, as though this moment, right here, is everything. And for the first time in what should be a gloriously resuscitative summer this felt like Test cricket.
Because there has been a loss of tension. England, we hear, are planning for the Ashes. England are picking fringe players. England are building, scheming, playing 7D plague-cricket chess. England won the first Test in India, then made seven changes for the next two and got beaten out of sight.
England are letting their openers have a net instead of chasing victory. England have been planning for the Ashes by plucking away at the basic integrity of these contests, not to mention the loyalties of their audience.
The players are blameless. The levels of intensity through the drain of bubble life have been remarkable. Similarly, cricket coaches are not football managers: cause and effect is more diffuse. But the fact remains, Chris Silverwood has been in the job for two years, and the past few months as England’s first selector‑head‑coach. And there has been a vagueness.
Scroll right back and the first act of the Silverwood era was to allow Jofra Archer to bowl 42 overs in an innings, his discomfort met with remarks about the need to have “fire in your belly”, then followed by an elbow-twanging net-off for a spot in the next game. Pre-Silverwood, Archer had 22 wickets at 20. Post-Silverwood he has 20 at 43. Archer is a genuinely high-end sporting talent. Injuries are just bad luck most of the time. His handling has been strange.
Meanwhile Chris Woakes hasn’t bowled a ball for England in 10 months. Perhaps this has something to do with trying to win the Ashes 11 months in advance, but it seems a wretched way to treat England’s reigning player of the year. In the same period Jos Buttler has played three Tests and six one-day internationals. Buttler and Woakes are paid £1.5m a year to play cricket for England. Resources are being preserved. Resources are also being expended.
Elsewhere Moeen Ali has played one Silverwood-era Test and otherwise been invisible. Jack Leach took 18 wickets in India and found his entire role in the team made redundant on his return. Dom Bess was called up this week. Why not just poke Leach in the eye and steal his lunch too?
But then this has been a weirdly muddled England Test incarnation, something that goes beyond Covid, bubbles and all the rest. Who is England’s wicketkeeper anyway? At every given moment it should be possible to answer this, like being able to name the home secretary or the presenter of Question Time.
It should be Jonny Bairstow, who might have spent the past six years thriving at No 7 but for some faux-funk selections. But Bairstow is being “rested” (ie playing in the Blast) because he was in India six weeks ago. And England are fielding their fourth-choice keeper against the best team in the world for the entertainment of 17,000 paying customers.
Mainly there is that feeling of lost focus, of allowing the tension to dip, the Test team to meander. Winning tomorrow by disdaining today, overlooking the need to entertain right now, to reward the ticket-holders and subs-payers who make this game work: this is not the way to run any professional sports entity; just as it is not in the gift of a head coach to change what the England Test team is supposed to mean, its focus on each one of these self-contained five-day dramas.
At Edgbaston the increased intensity, driven by that returning crowd, was a heartening sight, at a time when the country is parched and desperate for something real. It is to be hoped dilution and rest can now be junked. And that England’s players – who have been quietly heroic throughout – can reassert the sense of tightness, of pure spectacle, of Gilly-level authenticity.