While England dissect their loss in the first Ashes Test, the spotlight may fall on skipper Joe Root, who was tactically outdone on several occasions in Birmingham.
At key junctures, Root didn’t just give the Aussies a lifeline – he threw them a rope long enough to grab with both hands, and was pulled into the water at the same time.
On Day 1, England had their foot on the throats of the Aussies at 8/122 before Steve Smith played one of the finest innings in years.
Few could criticise Root for failing to prevent Smith’s other-worldly impact. But if he had his time again, he may have done things differently. As a captain, all you can do is place your side in the best position – principally with bowling changes and field placements – to take a wicket. On this, Root feel short.
Smith was allowed to flourish with exceedingly defensive fields the moment Peter Siddle joined him at the crease. Siddle’s wicket became England’s sole focus, as if he was a lower-order bunny.
But the Victorian didn’t hop around, and never has. His average in excess of 32 this county season with Essex was surely testament to this.
Smith’s twin partnerships with Siddle and Nathan Lyon would not only see Australia to a respectable 284, but would also come at a more-than-healthy 4.4 an over. The runs flowed far too easily, and Root struggled for the plug.
If the first innings was a misjudgment, then the second innings was a calamity.
Australia were four wickets down at one stage, just 115 runs ahead. While Smith’s continued presence meant the tourists were in the box seat, the Test was still very much in the balance.
Enter Matthew Wade, who had failed initially in his long-awaited Test return. There was always a question whether Wade could replicate his compelling domestic form at the highest level.
Every career and life decision he had made in the prior 18 months had been leading up to this moment. The pressure was on.
But instead of building that pressure, Wade was gifted two half-volleys from part-timer Joe Denly outside off, crunched through a vacant cover region for four. He did this twice.
After seven balls, Wade was already into double-figures. Shoulders back, nerves subsided, he was recklessly afforded the comfort of easing into an innings. And a very important innings at that.
Perhaps even more baffling, the man who dismissed Wade in the first innings was nowhere to be seen. Root decided against throwing the ball – both old and new – to Chris Woakes for the entire first session of Day 4.
Journalists scurried to ask support staff what injury had overcome the Brummy Botham. But they were told that nothing was wrong at all. It was simply a tactical move.
In the weeks leading up to the first Test, Woakes had destroyed both Australia and Ireland with the new ball.
But at Edgbaston, Root kept it from him and decided to bowl himself. This wasn’t a selfish move – Root is a selfless player and leader – but rather severely ill-judged.
He and Denly would go on to bowl 26 wicketless overs, at a combined rate of 4.7 runs an over in the second innings. Just an hour after lunch, the Test match had become un-losable for Australia. England had let Australia off the hook.
And while their bowlers must take some responsibility for Australia’s incredibly swift run rate of 4.34 in the second innings, so too must Root.
Captains are bound to make errors in the field – several times, in fact – over five days of cricket. Root isn’t a poor captain, but he isn’t a necessarily astute one either.
With the bat, they could hardly have a better leader, something former opener Nick Compton believes he should focus on solely.
“I was never an advocate of him becoming captain because he’s such an exceptional batsman, he’s England’s best player,” Compton told Love Sport Radio this week. “In one way you want him to focus on that. Focus on becoming the best player in England, scoring runs time and time again.”
If Australia are to ram home their advantage at Lord’s next week, the pressure the English press placed on Tim Paine pre-series may quickly shift to their own leader.