Joe Root will be defined as an England captain by his record in the Ashes. In 2017/18, his third series as test captain, England showed some fight, but lost 4-0. In 2019, in his third summer as test captain, an epic series was drawn 2-2, but Australia held the Ashes. It is highly likely that England's 2021/22 tour of Australia will be Root's last test series (as captain) versus the old enemy. Win, and he'll be remembered as a great captain. Defeat, and he'll go down as a good player with an average record. Given the confidence placed in him by Ashley Giles, Root will seemingly lead the side. His reputation, not just the little urn, will be on the line.
The magnitude of the Ashes is obvious. I allude to it above, and the awe it creates is impossible to describe. But given how lucky we are to have had six tests this summer, and how important winning all tests are (not just the ones against Australia) English cricket's concerning fixation with the Ashes is wrong. I don't mean that it isn't England's most important series, and it remains the tests I most want England to win, and planning for it, as the contrasting results of 2006/07 (no plan) and 2010/11 (big plan) show, is critical, but there is one part of this I simply don't understand.
Pace, height and economy is key for quick bowlers in Australia. Pacers like Mark Wood, Jofra Archer and Olly Stone will be key ingredients to England's bowling recipe for the tour in two winters time. While one of James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes will play, it will be very surprising (and concerning) if two, let alone all three of them play a test together.
However, playing Wood and Archer in a test together, in England makes no sense. The argument from some commentators and analysts is that this prepares them for the Ashes. It doesn't. The reason that an Anderson, Broad, Woakes attack doesn't work in Australia is the same as why a Wood and Archer attack also doesn't work in England:
The conditions are different.
We know this. It takes English cricket a while to remember, but, a typical English seam attack does not work in Australia. So why would the attack you want in the first test at the Gabba in 2021 work on a cloudy English day?
To be fair to them, England have only made this mistake once this summer. It was in the first test against the West Indies, and while they didn't bowl badly, (I'd argue it was poor batting that cost the game), had Broad or Woakes played ahead of Wood or Archer the eventual defeat against the West Indies might have been avoided.
England are right to prepare for the Ashes. But that doesn't mean playing the wrong attack in England. Firstly, it reduces chances of victory in tests being played now. And secondly, I don't understand what it offers to the bowlers being played. English conditions are very different to Aussie conditions, and while test experience is key, playing at the Ageas Bowl is totally different to the Gabba.
To me, this is an illogical solution. Take Wood for example. A very good quick bowler, he dominated South Africa in the winter, taking 12 wickets in two tests at an average of 13.58, and when England last toured the West Indies, he took a five-for in the only test he played. But, in England, he averages 44.91 with the ball. Simply put, playing him in tests in England to prepare for an Ashes series in Australia makes no sense.
Preparing for the Ashes is a constant process. But England must keep playing their best side, and avoiding falling into the trap they are planning to avoid: the wrong bowlers in the right conditions.