As England begin their inquest into another abject Ashes campaign, one of the key issues is bound to be the captaincy, especially with the tour of the Caribbean beginning in March. ESPNcricinfo identifies six of the front-runners, for want of a better word, starting with the man who may yet remain at the helm…
At least he still wants the role … or claims to, at any rate. Joe Root has been England captain for five years and 61 Tests, more than any of his predecessors, and yet not even his second 4-0 Ashes thrashing can persuade him it's time to jack it in. Whether that makes him heroic, pig-headed, oblivious or a prisoner of conscience, only he can truly say. But given his deep-seated concerns about the quality of the young players being sent to join his ranks, he clearly sees it as his duty to hold the line in the manner that serves his team best.
The case against his retention is two-fold. Firstly, he has looked shattered after each of his Ashes beatings, and if he spends the next two years averaging in the low-30s, as he did in 2018 and 2019, then England's batting will be in an even deeper hole. Secondly, aside from the loyalty he engenders as a thoroughly good egg, there's nothing about Root's leadership that would be missed if he returned to the ranks. Tactically he's still a "craptain" - the self-deprecating nickname he resurrected for himself in 2017 - while more damningly, his crass handling of Jofra Archer (and latterly Ben Stokes, though doubtless Stokes was complicit in his own injury) is a serious black mark against his tenure.
Caveat Emptor, where England allrounders are concerned. Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff have been there and done that, and both men crashed and burned after being asked to lead their country while remaining the team's brightest star. And yet, there are many reasons to believe that Stokes is cut from a different cloth to his predecessors. First and foremost, he is the ultimate team man - an unfailingly loyal deputy to his friend and captain Root, but ever-ready to answer the call when needed, most extraordinarily last summer, when he defied the pain of his as-yet unhealed broken finger and led a scratch ODI team to a 3-0 series win over Pakistan, in the wake of the main squad's Covid outbreak. Botham and Flintoff in their pomp were their respective teams' heartbeats. But that's not quite the same thing.
Secondly, the longer Stokes' career goes on, the more his pre-eminence as a batter comes to the fore. Pat Cummins has shown that fast bowlers are perfectly capable of leadership (more of which later…) but they are also more liable to suffer tenure-interrupting injuries. The fact that Stokes played on this winter in spite of his side strain suggests that he'll be better placed to resist the Botham/Flintoff folly of assuming they, and only they, can be the matchwinner in any adverse situation. He's unlikely to be as shy about bowling himself as Root, England's premier allrounder in 2021, but after a gruelling and confused Ashes performance, it's probably in England's wider interests that Stokes spends 2022 rediscovering his game, rather than worrying about taking on more responsibilities.
A County Championship-winning captain with Surrey, and not only that, a man whose returns in that 2018 season were so far and away beyond any other batter - by runs scored and minutes batted - that no-one else on the circuit was remotely qualified to fill Alastair Cook's immense shoes after his retirement that same year. And though Burns' returns haven't been stellar in recent seasons, he's still been the best of the rest of England's batting. He was the only man bar Stokes to make an Ashes hundred in the 2019 series, and the only man bar Root (with six) to reach three figures in 2021, against the world champions New Zealand at Lord's.
However, Burns seems all of a sudden to be on borrowed time in the England set-up. His first-ball duck at Brisbane was an indignity to scar even the most resilient of characters, but his dropping for the Boxing Day Test, with the series on the line, was a dramatic indication of how his stock has fallen. His failure to communicate like a senior player appears to have told against him, which effectively means his captaincy card is marked too. His attitude towards the media has also been deeply frosty for months, ever since his Twitter spat with the former England women's player-turned-commentator Alex Hartley - the sort of PR gaffe that is unlikely to sit well with the ECB's all-inclusive vibe.
It's a measure of how far England have fallen that a player who, a week ago, was 90 minutes away from boarding a flight back to the UK, has not only driven 500 miles and nine hours to make his Test debut, but has emerged from the Ashes rubble as a viable captaincy candidate. That prospect was stepped up a notch after his first-innings 29 at Hobart (yes, things are that desperate …), then receded somewhat after his flaccid flick to mid-on in the final-day collapse. But in between whiles, Billings carried himself with composure, most particularly behind the stumps, where his sheer glee at being involved was radiated across England's fielding effort - a devastating counterpoint to Jos Buttler's self-absorbed misery of the first four games.
In terms of his actual credentials, Billings is a curious case. He's been around the England set-up for seven years now, having made his white-ball debut amid the post-World Cup reboot in 2015, but has played just 58 games out of a possible 185 - the sort of record that would be fittingly augmented by a one-off Test cap. Either way, that familiarity meant he was able to saunter into the dressing room as an old lag, and "add a bit of experience around the group" while placing his arm around a few battle-weary shoulders as well - including, you presume, his young team-mate Zak Crawley, whom he has skippered at Kent since 2018. In between injury, England and IPL call-ups - and despite some heat from one or two of the more county-militant members - Billings has a decent record in the role, having helped to keep the club in the Championship top flight, while taking them to the Blast title last summer too.
For 15 minutes at the end of the first day in Sydney, Stuart Broad demonstrated precisely why he will make such an outstanding pundit, as and when he trades the dressing-room for the Sky Sports commentary box. After delivering on the field with England's first five-for of the series, he delivered off it too in front of the assembled media, with nothing less than a manifesto for the reboot of England's Test fortunes: stop planning for tomorrow, start focussing on today. If a player performs, let him "own the shirt"; if he doesn't, expect him to work for it. And for God's sake, start scoring some runs…
Frankly his address was as inspirational as anything England had hitherto produced on the field, and it awakened a dormant truth about a Test team that is sleepwalking to oblivion despite containing four of its greatest players of all time: the solution to their current troubles may lie deeper within. At the age of 35, Broad is two years older than Bob Willis was in 1982, the last time England picked a fast bowler as captain. But he's still four years shy of his sidekick James Anderson, and besides, it's been 11 years already since Broad was considered worthy of the T20 leadership. With the Ashes now gone, there's a stark choice to be made about England's old boys. Use their unrivalled knowledge to the max, or lose it. There's certainly little point in preserving their energies for future engagements, which begs the question, why not let them leave their mark in the most indelible fashion possible?
It's a thoroughly left-field notion, and it surely will not happen, but given how much value the ECB has placed in the England Lions set-up in recent times, is it out of the question that they might promote the current Lions skipper - a man who has already been tipped for a Caribbean call-up? Yes, it probably is - although England's Test cricket has arguably not been at such a low ebb since 1988-89, so it would be fully in keeping with the current 1980s vibe for the selectors to go the full Chris Cowdrey.
Lees enjoyed a passable season for Durham in 2021, averaging 39.06 with a solitary century against Warwickshire. However, he's not even his club captain (that honour belongs to another Ashes-disaster cast-off, Scott Borthwick, and what a story that would be!) At present, the most accomplished England-qualified county skipper is arguably Somerset's Tom Abell, but he's just suffered a knee ligament injury during the Big Bash, so bang goes that notion. In fact, it's probably best to pretend this paragraph never entered the public discourse...