Chris Silverwood has been England head coach for over a year and yet he remains something of an enigma, writes Wisden Cricket Monthly editor-in-chief Phil Walker.

It’s a little over a year since Chris Silverwood shifted in his England blazer in the games room at Lord’s and spoke with great solemnity about values, environment, dreams and honour, and meant every single word of it. He was evidently nervous – unhelpfully, like an overprotective dad, his new boss Ashley Giles confirmed that he was – and the affair did little to quell those voices who’d been a tad underwhelmed by the appointment in the first place.

Most notably, the new head coach wasn’t the heavyweight Gary Kirsten, who had interviewed for the job and was considered the favourite. Silverwood, or ‘Spoons’ as they clubbably call him, was neither a global name nor a charismatic presence. This seemed at least part of the point. No question he was an establishment pick. Already in the set-up as the team’s bowling coach, no one pretended it was anything other than a continuity appointment. He was and is the least likely man to rock any boats or turn up any apple carts.

But it wasn’t just that he knew the boys. Silverwood’s grounding for the job went back decades, deep into the scene, forged in his playing days as a Boxer-type workhorse fast bowler whose willingness to run in for his superiors marked him early as one of the good guys. Giles made a big thing of his Englishness; more accurately, his English-cricket-ness. For his country he played 13 times, under a couple of approving captains and a coach who would now be found looking down on his work from the marbled cells of the commentary box. So, an establishment selection. But a safe one?

It was a braver call than it seemed. Silverwood became, following the tortured reigns of Peter Moores, just the second English coach this century. Rising through a short though fruitful stint with Essex to become England’s bowling coach and then to the top job at 44, he sat there offering the mould-breaking traits of being young, inexperienced and English; seen like that, there were much safer options out there.

But Giles wanted someone who ‘gets’ the way it’s done round these parts. Silverwood’s predecessor, Trevor Bayliss – who had ambled in on the line that a coach might help improve matters by two, maybe three per cent, but no more than that – made little effort to pretend he was an authority on county cricket, nor did he see any need to. His job was to work with the squad of players he was given, not scour the regions for uncut gems. And besides, that way of doing things belonged to an era which didn’t feature battalions of ECB-funded scouts aligned to a talent pathway that grabs good kids early and pulls them in. Silverwood, on the other hand, is steeped in it.

Last winter he was handed a youngish first squad to work with, heading to New Zealand with an uncapped leggie, a stolid new opener in Dom Sibley and a bolter by the name of Zak Crawley. Joe Root was unequivocal, this was a first stab at building a squad to survive the challenges ahead: “We’ve got 25 games to build on that journey and make sure when we go down there we’re in a really strong position to take on Australia in their conditions.” Looking at a well-received squad tingling with promise, it seemed only fair to extend this trumpeting of youth to the coach himself.

He and Root had discussed how the Test team was going to play. The gung-ho approach of the Bayliss years – which may have been fun to watch but also threw up five instances of the team being bowled out in a single session, having managed to avoid doing so since 1938 – would give way to a different kind of cricket, the cricket that Silverwood feels most comfortable with. “He’s very strong about the way we look to play,” says Root, “and through that I think guys have got a lot of confidence in it. The more you see it work out on the field the more you want to buy into it. It’s just now [a case of] can we keep getting better at it? He’s at the front of pushing that.”

This, in a nutshell, is Silverwood’s impact. A reversion to slow-heartbeat Test cricket. It’s an abiding philosophy, which he outlined the first time I met him. It was early-summer 2016 and Essex were top of the second division at the time, having started the season well. “We’ve done OK,” he said softly. “We’re posting big totals now. But equally we’ve bolstered the bowling attack, so we can play a better standard of cricket, a better form of cricket, to stand us in good stead in the first division.” I asked him what style of cricket he was describing. “It’s attritional. Attritional cricket.” A little over a year later, he’d helped guide Essex to the Championship.

So how is it working with England? Silverwood has facilitated a smallish upturn in the five-day game, with England heading to Sri Lanka next month – followed by India twice and an Ashes next winter – on the back of three series wins on the bounce for the first time in a decade.

Flimsy gauge though it may be, the rankings show the Test team moving from fourth to, well, fourth – still behind Australia, India and New Zealand, and outside bets to make the final of the ICC World Test Championship in June. They’ve registered six wins from 12 matches so far, with three defeats – at Mount Maunganui, Centurion and Southampton – each coming in the first match of a series, a peculiar English disease that no one seems remotely able to do anything about.

The batsmen score at a marginally slower rate – 3.21 runs per over against 3.25 under Bayliss – but it’s with the ball where changes are evident: the overall dot ball percentage has jumped four points to 77 per cent, and the economy rate has dropped significantly, from 3.24 to 2.89.

How the bowling unit approaches Sri Lanka and India will be instructive. Last time in Sri Lanka, they picked one out-and-out seamer, and won 3-0. One of those spinners was Adil Rashid, about whom Silverwood recently gave a rare public expression of interest. “I would like to see Adil with a red ball in his hand,” he said in September, “and that conversation is ongoing.” Though Silverwood’s words suggested a desire to inject some flair into the spin department, Root admitted to Wisden Cricket Monthly this month that Rashid’s return is a “long shot”. Unless Matt Parkinson emerges as a sudden red-ball bolter, England’s options will be limited to a few plucky finger-spinners; a not insignificant problem.

Despite the odd flurry, Silverwood’s public appearances are pretty rare. He seems more at ease in the company of a baseball mitt than a microphone. The eras of Duncan Fletcher and Andy Flower had both been marked by costly success, their tenures ending in acrimony and fallout. The cricketing century has seen many leaps forward, with the emergence of the alpha coach sitting right near the top. Pakistan’s iconic former skipper, Misbah-ul-Haq, is head coach and was also, until last month, their chief selector. Justin Langer runs the Australian dressing room. Ravi Shastri bestrides India’s, while Anil Kumble may have bestrode a little too much for Virat Kohli’s liking and was ousted, allegedly on the captain’s say-so, in 2017.

English cricket has gone its own way. If the age of the domineering ego-coach died with the appointment of the avuncular Bayliss (whom the players loved), Silverwood is the ideal next man in. Having landed a job he probably never thought he would get, he has had no trouble subsuming an already hibernating ego to the needs of the team.

“People are at the centre of my coaching philosophy,” he’d said at the unveiling. “Seeing them do well with their dreams, that makes me smile. That’s why I do it, know what I mean? I want to create self-sufficient cricketers who go out there and are successful. If we can do that, it’ll make me smile.” Ignore the Brentish echoes, that’s an affecting philosophy. You can see why the players like him around.

Calmness. That’s the word they use. Root: “He has a very calm approach to the game and to the environment. One thing he’s very big on is trying to create an environment which allows the guys to relax and play. When he’s got messages that he wants to get across, he does it in a very relaxed and calm manner, but he makes sure everyone’s aware of what’s expected of them.”

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Has he ever issued, you know, a bollocking? “I’ve not seen it yet. He’s very good at hiding it if he does. I’m sure he’s found frustrations at certain points at different times but he’s very good at containing it.” Is he a bit passive, perhaps? “He’s a really tough individual,” says Giles. “Really empathetic, a good leader of men. I’ve nothing but respect for him.”

Acting as a mere courtly advisor to Emperor Morgan in the other stuff, Silverwood will ultimately be measured by how the Test team goes – and it’s here where the relationship between these two self-effacing Yorkshiremen is critical. Giles insists they’re in sync: “The partnership Joe has developed with him has been very important. I think that’s another of Chris’ strengths, working with two very good captains, both very different in style, but he adapts his style to suit both of them. They have flourished with each other.”

It’s a defining period for Root’s captaincy, and by extension the coach. Should the next year of Test cricket play out badly, the soft-power approach to leadership will be criticised. Silverwood’s inexperience will be called up. His style will be questioned. But should it go well, then the methods and manner will be seen as triumphs not just of analytical and emotional intelligence, but as a repudiation of the modern urge to bow to the alpha-leader. Such are the stakes.