Just a month from the opening tour match, English fans are in a panic. An underwhelming Ashes squad brought more questions than answers, not least why England are turning to a county number four averaging below 20 in Test match cricket to solve persistent troubles at three.
The selectors offered James Vince’s back-foot prowess as a reason for inclusion, but those who have watched him play realise he is a front foot driver rather than someone who thrives against the shorter ball. Gary Ballance once more retrieved from the scrap heap, the captain’s best friend offered another opportunity despite persistent failings at this level. Jack Leach was ignored, a young gun with little first-class pedigree included ahead of the best English spinner of the previous two seasons.
Australia’s Troubles Offer Hope For England Ashes Triumph
Ben Stokes’ status is in doubt: hand broken courtesy of the chin of a fellow patron of a Bristol nightclub, legal proceedings looming, the ECB unclear on how best to deal with the situation. Even if he does make the trip, can you persist with such a character as vice-captain? Indeed, Stokes is one demerit point from a ban: could such an explosive character survive the incendiary characters of the Outback? England can ill-afford to be without the all-rounder: he is the bringer of balance to the eleven and offers game changing ability across all facets unmatched in world cricket.
However, talk of a whitewash is rather hasty. England’s issues are genuine, yes, but overlooked are the problems their opponents face in the build-up to this series. Australia’s current crop are a far cry from the global force of ten years ago. The whitewashing of 2013-14 is experienced only by Steve Smith, David Warner and Nathan Lyon: beyond that lie home Ashes novices. Smith is entering his first as a captain, lacking an experienced head to guide him. Since the last Ashes series of 2015, they have lost their captain (Michael Clarke), the leader of their seam attack (Mitchell Johnson) and discarded their wicketkeeper (Peter Nevill, although he may earn a recall.) It is likely that Smith and Warner will be the only carryovers in the batting lineup.
There is much promise in that batting lineup. Matt Renshaw is an ideal foil to Warner at the top of the order, boasting excellent temperament and patience outside his off-stump. A delightful 184 against Pakistan showed the potential of the left-hander, albeit on a flat Sydney deck against a weaker bowling attack, the elegant flow of the tall batsman’s blade caressing the ball repeatedly through the onside. This may be the man to partner Warner, an opener to stick with for the future and the Ashes offers great opportunity to cement his place. He is just 21, however, and thus short on both international and domestic experience. Renshaw will draw attention from England journalists, fans and players alike, given his background (he was born in the north of England) and the young opener’s temperament will be tested throughout the series both on the field and off it.
Usman Khawaja’s hold on the three position seems secure, despite his one-dimensional nature. Khawaja is a limited batsman, consistently ignored on the sub-continent given his issues against spin. Smith batted there against both Bangladesh and India this year, but Khawaja’s ability in Australia is unquestioned, and the selectors will likely persist with him, but a desire to find a three who can fill the role anywhere in the world likely means Khawaja’s leash is a little shorter than typically afforded by someone averaging above 45 in Test cricket.
Peter Handscomb seems bedded in the middle order and possesses a solid all-around game. His ten appearances to this point have yielded a number of excellent scores, but he is another Ashes rookie whose presence at five is crucial to this Australia team. That has much to do with the side’s issues at six and seven. Mitchell Marsh’s shoulder problems have handicapped his development as the premier Test allrounder, with his return to first-class cricket coming as a batsman only for Western Australia.
Much like Stokes, the younger Marsh brother balances the side, but this is lost if he is unable to operate as the fourth seamer. In his absence, Hilton Cartwright has been blooded as a like-for-like replacement but has offered only modest returns. There is untapped potential there, but it has yet to be found and his inclusion at the top of the order for the start of the recent Indian one-day series drew the ire of a number of ex-players.
Glenn Maxwell will likely fill the six role: as a cavalier ball-striker and an off-spinning option he is lacking refinement but he has the ability to change games and that is crucial for an Ashes series. An excellent fielder, also, and one would be remiss to mention that he is a character that could get under the English (and particularly Ben Stokes’) skin should he be selected.
At seven the Australians like a counter-attacking wicket-keeper, an Adam Gilchrist or even a Brad Haddin, someone to shepherd the tail and be reliable with the gloves. In Matthew Wade, however, they have neither. A string of low scores across all formats has jeopardised his position in the team and he is not a gloveman of quality such that one sticks with despite persistent failings with the blade.
Peter Nevill is being primed to return, but he is no great Test batsman, as his average in the low twenties attests to. Beyond him, there are unknowns, with South Australia’s Alex Carey perhaps ahead of the rest after a record-breaking season in Shield cricket last year. An untried option debuting in an Ashes series is a huge risk given the importance of the wicket-keeper to any side.
Nathan Lyon is entrenched as the spinner, with Steve O’Keefe and Ashton Agar offering good backup should injury strike. Fast bowling stocks are plentiful though injury has already struck, James Pattinson ruled out of the entire series – a stress-fracture in the back an injury to have befallen many a weary quick bowler. Pattinson’s injury has put to rest rather the talk of a potential four-pronged seam attack, with Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazelwood and Pat Cummins the clear trio.
With good variety across the triumvirate providing a balanced and potent attack this is an area of little concern if they can remain fit, but all have had their injury troubles and this will worry Australians. Nathan Coulter-Nile seems poised to act as the reserve seamer with Pattinson out, while Chris Tremain and Jason Behrendorff could also figure if health problems occur. The toil of five matches will take its toll, and without a fourth seamer to help shoulder the burden the triad may struggle to keep fit.
The Ashes is an unpredictable series, and any predictions of an easy Australia victory are rather hasty. Both sides have questions to answer and either could wilt in the heat of the Ashes pressure-cooker. England have seven excellent Test match cricketers (eight if Chris Woakes recaptures last summer’s form) and have not struggled with confidence since Trevor Bayliss. Stokes may return ready to prove naysayers wrong and put the Bristol fracas behind him with a Man-of-the-Series performance.
Don’t write England off just yet.