The attention of cricket fans around the world will turn to Australia in the coming days to watch the oldest Test match contest as the Ashes get underway. The power in cricket may have shifted to the sub-continent, but there is still something about England playing Australia in Test cricket that captures the imagination. Even the most cynical and jaded of cricket followers from England and Australia get caught up in it. In recent times, the nonsense war of words off the field has been of better quality than the cricket, but there is always a chance that these teams will surprise us.
For the last few editions time now the Ashes have been about two flawed sides hoping that home advantage will see them through, and the 2017/18 version is no different. Even when Mitchell Johnson was destroying England on their last visit, he was making the most of Australian pitches and the inability of the English batsmen to cope with the pace and bounce he extracted.
Both teams have two world class batsmen – England with Alastair Cook and Joe Root, Australia with David Warner and Steve Smith. Both sides have fragility in their bowling line-up, for Australia there are injury concerns, for England it is both form in overseas conditions and fitness. As has been the case since the 2013 series in England, chances are it will be home conditions that will be the biggest factor. Australia are favourites even with an unsettled side that has similar batting issues to England.
England’s batting has had a huge problem since 2012. They have never replaced Andrew Strauss as Cook’s opening partner. There have been 13 different openers for England since Strauss retired, 14 if you include the one innings were Jos Buttler was promoted to open. The most successful of those that England have tried has been Joe Root, but the newly appointed England captain is very happy at four.
The current incumbent is Mark Stoneman who has done well in the warm-up games, passing fifty in each of his four innings, including a century in the most recent match against a Cricket Australia XI. Stoneman did reasonably in his three Tests against the West Indies and also has experience of batting in Australia having spent several winters playing grade cricket. He has as good a chance of succeeding on this tour as any of the openers that have gone before him.
It is not just with a second opener where England’s batting line-up is frail. They don’t have a consistent number three batsmen and both of the players that are competing for that spot have a chequered history in Test cricket. James Vince played six Tests last summer and averaged 19.27 with a top score of 42. Since going back to county cricket, he has not had a huge amount of success either, scoring 738 runs at an average of 35.14 in the Championship for Hampshire.
The other candidate is Gary Ballance who was recalled to the Test side for the first two matches against South Africa this summer before he was dropped again. At least, Ballance has the advantage of having had a successful season in first-class cricket, scoring 951 runs for Yorkshire at 67.93. The issue is that while he had a fantastic start to his Test career, Ballance has seen diminishing returns at the highest level. After his first 10 Tests, Ballance averaged nearly 70. Over the next 13 his average has dropped off to under 40.
Both Ballance and Vince are fine players, but both appear to have a problem with technique at this level. It is unlikely that either will find the solution to these issues while facing Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood.
With the absence of Ben Stokes there is huge pressure on Jonny Bairstow to hold together the middle order. While Bairstow isn’t in the bracket of truly world-class performers that Cook and Root inhabit, he is certainly moving in that direction. He has nearly 3000 Test runs and his average is moving in the right direction after a difficult start to his Test career. If England are to pull off a remarkable win, Bairstow will have to score a lot of runs.
Dawid Malan will most likely be batting at number five in this series, and he too has had a decent run in the warm-up matches. He has looked like someone who enjoys Australian pitches but it is important not to read too much into those games, the opposition has been poor and the intensity low. He is yet another unknown in a series full of batting uncertainty.
While there has been justifiable focus on the batting of these two teams, the real difference is in the bowling. England have not only lost the services of Stokes; Toby Roland-Jones, Steven Finn and Mark Wood are also missing from the squad. That leaves England relying almost exclusively on the efforts of James Anderson and Stuart Broad to get through the Australian top-order. Both are more than capable of doing just that, but if either of them gets injured during the five matches, it will leave Jake Ball, Craig Overton and Tom Curran to pick up the slack. Between them they have two Test wickets, both of them courtesy of Ball.
With this lack of bench strength in the seam bowling department, England will need Moeen Ali to perform a holding role, and as a result you can expect the Australian batsmen to go after him to take him out of the attack. If this works, England will have to give more overs to either their experienced seamers, who will already have a significant workload, or put trust in an inexperienced bowler.
The advantage for England in this scenario, as Moeen proved when playing against India in 2014, he is at his best when batsmen go after him. It is when he isn’t given the respect that he deserves that he takes wickets. How well Moeen adapts to his first Tests in Australia will be a large part of his team’s success or failure.
In Starc, Cummins, Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon the home team have a much more dangerous bowling attack, especially in conditions that are familiar to them. England will need the Australia bowlers to under-perform and their batsmen to outperform expectations for them to stand a chance in this series, both of those scenarios is unlikely.
Put your money on Australia winning 4-1.