For England and Australia, the Ashes are the pinnacle of Test cricket, it is the one series both teams, and both sets of fans, want to win more than any other. So important are the Ashes that often other Test series played by the two countries in an “Ashes year” are destined to play second fiddle regardless of their actual importance. Like most contests between these two arch-rivals, the series is expected to be a hotly contested one between two exciting yet flawed Test nations.
England go into the Ashes coming off two series victories in their home summer against South Africa and the West Indies. While the home side dropped a Test match against each opponent, new captain Joe Root and his think-tank will be pleased with the overall results from his first two series in charge. Despite overall convincing series wins, the home side still had some issues that needed to be addressed, particularly in the batting department.
Since the retirement of Andrew Strauss, now the ECB’s Director of Cricket, former skipper Alastair Cook has had 12 different opening partners, with none being able to cement a place alongside the England batting mainstay. Thanks to some solid displays against the West Indies, Surrey left-hander Mark Stoneman has earned himself a seat on the plane to Australia. The Australian fast bowlers often ensure their country is not an enjoyable place for opening batsmen so England will be hoping the 30-year-old’s experience and temperament will hold him in good stead against the fast bowling barrage that is to be expected Down Under.
The news isn’t as good for Essex youngster Tom Westley who has been dropped after a series of underwhelming performances during the home summer. Westley can feel somewhat aggrieved that his batting replacements in the squad — James Vince and Gary Ballance — aren’t exactly in world-beating form. Before breaking his finger against South Africa, Ballance’s limited footwork had been exposed repeatedly by Vernon Philander’s skillful swing bowling. Despite a brilliant start to the County Championship season Ballance averages just 19 from his last 12 Tests.
Hampshire’s Vince doesn’t have a great record either, with an average of 19.27 from seven Tests and high score of 42. 2017 hasn’t been his most productive domestic season with 596 runs at a mediocre average of 33.11. Vince is expected to bat at number three for his country, unless captain Root steps into that role, and has been selected based on potential and the fact selectors believe his strong backfoot game will be suited to Australian conditions.
With plenty of inexperience and an apparent lack of depth in the squad England will be heavily reliant on the likes of Root, Cook, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali to provide a lot of runs for the side. They will also be hoping Dawid Malan can continue improving and building his fledgling Test career. Stokes and Ali will be crucial in Australia as their all-round prowess provides much needed balance to a somewhat unstable English side. Both have been in good form throughout the English summer and have played key roles in their side’s recent success.
Stokes, in particular, could play a major role and the enigmatic all-rounder will have fond memories of Australia where he announced himself to the world during England’s horrendous 5-0 drubbing in 2013-14. However, it is yet to be known whether England’s star player will be available for the Ashes after being handed an indefinite suspension from the ECB. Stokes is currently under investigation by the police after a nightclub brawl in Bristol, and if he does miss out on the Ashes tour it will be a huge blow to England’s chances. Stokes’ brilliance and all-round prowess make him an invaluable member of the side and allows Root the luxury of playing five bowlers without weakening the batting line-up. Not only is Stokes England’s best match-winner but he is often also a barometer for the side and can even turn games with his athleticism on the field. Should Stokes be ruled out of the tour his replacement will have big boots to fill.
While England have been forced to chop and change their batting in an attempt to find the right combination, their bowling attack has been forced into change due to injury. Toby Roland-Jones burst onto the scene against South Africa but has been forced out of the touring party due to stress fractures of the back while Durham speedster Mark Wood wasn’t considered due to his ongoing fitness battles, this time related to a bad ankle. Despite the injury to Wood there was no room in the squad for the extra pace and bounce of Steven Finn.
Chris Woakes’ return from injury is a welcome boost for England and he will be better for the run against the West Indies. Not only does Woakes offer something with the ball, particularly since he has increased his pace, but he adds to England’s batting strength in the lower middle-order.
England’s attack will once again be led by their all-time leading wicket-taker and newest member of the 500 Test wickets club, Jimmy Anderson. Anderson will be supported by long-time partner in crime Stuart Broad who is set to resume his hostile relationship with the Australian crowds. The experienced duo will have to lead an attack that includes the inexperienced Jake Ball and uncapped Craig Overton and there will be pressure on them to perform, particularly on Anderson whose record in Australia is a blight on an otherwise magnificent career.
Somerset seamer Overton isn’t the only new face in the touring party, he is joined by leg-spinner Mason Crane and wicketkeeper Ben Foakes. Foakes will travel as cover for Bairstow and seems unlikely to play barring an injury to Yorkshireman, however he has managed to keep the likes of Jos Buttler out of the squad. Crane’s selection is most surprising — despite making his debut for New South Wales after impressive performances in Sydney grade cricket last Australian summer the young spinner hasn’t set the County Championship alight for Hampshire taking just 16 wickets at 44.68. Australia can be a tough place for a rookie spinner and Crane will have his work cut out if he is called upon to support or replace Moeen Ali in the side.
It is safe to say England’s squad won’t be their strongest to arrive on Australian shores. There is still plenty of uncertainty about the batting line-up as well as many inexperienced faces in the squad. One bonus for the tourists is their hosts aren’t in great form either, so if their senior stars like Root, Cook, Stokes, Ali, Anderson and Broad can lead the way there is a chance England could claim an upset victory and retain that treasured little urn.