It is merely a couple of weeks away from the biggest showdown in world cricket. Australia and England are set to do battle yet again in what will surely be one of the most intriguing Ashes series in a long time. England come into it unsurprisingly as underdogs, as many fancy Australia’s strong top order, and destructive pace battery. However, with England the current holders of the urn, they will no doubt be more focused than ever on retaining it.
England come into this Ashes series with a major setback. They will be without arguably the best all round cricketer in the world right now in Ben Stokes unless something drastic changes with his police case. Still, without Stokes they remain a definite threat to the Aussies with a strong squad. Alastair Cook and Mark Stoneman seem to complement each other well as opening partners, with Cook grinding his innings out, whereas Stoneman is seen as the dasher, quite similar in a way to Australia’s opening pairing of Warner and Renshaw. Joe Root will be captaining England for the first time in an Ashes series, and he will of course be expected to lead from the front with his batting. If there is one thing that can be criticised about Root’s game, it is that he has a definite problem with converting his 50’s into 100’s. This issue will need to be urgently ironed out for this series if England want to win, as Root is by far and away England’s best batsman, and has the capability to take apart and completely demoralise opposition bowling attacks once he starts finding rhythm as the crease.
England’s middle order is going to be very hard to predict for the first game at the Gabba. Without Stokes, who has cemented his place at number 6 in recent years, they find themselves in need of a player who can come in and perform as well as he has. They have many options in their squad, with the likes of Gary Ballance, Ben Foakes, Dawid Malan and possibly even Craig Overton being possibilities for that role. The scrutiny will definitely however be on James Vince. He is almost certain to bat at 3 in the first test, and in all honestly, won’t even have to perform that well if he is to better his first part of his England test career. He failed to pass 50 in every one of the 7 tests that he played back in the summer of 2016, and was subsequently dropped for the subcontinent tours. Despite a very mediocre county season, averaging in the mid 30’s for Hampshire, Vince was called up as a replacement for the dropped Tom Westley for the Ashes. Many ex professionals including Shane Warne had called for his inclusion, based on the fact that he appears to have a technique that is a lot more suited for Australian conditions than English ones, which in other words means, he prefers to bat on flat tracks as opposed to ones that do a bit.
England’s bowlers have notoriously struggled in Australia, with the same style bowler going out there and getting the same results- right arm medium fast bowlers who can’t move the Kookaburra ball getting hammered by the Aussie batsmen. They perhaps have a better chance this year, with maiden away Ashes series for Chris Woakes, Craig Overton and Jake Ball. I personally think that Craig Overton should be given a go. He has the ability to bowl for long sessions and bowl fast and accurately. Overton would be a difficult customer for the Aussies to deal with, and couple that with his ability to come in and score quick runs with the bat, he is a definite contender for a debut in Brisbane. Should Moeen Ali not pass his fitness test and be ruled out for the first test, then England will be forced to choose whether to go with an all out pace attack, or to include the spin of Mason Crane. Crane has impressed in his short international career so far, albeit in the shortest format, but the potential is definitely there for everyone to see. He has experience bowling in Australia as he made his Shield debut for New South Wales last year, and picked up a 5-fer at the SCG.
Overall, England’s team has the potential to be a very strong outfit, but there are a few players who need to solidify their positions and make them their own. The players inexperience in Australian conditions and an Ashes series might play a factor, with only Cook, Root, Anderson, Finn and Broad a part of the England squad that got mauled by the Aussies in 2013.
Predicted Line up for the first Test at the Gabba:
Cook, Stoneman, Vince, Root (c), Ballance, Bairstow (wk), Moeen, Woakes, Overton, Broad, Anderson
Australia come into the series lacking test match practise you could say. Since the India tour in February, they have only had one test series against Bangladesh which finished 1-1. They look to have a more settled team than England do, with question marks only really raised over the number 6 role and the wicket keeping position. At the top of the order, Warner will be relied on heavily to score big as he always does at home, and will look to get on top of the England bowlers right from the off. Matt Renshaw is a stark contrast to Warner as a batsman and the partnership is reminiscent of the Warner-Rogers partnership which dominated world cricket for a few years. Steve Smith will be the man to watch as always, with his test average reaching 60 this year, something that the great Ricky Ponting once achieved in his career at one stage as well.
Australia’s middle order has the potential to be very dangerous. Peter Handscomb comes in at 4 with a test average of over 50, and a lot of cricket played for him in more challenging conditions than what he is likely to face at home. The Aussies have the ability to play both Glenn Maxwell and Hilton Cartwright in that middle order to follow Handscomb- something which England might find to difficult to manage. Maxwell is destructive, a brutal yet innovative player who refuses to die wandering even in the longest form of the game. Hilton Cartwright is more of a reliable batsman, if not a bit less entertaining than Maxi. Cartwright averages 50 in first class and has only really just begun his international career. He is also a more than handy bowler, as Steve Smith can surely attest to, as Cartwright dismissed his skipper in the New South Wales vs Western Australia shield game a few days ago. They do have other options as well as these two, with Shaun Marsh always a reliable batsman wherever he plays in the order, and with his brother Mitchell looking in supreme form domestically, we could potentially see the Marsh brothers at 5 and 6 for Australia. The main issue for the Aussies however, is the wicket keeping position. It has been an issue that has plagued them ever since the retirement of Adam Gilchrist, and is currently at it’s worst point. Matthew Wade has demonstrated time and again in his turbulent international career that he is not reliable with the gloves, and doesn’t score the amount of runs to potentially ignore his wicket keeping flaws. There is no real challenge from anyone else on the domestic scene though, with there being no full time keepers who boast good enough batting stats. It will come down to Wade vs Peter Nevill for the role, and all signs point to Wade at the moment, but this is a area in which Australia will be concerned.
The Aussie bowling unit is probably the best bowling attack going around at the moment. They have a ridiculous amount of world class fast bowlers, so much so that not all of them can get a game, and have to be satisfied with carrying drinks, or not even selected at all! Their main threats are of course Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins. Starc is looking absolutely lethal with the ball right now, and will definitely fancy himself against the technically flawed Gary Ballance if he plays. Starc has just taken a career best 8 wicket innings haul for New South Wales, and then followed it up next game with a hat trick against Western Australia. Hazlewood is a top 5 bowler right now, with his outstanding ability to hit the perfect line and length every ball with great pace earning him rightful comparisons with Glenn McGrath. Cummins is the quickest of the lot, and whilst his international debut against South Africa feels so long ago, he is still very young, and has plenty of time to improve. If Cummins can consistently hit 150kph plus, then England’s batsmen might start to panic, and have flashbacks to Mitchell Johnson’s pace barrage 4 years back. This is all without mentioning their leading wicket taker in Tests this year Nathan Lyon, who is probably right now the best spinner in the world across all conditions. Lyon has spun Australia to numerous victories this year, and will enjoy bowling to an England line up that has shown an inability to cope with the turning ball at times recently.
Overall, it really is hard to look past Australia at the moment with the way their squad lines up. Their batsmen have such incredible records, and ability to score the big hundreds, and once that is coupled with the fact that their bowling attack can take out any top team in the world, it makes them perhaps too hot to handle.
Predicted line up for the First Test at the Gabba:
Warner, Renshaw, Smith (c), Handscomb, Cartwright/Khawaja, Maxwell, Wade (wk), Cummins, Starc, Hazlewood, Lyon