I love the Ashes. I was at a capacity Trent Bridge in 2015 to see Stuart Broad take 8 wickets to bowl Australia out for 60. I was in a country gripped by Ashes fever 10 years previously when I saw Shane Warne bowl Strauss round his legs at Edgbaston. I remember staying up until midnight on a school night to watch Steve Harmison bowl his first ball to 2nd slip in 2007. There have been highs and lows in the years that I have been watching Ashes cricket. Now, with a string of injury problems and a host of redundant fixtures against lesser Aussie domestic players under their belts, England will walk out at the Gabba in a weeks time to start the 2017 Ashes campaign. A lot of unanswered questions make another low look more likely than a high.
Stoneman averages 30 in 3 test matches and just 35 in first class cricket. He is the 12th opening partner Cook has had since Strauss retired in 2012. As a predominantly front foot batsman Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins will go short early to test his resolve. The Australians are sure to test every England player both physically and mentally, and those new to the environment will be put under the most scrutiny. Stoneman is far from sure of his place in the team, despite some decent form in the warm up games. It could go either way, a couple of gritty innings showing a willingness to dig deep and fight for the team and he could be the new opener we’ve been waiting over 5 years for. Alternatively, the Aussies get under his skin and we could see the next opening batsman on the chopping block by Boxing Day.
It is a very similar story for two other positions in the batting order, which look like they are going to be taken by James Vince and Dawid Malan. Vince was given a decent stretch last year to cement his place in the England team, where his technique and mentality was questioned, whilst Malan struggled against a poor South Africa and a developing West Indian team in the summer. With Alastair Cook, Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow we have 3 world class batsmen, but once you scratch beneath the surface, as we’ve had to since the off field controversy surrounding Ben Stokes, the deficiencies in this England batting lineup are clear.
Stokes is the modern day all round cricketer that every team hates but wishes they had. He can turn an average score into a winning one in a short period of time, He takes key wickets at key points and takes seemingly impossible catches. He can carry this team on his shoulders. With him in the team we have the most dangerous counter attacking batting lineup in world cricket, without him our tail looks long and the bowling options no better. Moeen Ali is another world class all rounder, but I worry that he will not bat with his usual carefree swagger that makes him the player he is, if he feels the pressure to score runs that may be missing without Stokes. The Australians are also sure to target his bowling. If they manage to hit him out of the attack, and with no Stokes to bowl his long probing spells, the old guard of Broad and Anderson could get very tired very quickly, on pitches that tend to respond more to pace and bounce, rather than the skill and guile that Englands opening bowlers are used to showcasing.
Joe Root is a massive positive for England. Root is the sort of player that you can watch for a couple of hours and not notice that he’s made yet another 50. He is a run machine, but can sometimes be called out for not making big runs consistently. Big runs like those made by Michael Vaughan down under in 2007 or by Alastair Cook in 2010. Runs that will win your country an Ashes series, or certainly make us very hard to beat. He will be targeted by Australia. Not just the players and coaches, but the media, the fans, the hotel staff, members of the public. He should take this as a compliment. They recognise him as the key to England’s success, whether at the crease or devising battle plans in the field.
Despite the many flaws of this England team, The Australians too have areas of weakness that the England team will feel they can exploit. Tim Paine, a consistent performer for his country in T20s, has been recalled to the test team by Australia after a 7 year absence. Australia have struggled to replace Brad Haddin, a fierce battler and someone who saved his best form for when playing England. Paine may be a better batsman than his counterparts, but the fact that he does not keep wicket for his state side Tasmania, has got to bring his glove work into question. This decision is made all the more strange when you consider that Cameron Bancroft, who will earn his first test cap at the Gabba, is also a wicketkeeper.
Bancroft has come in to replace Matt Renshaw, giving the most experienced bowling partnership in world cricket the chance to bowl at a debutant opener.
21 year old Renshaw averaged 37 in his 10 test matches for Australia, before being axed from the squad and replaced by Bancroft, removing the possibility of him lining up against childhood friend Joe Root. Bancroft may merit his place, as the leading run scorer in the Shield this season, but surely this is a problem manufactured unnecessarily by cricket Australia.
A lack of progressive thinking obvious in the recall of Tim Paine is also clear in the reinstatement of Shaun Marsh, a 34 year old batsmen. A country that in the early 2000s had enough world class players to fill two test teams, now seems to be struggling for talent.
Both sides have unquestionable ability in their teams, but how many of the current players would get in their respective 2005 Ashes teams?
Combined 2005/2017 Ashes teams:
Cook, Trescothick, Vaughan (c), Root (vc), Pietersen, Bairstow, Flintoff, Ali, S. Jones, Broad, Anderson
Hayden, Langer, Ponting (c), Smith (vc), Clarke, Handscomb, Gilchrist (wk), Warne, Lee, Starc, McGrath
According to the teams above, although you may consider a couple of changes (Harmison for Broad for example), England have 6 current players in their combined XI, where Australia have just 3. Considering that England beat Australia in 2005, this could suggest that England have a very good chance this winter. However, I do not think England will win, nor do I believe the players will experience the embarrassment of a 5-0 loss. We have enough experience and skill in our team to stand toe to toe with the Australians in many aspects, but I believe Stokes held the key. Put Ben Stokes in any of the top 5 test teams in the world and he makes that team the best in the world. Without him I expect a 3-1 win for Australia.