When the Ashes kicks off in earnest on 23rd November at the ‘Gabbatoire’, as it has become known to the locals following years of Australian dominance over all international visitors to Brisbane, it is likely as we stand today that the Aussies will indeed be favourites. This may come as a surprise to many supporters, what with England having won five out of the last seven ashes series, let alone being the current holders after their 3-2 victory on home soil in 2015.
Indeed, Australia even hinted at a dismal 2017 when they were at their fallible best throughout their campaigns against Sri Lanka and South Africa in the second half of last year. But a recent resurgence with the bat (thanks in no small part to uncovering two new finds in Matt Renshaw and Peter Handscombe), along with the much anticipated possibility of unleashing their ‘dream team’ of four fearsome quick bowlers, has meant that out of nowhere the Australian test side could be on the verge of a period of success; by their own high standards this is not a word that has been associated with them in recent years.
However, England are no pushovers. Since the beginning of the 2015 English summer, there has been a tangible air of optimism around the entire England squad and management team in all formats of the game. Now, as we move into a new era of captaincy, it must not be forgotten that for all the Aussies’ scare mongering about the Starc/Cummins/Pattinson/Hazlewood axis of chin music, there’s still several reasons why England are capable pulling off only their second win Down Under in thirty years. Here are the three biggest reasons why I can see why Joe Root and his Barmy Army could set sail back to England in January 2018 with the priceless urn safely tucked into their luggage.
- The Middle Order
It’s safe to say that last time out in Australia, England didn’t have the best of winters. Mitchell Johnson quite frankly scared the bejesus out of the batsmen, and the 5-0 thrashing was, unusually, a completely fair reflection of the cricket played.
Despite two of England’s finest batsmen who were part of that demoralised side now long gone (Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen), the rise of the team’s new age of swashbuckling fearlessness is nowhere more well portrayed than in their middle order. Back in 2013-14, the likes of Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes were fresh faced newcomers to international cricket, and although Joe Root had already made a start in test cricket, none of them were ready for the onslaught brought to them by the rampant Australians. Four years on, those three players in particular, are a different class. World class. Joe Root has becoming one of the small handful of batsman vying for the number one in the world tag, and Ben Stokes, in a slightly different way, has become absolutely box office. The issue of whether Bairstow, who for the last year or more has been in the sort of form all batsmen dream about, should bat at number 5 or 7, is one that will need to be ironed out this summer during the South Africa series. If he ends up as a fixture at 5 (as is surely the preferred option), then suddenly a Root-Bairstow-Stokes lower middle order has the potential to win tests in a session. Add to that Jos Buttler, Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes coming in further down, and England bat deep and destructively. The Aussies will still fancy their pacemen to knock them over, but at some point they will shine, and shine brightly. If Australia are expecting the England team to look like rabbits in the headlights just as they did four years ago, they will get a nasty surprise. England have added some fight and scrap to their armoury along with a huge amount of skill and no small measure of finesse.
- Mark Wood
It might seem strange to rest so many of England’s hope onto a twenty-seven-year-old bowler with eight test caps to his name. But Mark Wood is potentially a vital man to England’s chances of retaining the urn this winter. Australia have always had one or two bowlers who can send it down over the 90mph barrier (indeed, if they stay fit, they could have four this time), and the reason why they’re so talked about when Australia are playing at home is because on the fast, dry, bouncy wickets native to Australia, such pace can be unplayable, especially in Brisbane and Perth.
England have for some time now relied heavily on the world class skill levels of James Anderson and Stuart Broad. But neither has a great record in Australia, and especially in Anderson’s case, his lack of real pace whilst using a Kookaburra ball that loses its shine so quickly often renders him utterly ineffective. Likewise, England’s lack of spin options was brutally exposed during the winter in India, and there will be huge pressure on Moeen Ali if he doesn’t start either taking wickets or strangling an end soon – currently he’s doing neither job with much success.0/85
Chris Woakes has picked up a yard of pace and will be an important spoke in England’s bowling wheel, but in Mark Wood they have someone with genuine pace; his ability to bowl fast consistently, with serious bounce and hostility (especially considering his size), set him apart as England’s biggest threat in Australia conditions. England will need him to have a good, and more importantly injury free, summer.
- The Joe Root/Ali Cook switch-up
As soon as any new England captain has been announced, every writer across the country starts to wax lyrical about how much the burden of captaincy will affect the new man with the armband. The chosen man is nearly always a batsman, and his average prior to him getting the job is always higher than when he leaves the job, however long his tenure.
However, you get the feeling things might be different with Joe Root. No-one is saying he’ll find captaining his country easy, but if he is able to maintain his carefree attitude of enjoyment whilst taking on the extra responsibility, it is just possible that his batting might just flourish during the forthcoming period. Certainly when asked about the possibility of the burden proving to heavy, his response is simply that it doesn’t seem to both the likes of Smith, Kohli and Williamson. And he’s absolutely right. And Root is deservedly in the same category as those three gun players, so with any luck, the so-called ‘burden’ of captaincy may well work in his favour.
In complete symmetry, England fans will hope that Alastair Cook will now find himself released from his metaphorical captaincy shackles and be happy to concentrate on doing what he does best: scoring runs. In case any Australian supporters had forgotten (which I suspect many have), the last time Alistair Cook played in an Ashes series Down Under in a non-captain capacity, his stats were as follows: 5 tests, 766 runs at an average of 127.66 with three hundreds, including a stoic 235 not out in Brisbane. Anything like a repeat performance and England are in business.
Listen in to Joe and the boys talking through England and Australia’s chances each week throughout the year on the Sticky Wicket Cricket Podcast – the cricket show produced by four fans of the game, for fans of the game. Available on all major podcasting platforms.