With just eight days to go until the first ball, here are the eight big questions ahead of the Ashes.
Will Cook make runs?
This series will define Alastair Cook’s legacy and career, both as player and captain. Another failure with the bat – and 2010/11 aside, his record against Australia is poor – will seal his reputation as a batsman who lacked the game to succeed against top class fast bowling. Will his recent good form carry over into this series, or will Johnson, Harris, Hazlewood and Starc expose his fundamental weakness outside off stump?
Any idiot can rotate the bowlers. Neither does it take a genius to experiment with “funky” (I hate that expression) field positions. But the true test of captaincy is the ability to wrestle back control when your bowlers are struggling and the batsman flying. Cook’s lack of this ability has long been his greatest captaincy weakness, especially against match- changing tail-end partnerships – an endemic problem for England in recent Ashes series.
Can Cook summon the dynamism required to stamp his authority on a situation? Or will he look on, haplessly and helplessly, while Broad and Anderson do whatever they want?
Is the ODI party over?
England’s white-ball cultural revolution has given rise to some extraordinary hype. You’d be forgiven for thinking the team had landed on the moon while simultaneously winning the 1966 World Cup. But how much of their confidence and élan will seep through into the test side, when only four ODI players – Root, Stokes, Buttler and Wood – will make the XI for Cardiff? Will the returning old guard ride with the mood of can-do optimism, or suppress it through fear, cynicism and distrust?
Pace on the ball
During the New Zealand series, Trent Boult alone tested England with consistent pace and accuracy. England have not faced a heavyweight test bowling attack since the last Ashes, and several of their batsman never have. India’s flaccid bowling in 2014 allowed only a one-dimensional analysis of England’s new batting resources. How will the top-order fare against the very different challenge Australia will pose, with the velocity raised by several gears and potentially six attacking balls an over on off stump? How many will cope well enough for the side to post match-winning scores? Do Ballance and Moeen have the technique and is Root’s sparkling form sufficient to mask the chinks in his armour which Australia exposed in two successive series?
He bowls to the left
England’s saviour may yet be their former nemesis. During the 2013/14 Ashes I argued here that Mitchell Johnson’s performance was a freak. A spiritual cousin of Devon Malcolm, Johnson is an essentially unreliable and erratic bowler with fragile confidence and an inability to control the individual components of his game. His purple patches may be extremely purple, but they come of out nowhere and disappear almost as quickly. When out of form, Johnson is downright dreadful. His last Ashes campaign untypifies his career, the equivalent of Bobby Davro writing War And Peace. Of late he has endured another fallow period. Come Cardiff, which Mitchell Johnson will stand up? The irresistible destroyer of 2013, or the clown of 2010?
How close is James Anderson to the top of his form? His performance against New Zealand suggested he was mostly back in the groove but not fully at this best. If that remains the case, England will struggle to take twenty Australian wickets in a test match. Although Mark Wood offers pace, will be able to maintain pressure?Is Broad truly fit enough to be consistently incisive? Who’s next in line if injury strikes? At least the presence of Stokes gives England a fourth seamer and extra options.
The spin problem
Moeen Ali is miscast and his role confused, the product of muddled thinking. He is not good enough to operate as the primary spin bowler in a major test series, however much people might prefer to believe otherwise. A batsman who bowls, Moeen should bat in the top six and bowl as support to a senior spinner, instead of batting with the tail and asked to lead the line.
There is nothing wrong with blending pragmatism into an overall philosophy of reconstruction and adventure. Champion sides select the best players available for each position, on merit – not the players they would like to be the best, in an ideal world. While no spinner on the county circuit could take as many wickets as Graeme Swann did, can none offer the same degree of control, at least? Will England come to regret their lack of interest in James Tredwell?
Ten years ago, England fell in love with cricket again. The epochal 2005 series and its compelling narratives genuinely gripped the nation, the tension and excitement capturing the imaginations of people far removed from cricket’s everyday constituency. This was the last English cricket ever shown live on free television in the United Kingdom. We watched in our many millions. Now, thanks to Sky’s paywall, cricket audiences number in the hundreds of thousands. This summer, how many of the English public will have the money and goodwill to watch the 2015 Ashes?
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