Josh Samuel returns with his crystal ball. How is England’s Test team shaping up after the defeat to India?
In November 2021, England will head down under for the biggest cricketing event for two and a half years. I’m referring, of course, to the T20 World C … I mean The Ashes. Did I have you going there for a second? Don’t worry, this article hasn’t been penned by Tom Harrison. The Ashes is a much bigger deal for us supporters.
So what are our chances? The Aussies retained the urn in England back in 2019 after the series was drawn 2-2 – the first drawn series since 1972. Therefore, Joe Root’s men will need to win the series outright to reclaim the trophy. It’s a big ask but not insurmountable, even if recent form suggests otherwise.
The Indian Ignominy
England’s recent Test exploits in India don’t exactly bode well. After winning the first Test in Chennai by 227 runs, confidence was high, especially after an excellent double century by Joe Root.
Was this the start of something special for both the captain and his team? In a word, no.
Our batting deserted us in the following three Tests, losing heavily on each occasion, albeit on some dubious wickets. In the second Test, we could only post scores of 134 and 164, whilst things got worse in Ahmedabad, where we hit just 112 and 81. By the fourth and final Test, scores of just 205 and 135 weren’t enough to prevent defeat by an innings and 25 runs and a 3-1 series loss. Sigh.
Squad rotation didn’t help our cause either. England’s management sent players home to spend time with their families ahead of a packed schedule in 2021. Jos Buttler played the first Test but then went home before the going got tough. And Moeen Ali took a scheduled absence of leave no sooner had he regained his place in the side. It was weird.
This situation was obviously frustrating because England are sending a full complement of players to the IPL in April. Some of them might even miss a Test against New Zealand in May – another sign, perhaps, that the ECB are prioritising the World T20 over the Ashes. In fact, Silverwood has already hinted that players might be rested during the Ashes.
Australia will be big favourites
Although the Aussies also lost to India (this time at home) in a series that included a first Test defeat at the Gabba for 32 years, Tim Paine’s team will still start as overwhelming favourites unless Steve Smith and David Warner get banned for cheating again. In fact, Australia are 8/15 Ashes favourites as I write this.
Obviously the series is still a long way away, and injuries could sway predictions nearer the time, but given our two most recent pastings down under I’m not particularly optimistic even if the Aussies have their vulnerabilities. Australia still enjoy a formidable record at home and will be looking for a third straight home Ashes win.
Marnus Labuschagne will no doubt prove a pain in our collective behinds again, just as he was in 2019. ‘Spare Bus Change’, as he’s known, isn’t everyone’s cuppa – he gets under my skin so heaven knows what he does to the opposition – but his method is sadly very effective.
Labsuchagne’s Test record is exceptional. He currently scores a century every six innings and averages over 60. That’s literally twice as good as some of England’s batsmen. Cameron Green also looks like a very good prospect on the cusp of a breakthrough. There won’t be so many weaklinks in the Australian batting this time.
And then there’s Steve ‘bane of our existence’ Smith. We always struggle to get Smith out. Who doesn’t? He topped the run-scoring charts with a huge 774 in just seven innings in the last Ashes series. The prospect of watching him bat for days on end fills me with dread. Some people have questioned Jack Leach’s place in the England side but surely he’s a must? Left-arm spin is the only type of bowling that Smith has occasionally appeared human against.
As for the Aussie bowling attack, it’s bound to be potent whoever they pick. Pat Cummins, who took 29 wickets in five matches in 2019, will lead the attack. Josh Hazlewood is a world-class operator in his own right. And then there’s the likes of James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc in reserve. The bloke to keep an eye out for, however, is Jhye Richardson. He’s one hell of a young talent. Nathan Lyon can also be relied upon to tie down an end and pick up wickets simultaneously.
England will be up against it but have plenty of talent
There’s no doubt that we’ll be up against it. Which team isn’t in Australia? But at least we have some top-drawer talent of our own. Obviously it will help if Ben Stokes is available this time. Don’t go anywhere near Bristol this year, Ben.
The key man, however, is probably the skipper. Root will need to score as many runs as his opposite number (I’m talking about Smith, Australia’s best batsman, rather than Paine here) for England to have a chance. In the last Ashes down under, Root made a sequence of fifties without registering a big score. This just won’t cut it I’m afraid. We need more from our best player.
Success will also hinge on whether Jofra Archer, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad can take the wickets needed to win the series across five gruelling Test matches. Although it would be nice to think that Mark Wood and Olly Stone could stay fit, thus enabling us to throw a few metaphorical punches back at the Australians, I’m not optimistic about their prospects of getting through 5 days on the hard Australian wickets.
England will also need to find runs from their younger batsmen. I suspect that we’ll know a lot more about the likes of Ollie Pope and Zak Crawley in a year’s time. They’re both incredibly talented lads but how many young English players have been found wanting on their first tour of Australia? Even the likes of Alastair Cook struggled big time in their first overseas Ashes.
It bodes well, however, that Crawley and Pope have either played for The Lions down under or had success in Aussie grade cricket. The same goes for Dan Lawrence, who was man of the series when the Lions beat Australia A last winter. Pope won a lot of friends in 2018 when he represented Campbelltown-Camden CC in New South Wales’s Premier League. He even scored a hundred against an attack that included Hazlewood.
So can we do it?
Most experts believe that Australia will retain the Ashes comfortably. But it could be closer than we think. Despite our horror show in India, where the pitches’ were awful and clearly doctored for the home side, I honestly believe that England have been gradually improving as a Test side.
Although they’ll never admit it in public, the Australians will consider us dangerous opponents behind closed doors. They probably don’t ‘fear’ the likes of Root, Stokes, Archer, Broad, Anderson, and Buttler, but there must be some respect there.
What’s more, the Aussies must have noticed how well some of our rejects have done in the Big Bash recently. Alex Hales is one, for instance. They know there’s strength in depth in English cricket and that we can beat anyone on our day. This certainly won’t be the worst squad we’ve sent to Australia, anyway.
Much will depend, I suspect, on the fitness of England’s bowlers and whether the likes of Burns, Sibley, Crawley, Pope and possibly Lawrence (if selected) can cobble enough runs together. However, if Root and Stokes can dominate, and the others can pull their weight, it’s quite possible that England can put the Aussies under pressure.
My early prediction? I’m going for a 2-2 draw. It would be the first back-to-back drawn Ashes series since the mid-1960s but I can see it happening. Can you?
I think it would be a big ask for anyone who has no previous experience of international cricket to take their bow against Australia in Australia. However, England by their mismanagement of Bess and their inflexibility over promoting Parkinson/ Virdi up from the reserves have played themselves into a bit of a corner as regards spin bowling. Leach is obviously first choice, and on most Aussie test pitches only one specialist spinner would be required, but some cover is needed and also a second, different type of spinner just in case Sydney or Adelaide produces a surface on which two such bowlers are required. I would take Parkinson as designated second spinner in spite of his lack of international experience, while unless England are prepared to give Ecclestone a chance to show what she can do among the men finding a back up for Leach is an even bigger quandary. In terms of the batting the obvious candidate for a top order spot is Haseeb Hameed if he can continue his revival at Notts (we know he has test match temperaent), while the two Somerset Toms, Lammonby and Abell may be in with a shout as well and a few others. Regaining the Ashes (as opposed to retaining as Strauss did in 2010-11) down under is very hard – the last two skippers to do so were Illingworth in 1970-1 and Jardine in 1932-3, so of course England will start as second favourites and will need to do pretty much everything right to even have a chance.
I really hope Hameed can do as you say. He looked such a talent initially- he looked at home from the minute he walked to the wicket for his first Test innings in the same way that Root did. I always thought he was ideally suited to bat 3, but his preference seems to be to open so, if he is rehabilitated, I would play him there withCrawley at 3.
It’s worth pointing out that Sibley played well for the Lions too in their victory down under last winter. I think we all expected him to struggle against the spin in India, but Sibley is much better equipped to perform well in Australia. Hameed, on the other hand, hasn’t always looked very comfortable against pace.
While Australia and the wider cricketing public might consider themselves favourites, I’m not so sure. Like Australia, our strength lays in our bowling. We will take a bowling unit that has pace, swing, seam and spin that has been coming together over the past 18 months. I believe it will be Anderson’s (and perhaps Bropad’s) swansong and they’ll want to finish on the winninjg side. Surrounded by the likes of Archer, Stone and Wood they can afford to rotate their bowlers, while Ollie Robinson is a more than adequate replacement for Broad or Anderson.
Like Australia, our weakness is oui batting. Like Australia, we have 1 o2 standout batsmen. It all depends on whose supporting cast members turn up to support the leading roles. Unless Burns or someone else has a fine County season, we are going to find good starts hard to come by. Crawley must cement his place at 3 while Root will be at 4 as always. Is Ben Stokes a Test number 5? His record and reliability would suggest not, so I see him at 6. The number 5 position will be a direct competition between Pope and Lawrence. Again, neither has cemented his place, so it will depend on who makes the most of this summer.
Now that Buttler seems to have quietened his detractors, for the time being, he will keep the gloves and bat at 7. In Australian conditions, his keeping will be just as good as Foakes and he is a better, more attacking batsman, who is able to turn the course of a match in a session. As for spinners, Leach seems to have proven himself over the winter while Bess is lacking in confidence (not helped by his treatment by the captain and selectors). Do we really need a frontline spinner? Probably not. I can’t remember Australia regularly played two spinners at home.
Overall, injuries and the ridiculous rotation system notwithstanding, I can see England scraping a 2-1 victory. Of course, rotation is important but not at the expense of team performance. So, I expect there to be a policy in place but for rest rather than homesickness, and something far better than was used in India./ And all being well, there will be no need for the bubbles and family will be able to join them for Christmas. So while 13 or 14 of the names are probably already on the sheet, I look forward to a Championship season that throws up one or two names. Competition for places is a must.
If, as usually permitted, we take a squad of 16, the strongest squad I can select with almost a year to go, would be:
Batsmen – Root, Crawley, Malan, Lawrence, Pope, Burns/Sibley/Lammonby/Bracey
Wicket Keepers – Buttler
All-Rounders – Stokes, Woakes
Spine Bowlers – Leach
Fast Bowlers – Anderson, Broad, Robinson. Archer, Stone, Wood
I just don’t see this England side even drawing the series. Root aside, we don’t possess a batsmen in the current squad with a test average over 36. On the bowling front it looks good with Stone, Archer and Wood as the speed men, but in reality I doubt whether Wood or Stone will last 2 tests apiece. As for Archer, well does fine in T20, but I’m not sure he’ll even be playing test cricket by November. He just doesn’t seem able to bowl 4 or 5 overs flat out anymore. Let’s hope Jimmy, Broad will stay fit. I’d take Foakes as reserve keeper and Virdi as back up spinner as well.
Spine Bowlers-: very good and only 1 wicket keeper?:
Biggest cricket event for two and a half years? What about The Hundred?!
One thing that’s lining up better is that England’s top order looks like it’ll be mostly RHBs which might help negate Lyon who was a big factor last time (when England had more LHBs like Cook, Stoneman, Malan and Ali in the top order). This was one part of India’s win in Australia.
Australia’s batting is currently very dependent on two players. Unless they can unearth another strong performer with the bat they are vulnerable if one of Labuschagne or Smith gets injured or has a dip in form.
The problem I have with this article is that it illustrates perfectly the obsesssion cricket has in this country with The Ashes. If test cricket is going to survive in any form we have to get enthused about every series to a degree not happening at present. The red ball game is dying on its feet and the Ashes alone will not save it. Let’s concentrate on what’s happening this summer before we start making pronouncements on the state of play for next winter.
Our team has found the alien conditions on the subcontinent a terminal problem, like others before them, but it has little bearing on what the same players will do over the next 12 months. There’s plenty of time for confidence to be restored on home soil before we have to venture abroad again.
As to 20-20, we know we have the best white ball batting talent pool in the world, which only emphasises our weaknesses on the bowling front, but it’s good to have a really competitive series after the test debacle.
England are playing the top two sides in the same summer, too. Lots to get excited about!
It’s difficult for me to be “enthused” about T20. I more or less stopped watching it about 5 years ago because I found it, slogging aside, as just too predictable. 150 plays 150 and completely lacking the drama of what a cricket match is. i.e. one error and it’s all over etc. Now it takes them 2 hours to bowl 20 overs, completely defeating the whole point of the thing.
I did dip in to this last game though, and turned it off after about 40 minutes as nothing has changed. Instant cricket (probably doing the game a disservice that), instantly forgettable for the 21st Century society who have no time for anything of substance it seems.
It is a bit odd to that after two games it’s conveniently poised for a decider. Two “evenly matched” teams perhaps. A bit iffy to me.
Roll on May 20th, Surrey vs Middlesex at the Oval for 4 days.