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?