Each time an Ashes series beckons, there always seems to be someone big in the world of Australian cricket who boasts of an impending five-nil whitewash. This time it has fallen on Jim Maxwell, the renowned commentator. Much to England’s shame, the last two out of three times they have toured Australia, this has been the result.
Only once in Ashes history has this happened previously, until these recent humiliations. One feels that, for the impending tour, Maxwell’s absolute confidence may not be misplaced. England are bringing a poor squad, ever poorer when Australian conditions are considered, and an overhanging crisis.
Which batsmen to bring was the greatest quandary for the selectors. They deserve sympathy; the choice was effectively between tried and tested failures and the unknown. In the end they went for a combination of both.
The likely opener, Mark Stoneman, has barely played Test cricket, although he has not disgraced himself during the times he did. However, time and time again in Australia, players who perform well at county level, and against a poor Test side such as the West Indies, are exposed by the malicious pace the Australian bowlers and pitches subject them to. The smallest technical flaw Stoneman carries will be exploited in Australia.
His opening partner, Alastair Cook, averaged an astonishing 127 during the 2010-11 Ashes – the first time England had won the urn in Australia since 1986-87. But the Cook of then is not the Cook of now. His average has drifted steadily downwards, and his performances this summer don’t speak of a player who can make up for the players that surround him in the batting order.
As for the other batsmen, only captain Joe Root ranks as world class. Despite the burden of captaincy, he has been England’s rock for a good while. Jonny Bairstow is also a reliable performer in the middle order. However, that is effectively where it ends. James Vince has played seven tests and failed miserably. His average in the County Championship is poor and the decision to include him is baffling.
Gary Ballance may have a superb county average but he has been consistently exposed at test level. Surely Root’s confidence in him is as much to do with him being a Yorkshire teammate as anything else. The South African bowling attack made Dawid Malan’s batting look inept. When Mitchell Starc says that he wishes to replicate Mitchell Johnson’s devastating bowling performance from the last time England went to Australia and lost 5-0, many of these batsmen could be easy pickings when facing the pace he and Pat Cummins will deliver ball after ball.
England’s bowling attack is creditable, however; James Anderson and Stuart Broad are amongst the best bowlers England have ever had. Nonetheless, Anderson’s average there is his worst, and while Moeen Ali is a fantastic batsmen, his style of spin does not often suit Australian conditions. As to the other bowlers, such as Jake Ball, Chris Woakes and Craig Overton, they are all good bowlers but pace is sorely lacking. That is what England need for Australian pitches.
With regard to England’s all-rounder, the situation is so dreadful that in the month before the Ashes starts, it is not known if he will be allowed to play. Ben Stokes is a superb player, be in no doubt; he attacks bowlers with aggressiveness and flair.
Last year he scored the fastest double century in English history. He was the bastion of the middle order this summer, often taking the game away from the opposition. His bowling is equally ferocious, leading Nasser Hussain to liken him to Courtney Walsh. High praise indeed. But it is exactly these words, aggressiveness, ferociousness etc. that describe him outside of cricket.
And so we arrive at the present malaise. He punched two men to the ground outside a Bristol nightclub.Consequently he has not been ‘included’ on the tour but may travel depending on the outcome of the incident.
England start the series at the end of November with the hope of rectifying the damage from the calamitous tour of four years ago. Little suggests that England has the team, or ‘events, dear boy, events’ on their side to take it to the Australians.
Image courtesy of Vijay Chennupati