My look at the perceived strengths and weaknesses of both teams going into another highly anticipated Ashes series.
Some Pre-Tour Observations
England’s Main Man:
Goes without saying but Captain Blade himself, Joe Root, is one of the top four batsmen in the world in all forms of the game. He truly is a world class performer and one of the most comfortable England batsmen I have ever seen. His one weakness is that he gets out too often between 50 and 100 – often because he seems to find it too easy and loses a bit of concentration. Hoping he has as good a tour as his talent deserves.
As well as Root there is obviously the little matter of England’s leading run scorer in Tests, Alastair Cook. If he can tap into the spirit of Brisbane 2010/11 then we could well return with the urn. It is so imperative that he and Root have good tours with the inexperience around them – a good start to wear down the Aussie quicks is also crucial to allow another of England’s strengths, our lower middle order (even minus Stokes), to have a platform to get quick runs and move the game away from Australia – just like the likes of Healy, Symonds, Gilchrist, Haddin, Warne and Johnson have done so frustratingly to us in previous years.
Seems strange to pitch Broad and Anderson – two of the greatest opening bowlers England have produced (Jimmy is England’s highest wicket taker) as a perceived weakness – but it’s hard not to. Anderson is the best swing bowler I have ever seen – however with the Kookaburra on those Aussie ‘drop ins’ a good part of his armoury is nullified and his test record in Australia is much worse than anywhere else he has played a number of tests. He may have some help with the pink ball and dew of Adelaide and I really hope he has a great tour to round off his career in the one place he has never quite done it – history and age is against him though.
Broad is a strange one. 12 months ago before the India tour he was probably one of the best bowlers in the world but he has had a horrible run – which is so Broad like – he has a career of peaks and troughs. The one saving grace for him is that nothing gets him fired up more than an Ashes contest – he is the crowd’s pantomime villain for not walking when edging to wide first slip (Aussies booing someone for gamesmanship, come-on!) and he would love nothing more than to go on one of his devastating spells where he takes 6 for bugger all every now and then – and he is due one this series….
As for the batting – it has been weak since we last won the Ashes in Australia. Consistently struggling to get to 400 unless the previously vaunted lower middle order digs us out of a hole or one of Cook and Root get a daddy ton. We have ongoing issues at opener, number 3 and number 5 that we seem no closer to solving. I can see Stoneman being successful if he gets a break (you always need a modicum of luck as an opener) and he has got runs in the tour matches – but I have seen nothing from Malan or Vince in either the county game or in their test careers to suggest we will see anything but test career ending tours. The worry is, if Stoneman or Cook get out early, we will be bugger all for three and allowing our strong middle order to get to the crease while the Kookaburra sponge is still relatively hard and the Aussie quicks have their dander up. **shudder**
There is the perceived weakness in the spin department too – as finger spinners struggle in Australia and Moeen is seen as a weak option. However he seems to have a happy knack of getting wickets and seems to get David Warner licking his lips rather too much only to hole out to long on. I don’t think we are any weaker than Australia in this department and Mo’s batting could be a game changer.
Then of course there is the elephant in the room – the missing all-rounder. The fact this has taken so long to resolve legally and he is not out there is ridiculous but that’s another argument; for now he isn’t there and he would be a big loss to any team in the world – so you cannot mention weakness without mentioning his absence. An opportunity arises for Woakes to step into Stokes’s rather large premier all-rounder’s shoes and I think he could well end up England’s best bowler in the series. His on-field demeanour and character is almost the exact opposite to the angry red-head – indeed it his often said that Woakes is too nice – but he has shown in the last 18 months, prior to his injury, that he has the talent to be a top level test bowler and I hope he can do a similar job to what Big Bres did in 2010/11.
Australia’s Main Man:
Like England, their captain is one of the top 4 batsmen in the world and a lynchpin of the side. Unlike Root there is nothing graceful or pleasing on the eye about Steve Smith’s batting technique but he has a record that cannot be argued with. Getting him into the middle and out again as early as possible will be England’s main target and a big factor in the outcome of the first two test matches.
Again, like England, in a suspect batting line up there are two stand outs, the captain and the opener. For England read Cook and Root, for Australia it’s Smith and Warner. David Warner (he of stupid moustaches, stupid war quotes, stupid punch throwing and generally being stupid) is, on home soil especially, a phenomenally dangerous batsman. The type of opener England have been striving for since Sehwag first changed the role on the international stage, Warner can take a game away from you on the first morning if you don’t get him early. If there is any movement then he is susceptible early and Moeen seems to get him out as he loses concentration against him time and again – let’s hope for England’s sake these demons return but his wonderful knocks in Bangladesh show he isn’t just a home flat track bully anymore.
Then we have the vaunted bowling attack – which, like most test bowling attacks around at the minute, goes up a notch or two in home conditions. Cummins, Hazlewood, Starc and Pattinson will undoubtedly cause England various problems.
Cummins is a fantastic bowler – I’d liken him to Ryan Harris in that he will bowl fast, aggressive deliveries but he is not easy to score off – a 1st class economy rate of under 3 an over is no mean feat for an out and out quick in today’s game.
Starc is more like his namesake Mitchell Johnson – he can be devastating and bowl unplayable jaffa’s – in between which he can serve up some erratic awfulness that gets carted to all parts. England will be hoping the latter turns up more often than not.
Hazlewood is the often underrated member of the attack, unnervingly accurate and able to seam the ball wonderfully; he can really build pressure and take key wickets. I expect him to get a lot of wickets in this series if Starc and Cummins rough England’s feathers and get the odd early breakthrough.
Pattinson is the weakest of the four for me – yes he had a fantastic summer for Notts but that was in the County Championship Division 2 where even the likes of Tim Gronewold average in the low twenties. That said he is a very good fourth seamer option and part of a better than decent attack backed up by the reliable finger spin of Nathan Lyon.
Their batting. Oh their batting. Thank every deity going for their batting.
While we have gone from ‘Stokesgate’ to Vince’s selection and every ‘we’re doomed’ prediction going over here in Blighty – Australia have been going through a bit of a selection crisis themselves. Yorkshireman Matt Renshaw is in no form at all, Kawaja has struggled having come back from injury and Handscombe has had a mixed test career and poor summer with Yorkshire. Save for the previously vaunted Warner and Smith, they had awful tours to Bangladesh and India and collapsed more than once at home to the same South Africa attack England did ok against.
Indeed, when they were skittled for less than 100 – it wasn’t express pace that did for them (as is often stated as a pre-requisite for successful attacks down under) but the ever reliable 80mph accuracy of Big Vern Philander. There is definitely hope here for England – the call up of Bancroft and the re-call of perennial under achiever Shaun Marsh (he’s their Vince) shows there is a very weak underbelly to this Aussie team and it should give England hope that all is not lost before a ball is bowled.
They also do not have a get out of jail free lower middle order like England. The recall of Tim Paine also underlines this – they do not have a Gilchrist, Healy or even a Haddin anymore – yes Starc and Pattinson can score dogged runs lower down but if we have them 150 for 5 like we often did 4 years ago – I doubt we will see them getting anywhere near 400 this time around.
These are two teams who are not the greatest of test sides by any stretch of the imagination – but they both have some world class performers and equal amounts of brilliance or garbage within their range of capabilities. As a result of this inconsistency, the small factors that favour one side over the other are key this winter. Home advantage, the absence of Stokes, the four man pace attack against an inexperienced top order – all of these are in Australia’s favour and as a result it is hard to see past them re-claiming the urn once January rolls around. However it is not as cut and dried as some think and, given the Australian weakness in the batting line-up and inexperience mooted above – IF England can get off to a good start at the Gabba, with a 2nd test to come in conditions that should suit – England could easily build up a head of steam that nets them what would be one of the most unexpected and famous Ashes victories in history.
Having said all that – as much as it pains me to say it – I think Australia will win the series as the Ashes continues to follow a pattern of test series trophies throughout the cricketing world and yo-yo from home side to home side.
Obviously if you are going to have a flutter, do so responsibly and all that – but here are some of my pre series decent bets:
England Top Bowler:
Chris Woakes was in the form of his life before he got injured in the summer. If he gets that rhythm back he will be close to England’s best bowler and there are cheap wickets to be had first change in that Aussie side. He’s a great bet best priced 7/2 with the big firms at Bet365
Series Correct Score:
There may be rain in the air at the Gabba – so hang fire for weather reports next week. If that looks like a draw then I would back Australia 3-1 at 5/1 everywhere. If the rain has blown over by next week then take Australia 4 – 1 at 13/2 everywhere.
Top Aussie Bowler:
I think it will be Hazlewood – but Cummins is massively over priced for me at 9/2 with Sky Bet and Bet 365 and worth a couple of quid as a speculation bet.
If you are Really Patriotic:
I’d suggest the best bet would be on England to retain the Ashes with a drawn series. I can’t see England winning three tests like in 2010/11 – but they definitely have 2 wins in them at best, so, if they can cobble a draw on a dead drop in pitch somewhere 2-2 may be the best way to go. 2-2 is best priced 8/1 but a drawn series (which is likely 2 all anyway and gives you more chances of the win) is 9/1 at Sky Bet so lump on that you crazily optimistic person you.