Burns Eye View

Ashes to Ashes

The 2017-18 Ashes series offers England an opportunity to prove their doubters wrong. Many people are predicting a straight-forward victory for the hosts.

And, it is not only Glenn McGrath who is predicting a 5-0 series win for Australia. Other sage observers are suggesting the result is a formality, and the only variable is the number of wins Australia accomplishes. Fundamentally, many smart cricket people are saying England’s batting is too weak for Australia’s powerful bowling unit.

So, let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each team:

Australia has two world-class batsmen, David Warner and Steve Smith.

England has two world-class batsmen, Alastair Cook and Joe Root.

Australia has two top-class opening bowlers, Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins.

England has two top-class opening bowlers, James Anderson and Stuart Broad.

Australia has a very good off-spin bowler, Nathan Lyon.

England has a good of-spin bowler, Moeen Ali. Ali is a good lower-order batsman too. He has just come off the best season of his career with bat and ball.

Australia has a good support bowler, Josh Hazelwood.

England has a good support bowler, Chris Woakes. Woakes is a good lower-order batsman too.

Australia has a doubt over its’ wicket-keeping position.

England has Jonny Bairstow, one of its’ best cricketers, and arguably one of the world’s leading players currently, as wicket-keeper/batsman.

Australia has selection confusion around the number 6 position.

England, has selected Ben Stokes as number 6 for the past two years. Stokes is world-class as an all-rounder. In the past two 2 years, he has excelled with the bat, and contributed significantly with the ball too.

So, if this coming series Ashes tests were to be contested as 7-a-side matches, I reckon England would be favorites to win. But, herein lies England’s problem – there are too many question marks about the quality of the remaining four players in their team, and also the lack of experience among other players in their squad.

The Opposing Coaches:

And, for good measure, there is another interesting ‘match-up’ in terms of the opposition coaches:

Australia is coached by a savvy Australian who is very familiar with home conditions, knows the Australian players ‘inside out’, and England’s players too.

England is coached by a savvy Australian who is familiar with home conditions, knows the Australian players ‘inside out’, and England’s players too.

Recent Results:

In terms of recent results, there are two contrasting perspectives. One can ‘take the positives’ from the statistics, or one can also see the glass as ‘half-empty:

England has won 5 out of the last 7 Ashes series, and one of the last two series in Australia.

But, Australia has won 5-0 in two of the last three Ashes series played in Australia.

My personal feeling is that having 3 members of the top 5 as ‘green’ to test cricket as England have, leaves them incredibly vulnerable. Against any international bowling attack, it is unwise to have such an unwelcome situation. But, against Australia, especially in Australia, I think it is bordering on professional suicide. It reflects poorly on previous selections and it is most likely to be the reason England continue to lose overseas test matches.

England’s Glaring Problem:

England’s continuing top-order batting travails reflect poorly on the quality of batsmen in county cricket. The fact that nobody has been able to nail down the opener’s spot, despite twelve people being ‘trialled’ in tests, since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012, has got beyond a joke. And the fact that the selectors couldn’t find room for a reserve opener in the touring party suggests their lack of confidence in the options available from the 18 county clubs, or reveals a major oversight in the make-up of the touring party.

England’s Number 2:

Mark Stoneman has had an ‘ok’ start to his test career since beginning against the Windies in August. He has also begun the Ashes tour well, albeit against modest bowling attacks in comparison to what he will face in the upcoming test series. He has enjoyed an excellent season for Surrey. He was a good player for Durham previously, and has been mentored by Australian Michael Di Venuto at both Durham and more recently at The Oval too. But, if Stoneman was the answer, and I sincerely hope he proves to be, then why, at the age of 30, was he the 12th pick after Nick Compton, Joe Root, Michael Carberry, Sam Robson, Jonathan Trott, Adam Lyth, Moeen Ali, Alex Hales, Ben Duckett, Haseeb Hameed, and Keaton Jennings were picked ahead of him over the past 5 years?

England Number 3:

Much as I would like to see James Vince succeed at number 3 for England, I cannot see how a batsman with such a poor test record, and a very average 2017 county season behind him, can be approaching the Ashes series with any justifiable confidence. Number 3 is a pivotal batting position, which in recent times has only been filled successfully by Jonathan Trott and David Gower. Can James Vince join such elevated company by the time England leave Sydney on the 9th January?

England’s Number 5:

Is Dawid Malan going to be the answer at number 5? I really hope so. If he isn’t, then the hope will be that Gary Ballance fills the void in the second half of the series. Evidence suggests Balance is not a test number 3, but a middle order position may offer him more scope for success should Malan not ‘cut the mustard’. Personally, I would prefer it if they gave Malan the whole series to show what he can do. He is a tough competitor, and is single-minded in approach. The question which he will need to answer though is how skillful he is from a technical perspective against fast, short-pitched bowling. Only the best can batsmen handle the pace and bounce in Australia – and few batsmen have returned from Ashes tours with their reputations enhanced.

The Key Players Must Perform:

Successful teams create an environment in which their best players play their best cricket, and in turn, inspire others to raise their game too.

Joe Root:

Is Joe Root truly ‘world-class’, or is he just ‘very good’?

A poor tour in 2013-14 led to him being dropped for the 5th test in Sydney, and the mental scarring which goes with such experiences will need to be overcome if he is to succeed this time around. I think he can excel, but he will need to make big hundreds, not consistent half-centuries if he is to inspire England’s batting unit to build the platform for victories. At worst, they must find a way to draw matches, so Root making big scores and in the process taking time out of the match, will be key to any possible success. With the captaincy to embrace too, it promises be a very demanding tour for the gifted Yorkshire batsman. He is only a few months into his captaincy career, and this tour offers him a great chance to become a highly-regarded leader. The flipside is that if England plays poorly, he will soon discover how difficult it is to be in charge of ‘a sinking ship’ on tour.

Will 2017-18 be Alastair Cook’s Farewell Ashes Tour?:

Alastair Cook excelled in 2010-11 with 766 runs, but had a poor tour in 2010-11, and looked both exhausted and exasperated by the end of it. He handled himself with admirable dignity throughout his travails, but it will not take much for such wounds to be opened up and undermine his current tour if he doesn’t begin well in Brisbane and in Perth. If he succeeds, it will be a triumph of both will, and skill, because the challenge of touring when a player has a young family at home is different from the freedom of being a young cricketer with a career in front of him. Poor form on long tours becomes harder to bear when a player’s focus begins to shift from being a career professional exclusively. Another poor tour will not spoil his excellent career, but it will not sit well with Cook, a proud man. He will want to be a major contributor as a batsman now that he is no longer England captain. And, for England to succeed, he will need to score big runs consistently at the top of the order.

Ben Stokes: England’s Talisman

The big issue for England going into the series continues to centre around their pivotal player, Ben Stokes. His is currently ‘suspended on full pay’ by ECB, after media reports of him allegedly fighting in the streets of Bristol during the ODI Series v Windies. The consequence has been a thoroughly unwelcome cloud hanging over the Ashes tour and England’s preparations.

If Stokes is allowed to join the tour in time for the 1st test, then England’s prospects of success will obviously soar – there will be clarity for all, which may free up the team’s energy. But, if the Avon & Somerset police drop their inquiry, and ECB suspend him for a couple of tests as part of an ‘internal disciplinary’ process, his situation (and possible presence in and around the touring party) will be ‘an unwelcome distraction’. I imagine, he will be ‘the story’ for most of the media until he returns to the team, create . If that isn’t until the 3rd test in Perth, or worst still the 4th test in Melbourne, England may find themselves behind in the series, and his impact in the series may be relatively neglible.

Stokes’s absence, if it continues through the series, will be felt keenly by England. He is three cricketers-in-one. Very rarely can a team call upon on eplayer who is a quality batsman, a highly-effective bowler, and a superb catcher at slip. Ian Botham and Jacques Kallis held similar status. The legendary Sir Garry Sobers remains the peerless all-round cricketer due to his versatility as a bowler. Each were vital players in their respective national teams and Stokes is no different. If one adds in the strength of his personality , then he is as close as one could get in terms of understanding Ian Botham’s brilliance as combative, confrontational opponent who could make opposition players and teams take a backward step if they lacked the necessary qualities to compete effectively.

Stokes and Botham’s approach to competition gains the respect of Australian people. They seem to love sportspeople who want to go ‘toe-to-toe’ with their own teams ‘down under’. In fact, the greatest compliment to a visiting sportsman is when the locals view a visiting player as if they were ‘one of their own’. Stokes performed admirably on the last tour, and provides the credible evidence that says England has a chance in this series if he plays, and if he plays well.

Playing in Australia:

Every top sportsman knows that when you tour Australia you need players with skill, mental and physical courage, plus ‘the stomach for the fight’ for the many moments when it gets very ‘hot’ and is incredibly tough for teams. It needs leaders to stand up and lead by personal example, not individuals who cower in the face of a battle.

Fundamentally, when sporting teams tour Australia, they are not just playing against the opposition’s players. Additionally, ‘the battle’ is against their influential media, the vociferous crowd, and a whole nation of 24 million people. Ben Stokes’s ongoing unavailability has created a huge hole in the England touring party already, and the Ashes series is only about to begin next week.

It may open up opportunities for others to excel, but with injuries to Steven Finn and Jake Ball, the omens are not good before a single ball has been bowled.

And, if Craig Overton plays, he will be making his test debut in the cauldron of the ‘Gabba. If Mason Crane plays, he will be making his test debut in an Ashes series. Neither of these possible selections suggests good ‘advanced planning’ by England’s selectors and management team. But, hopefully, one or both will be able to replicate the story of Philip DeFreitas who arrived in Australia as a raw county cricketer in 1986-7, but left as a wise test cricketer and an Ashes winner too. Can Somerset’s Overton, with his steep bounce and late away swing be the best story coming out of Brisbane during the 1st test? I and many millions of England sports fans will be hoping so.

Joe Root has a major challenge on his hands. Is he up for the fight of his sporting life? Is he good enough to be ranked ‘world-class’ as a batsman? The next eight weeks will go a long way to proving his credentials. I fear he may fall short, and that England will experience a whirlwind of Australian hostility through top quality pace bowling, and skillful spin bowling in support.

My Prediction:

My overall assessment in advance of the most awaited sporting contest in my sports-watching life: Hold on tight – it could be a very bumpy ride for England!

Neil Burns


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