On Wednesday England began their Ashes campaign at the
fortress SWALEC stadium in Cardiff. Selected over the likes of Headingly and Old Trafford, this isn’t the greatest of venues and takes away the fond tradition of hosting the first test at the home of cricket. Nonetheless it’ll still be the venue at which Ashes cricket kicks off for the first time since early 2014, as England will try to win back the little urn.
Having been whitewashed 5-0 last time they visited Australia, almost anything will be an improvement for England. Although with a bowling attack that operate better in the home conditions (overcast weather and the dukes ball), and a much improved batting line up England will surely fancy their chances of pulling off an upset. Earlier in the summer against New Zealand the new management team made it clear that they were encouraging a more positive brand of cricket, one which will need to continue if England are to give themselves a chance of winning.
Looking at the bowling, even with the unfortunate loss of Harris – their best bowler in English conditions – Australia are far more capable of taking the 20 wickets needed to win a test match. Last series Johnson showed how destructive he can be, appearing a shadow of his former “he bowls to the left, he bowls to right…” self. Hazelwood is arguably the best young bowler in the world, posting an average of just over 8 with the ball in the two test series in the West Indies. Meanwhile there’s also Starc to turn to. Whilst he can go for a lot of runs, he bowls the most potential wicket taking deliveries of any bowler in world cricket. Siddle, Watson and Lyon offer more than capable support and star batsman Steve Smith can even turn his arm over if needed.
The English bowling attack will feature a number of different faces to those who were drubbed down under last time out. Anderson and Broad are the only two remaining faces, both of whom are far more comfortable with the ball in English conditions. Wood has been a great find as a true paceman in the attack, although he’ll likely only play four tests due to fatigue concerns he still has the potential to make a huge impact on the big stage. Ben Stokes will be given his first meaningful Ashes games, having played well
last time when the series was already decided. He’ll be leant on more with the ball than with the bat, and if he can produce like he did against New Zealand, England’s showman will be in for a good series. England’s potential X-factor comes in the form of spinner Rashid, who proved he can be a strong contributor with bat as well as ball. Whilst it’s unlikely that he’ll play in every test, it’s vital that the England camp elect to use him in the right situations on an appropriate wicket in order to get the best of him. When not selected Root and Ali are more than capable of offering a spin option should the situation present itself.
The Australian batting line up consists of a range of solid players all of whom could contribute a gritty innings. The best of the bunch has to be Steve Smith who can be a world beater, and has been in superlative form of late. The rest of the high order batsmen have been around for a while and have plenty of experience to draw from, which is vital in high pressure situations like an Ashes series. Whilst old, Rodgers could be a surprisingly strong contributor due to his experience of English conditions most recently with Middlesex before entering the Australia fold. What Rodgers brings with his calm, experienced head Warner counters with his aggressive nature – a strong threat to the England bowling attack at all times. Haddin and Watson provide grit and experience in the middle order, behind Clarke’s recent fitness concerns and Voges inexperience at the test match level.
The England batting line-up doesn’t have the age and experience of their Aussie counterparts, but have the potential to be far more explosive. Whilst Yorkshire’s Lyth is still relatively unknown at this level, his performances in Class A cricket cannot be overlooked, and he certainly is the best option. We do know that when Cook brings his A game he is a world class batsmen, unfortunately that’s become a big if in recent times, however he has displayed some of his past form in the recent test series against the black caps. Three and four are weak points in the England line up with Ballance still looking wobbly and Bell struggling for form; it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one of these batsmen dropped before the end of the series.
Five to eight are most likely where the series will be won or lost for England. That starts with Joe Root, who is the best batsman in the squad by a long way at the moment. Whilst he appears to still be a school boy at first glance, he’s clearly not phased by playing at the highest level and will likely produce at least a couple of match winning/saving innings for England this series. Stokes and Buttler offer explosiveness in the middle order, with both being more than capable of scoring at a run a ball. Conversely Moeen Ali offers a cool head late in the order, as someone who is used to opening for Worcestershire he’s more than capable of seeing off a second new ball toward the end of an innings in order to produce a platform for the tail to add runs.
Overall, comparing the squads side by side, Australia have the firepower in the bowling attack and the experience in their batting to certainly be seen as the more talented of the two sides. Home advantage should certainly lend a hand to the English bowling, but their batting outside of Joe Root is currently too hit or miss to expect to keep up to the standard needed to win an Ashes series for a full five tests. If England can maintain a positive atmosphere they do stand a chance, and I do believe in the new attacking middle order. It’d be foolish to think that the weather won’t lead to a draw in at least one game, so I’d say Australia will retain the Ashes after a 2-2 draw.