By Kieran Wellington
- Edgbaston hosts first Ashes Test just 18 days after England’s World Cup success
- England have already played Ireland in a historic Test match at Lord’s, where Joe Root’s side made just 85 in the first innings
- Coach Trevor Bayliss has called on his side’s top order not to ‘bluff’ their way through their batting as Australia pick a threatening seam-heavy attack
BIRMINGHAM, UK – England’s coach and captain are still in disagreement about where Joe Root should bat hours before Australia, led by Tim Paine but with Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft back in the reckoning, roll into town
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How do you make the biggest success in English one-day cricketing history almost instantly forgettable? Schedule an Ashes series. England are coming off the high of the country’s first ever Cricket World Cup success but now, less than three weeks since that frankly indescribable game against New Zealand, have to switch modes and face the biggest challenge for any English Test match cricketer – the Aussies in the Ashes.
England haven’t lost a home Ashes series since 2001 but head into this summer with batting frailties that would give confidence to a club bowler in Queensland, never mind the triumvirate of Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins.
Coach Trevor Bayliss, an Aussie himself of course, heads into his third Ashes series in charge of England without the most prolific English Test run-scorer ever in Alastair Cook and can’t even agree with his captain and best batsman on where he should slot into this vulnerable top-order.
In complete contrast to England’s world champion one-day squad, who know exactly when and how to execute their skills, this red ball line-up look like they haven’t seen a cricket ball swing before. In equally stark contrast to the World Cup, where bat was expected to dominate over ball, this Ashes is expected to be one of the shortest ever as both sides look far stronger with ball in hand. Pundits are in unanimous agreement that day five in each Test will only be required if rain plays its part. I hope, for the sake of Test cricket, we have got that one wrong as well.
England’s batting numbers don’t add up
In cricket, numbers don’t lie. It is a game of averages, and the team that scores the most runs has the best chance of taking 20 wickets to win the match. If we run a quick check over the England squad’s batting statistics in Tests, the evidence is all too revealing.
Let’s start with the simple facts: the top three of Jason Roy, Rory Burns and Joe Denly, as they lined up in the Ireland Test last week, are woefully inexperienced at this level heading into an Ashes series. In direct comparison to their opposite numbers David Warner, Marcus Harris and Usman Khawaja who have 121 Tests between them, the England top order has just 11.
Not one of England’s top three have ever raised their bat to celebrate a Test match hundred – Warner alone has hit 21 centuries for his country. That’s five more than Joe Root, supposedly a good enough batsman to rival Cook’s records. England’s top-order merry-go-round has been well documented, and it simply looks like they have run out of genuine options. A 33-year-old Denly who averages under 37 in first class cricket certainly isn’t a sustainable selection.
Bayliss, however smart this decision may turn out to be, has had to turn to a man in Roy who has hardly ever batted in the top three for his county Surrey in the red-ball format because of his record in limited overs. Bayliss’ appointment as coach helped England move away from picking square pegs in round holes for the white-ball game and revolutionised the way we batted in ODIs. Now it seems we are doing exactly the same with our Test side expecting different results. As Albert Einstein famously said, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.
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But our middle-order will come to our rescue again, right? Sorry to break it to you, but that’s somewhat of a fallacy as well. During Bayliss’ first Ashes series in 2015, Moeen Ali was the third top run scorer for England behind Cook and Root, and the third highest wicket taker for the home side, proving his all-round credentials in English conditions.
However, whether because English focus since then has switched to white-ball cricket or whether Moeen’s confidence with the bat has taken a significant hit, the Worcestershire man’s batting record is inescapably bad. Since September 2017, almost exactly halfway through Bayliss’ life cycle as England coach, Moeen has averaged 17.00 in Test cricket. His talent is being wasted, and it’s hard to know who to blame.
It’s not just England’s spinner – who will definitely play at Edgbaston as England left out man of the match against Ireland Jack Leach from their 14-man squad for the first Test – who is struggling for runs. World Cup hero Jonny Bairstow fought back against his critics mid-tournament with two wonderful hundreds against India and New Zealand – without his runs, we might well have never seen Eoin Morgan lift the World Cup.
However, for a man slated to bat at no.5 for England, a position deemed the easiest to bat in as the new ball becomes softer and less menacing, Bairstow also has an average other players may have got the bullet for. Since the start of the 2018 English summer, England’s wicket-keeper averages 24.42. To give that some context, James Vince, one of England’s much maligned top-order batsmen, averages 24.90 in Tests. If two of England’s senior players can’t resurrect their prime form, it is hard to see how Root’s side make enough runs in this Ashes series.
Reasons to be cheerful
Come on, let’s not be too negative – we’ve just won the World Cup, for goodness sake! Surely there is something to be said about riding the crest of that wave? Well, England’s selection proves they think there is some value in that.
Jofra Archer, having come through a T20 game for county side Sussex, looks set to add to England’s bowling outfit that already includes the two highest wicket takers for England of all time. The World Cup final super over hero adds pace, hostility and control to England’s attack which appears to be at its strongest in some time.
The fact he was given licence to return to Barbados while his teammates toiled away in record-breaking July heat suggests how much Bayliss and the England set-up rate Archer, who is a once in a generation talent. England must not over-bowl him with Archer already carrying a full World Cup workload, unlike Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson.
The England hierarchy’s decision to host the first Test at Edgbaston is also a revealing one. Although it is now common to see the Ashes schedule tinkered with, traditionally the first match would take place at Lord’s, where opposition sides have a great record in recent years. In fact, excluding the Ireland match last week, England have only won 4 of the last 10 at the Home of Cricket.
However, Edgbaston has been a fortress for England’s Test match side this century. Since their last home Ashes defeat 18 years ago, England have lost just once in 14 games. If big series are all about getting off to good starts, England have clearly looked at the statistics and altered the schedule to maximise their chance of winning.
It will be exactly a year to the day since the Birmingham crowd were treated to their last Test match against India – that week, Sam Curran scored 87 runs and took five wickets, with Ben Stokes adding six more. If England can get through Australia’s specialists, their all-rounders are undoubtedly stronger and, over a five-match series, strength in depth could be vital.
England have shown a likening for the left-arm, all-round option of Curran, but Chris Woakes at his home ground his hard to ignore, especially with the second Test taking place at Lord’s, where Woakes transforms into the best Test bowler ever to have lived. Woakes has matured into one of the most threatening bowlers in English conditions, averaging just 16.17 with the ball in his last three Test series.
Whatever combination of bowlers and all-rounders England select, they are likely to stand tall in this series. The batters, however, must ignore the media pressure and their own mental doubts and give the bowlers a score to defend. But, as the crazy fourth innings against Ireland proved, even 39 might be enough!
England face Australia in the first Ashes test at Edgbaston, Birmingham, beginning on Thursday at 11am UK time.
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