By Michael Stafford-Jones
- England have named one of their worst Ashes squads in the last 20 years
- Gary Ballance, James Vince, Jake Ball and Craig Overton are among the potential weak links
- Ben Stokes may not travel to Australia after being arrested for brawling in Bristol
LORD’S, ENGLAND – Ben Stokes’ arrest in Bristol is hampering England’s preparations ahead of The Ashes, and puts even more pressure on the already weak-looking squad selected to tour Australia.
England squad to tour Australia 2017/18
Joe Root (captain, Yorkshire), Moeen Ali (Worcestershire), James Anderson (Lancashire), Jonny Bairstow (w/k, Yorkshire), Jake Ball (Nottinghamshire), Gary Ballance (Yorkshire), Stuart Broad (Nottinghamshire), Alastair Cook (Essex), Mason Crane (Hampshire), Ben Foakes (w/k, Surrey), Dawid Malan (Middlesex), Craig Overton (Somerset), Ben Stokes (Durham), Mark Stoneman (Surrey), James Vince (Hampshire), Chris Woakes (Warwickshire).
Stokes’ bad behaviour has thrown Ashes plans into chaos
Ben Stokes was set to be the talisman for England – the world-class performer who could turn a match around during a magnificent hour or two of batting or bowling or with a moment of amazing fielding. Instead, he may now miss the tour altogether if he is charged with a criminal offence by Avon and Somerset Police for his part in a brawl outside Bristol nightclub Mbargo.
Unverified video footage of the incident shows a man who closely resembles Stokes repeatedly punching two men. Both are knocked to the ground and another man, believed to be Alex Hales, says ‘That’s enough, Stokesy.’ The local police confirmed they had arrested a 26-year-old man on suspicion of causing actual bodily harm, and England have since suspended both Stokes and Hales from international cricket until further notice.
If Stokes escapes without a serious charge, he could still participate in the Ashes, but it is impossible to know how much this ordeal will have affected his mental state, and his performances may suffer as a result. Whatever the outcome of the police investigation, England’s premier all-rounder must take a long, hard look at himself and decide whether it is worth risking his future in international cricket by going out drinking and behaving badly.
How could England cope without Stokes?
If Stokes does not play in the Ashes, it will significantly affect the balance of the side because he is England’s best all-rounder. The boldest, and possibly best, option in his absence may be to field an extra bowler and move Jonny Bairstow up to six in the batting order, Moeen Ali to seven and Chris Woakes to eight. If the Three Lions take this approach, the next bowler in line for selection is Jake Ball so he will almost certainly get his chance to impress.
Choosing an extra bowler would be the most positive option for England and Bairstow, Ali and Woakes are all good enough batsmen to make it work well. It would also ensure they have enough bowling options, something which is particularly important at the Gabba, the venue for the First Test, as it can be flat and very batsman-friendly.
The other obvious approach to replacing Stokes is to pick an extra batsman. Assuming England pick James Vince at three and Dawid Malan at five, that could mean a place for the only other out-and-out batsman currently in the squad: Gary Ballance.
However, the Yorkshireman has justifiably been dropped twice by his country and probably only escaped being dropped a third time during the South Africa series earlier this year after he was ruled out with a finger injury. Does he, or anyone else with three failures for that matter, really deserve a fourth chance at Test cricket?
Thankfully, England have another, more desirable alternative. They can move Bairstow up to six as a specialist batsman and give the gloves to Ben Foakes, a player who Alec Stewart told ESPN Cricinfo he believes is ‘the best wicketkeeper in the world’. Bairstow’s work behind the stumps is improving all the time, but having an even better keeper could prove pivotal in the Ashes, when every chance to take a wicket needs to be taken.
Foakes is also an excellent batsman who scored 104 half-centuries and averaged 42.50 in County Championship Division One this season. He had an even better record in the One Day Cup and, given England’s recent batting struggles, could conceivably perform better than the likes of Vince, Malan, Ballance and Tom Westley. If he does bat well, that would solve one of his country’s problem positions in the order and he could keep his place even when Stokes returns to the team.
How good is the rest of the England squad?
In short, the 16-man squad is one of the weakest England have selected to tour Australia in the last 20 years. If the selectors felt they had a large pool of talented players to select from, as they have done at times, there would be no place for players who have failed in the past (Vince and Ballance) or those who have no Test match experience (Craig Overton and Mason Crane).
To make matters worse, Malan is yet to truly convince at five, Mark Stoneman has only played one test series and Ball has just been hammered all around the ground in consecutive ODIs against the West Indies. It is simply not a squad capable of filling any but the most hopeful of supporters with confidence.
On the positive side of things, Alastair Cook is England’s record run-scorer and one of the best openers they have ever had, Joe Root is one of the best batsmen in the world and looks well-suited to captaincy and Bairstow has been superb with the bat in recent years. Also, James Anderson had a brilliant summer and is England’s leading wicket-taker of all time, fellow opening bowler Stuart Broad is vastly experienced and has a history of bowling magical spells against Australia and Moeen Ali has had a spectacular summer with bat and ball.
Who was unlucky to miss out?
Adil Rashid has taken 38 wickets in 10 tests at a decent strike rate of 66.9 and has enough skill and variety to trouble the Australian batsmen. He is also known to be an expert at dismissing lower-order batsman, something which is often crucial in the Ashes. Rashid’s experience should have earned him a call-up instead of untried 20-year-old Crane.
Rory Burns, Liam Livingstone and Dan Lawrence all averaged over 44 in County Championship Division One and may all have been better selections than Ballance, whose technical weaknesses have repeatedly been exposed at Test level.
Another player England could have opted for is Samit Patel, who averaged 53.29 with the bat and took 19 wickets at 35.89, albeit in Division Two, for Nottinghamshire this season. Patel could still serve as a more direct replacement for Stokes if England want to go down that route.
Fast bowler Toby Roland-Jones would definitely have been selected ahead of Overton if he had not suffered a stress fracture to his back while playing for Middlesex and Jamie Porter can perhaps count himself unlucky not to be chosen instead of Ball after taking 75 wickets at an average of just 16.83 during Essex’s title-winning season in Division One.
Is Australia’s team better than England’s?
Encouragingly for England, this is a very close call. Like the tourists, Australia also have some outstanding batsmen, David Warner and Steve Smith, and some very dangerous bowlers: Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and James Pattinson.
However, if most of the best players in both teams perform well, the Ashes could be decided by the lesser lights, and it is hard to predict who will come out on top. Can talented young batsman Peter Handscomb out-perform Bairstow? Will steady opener Matt Renshaw score more runs than Stoneman? Will Matthew Wade’s sometimes suspect keeping cost Australia vital wickets? And will Nathan Lyon prove to be a more effective spinner than Ali?
The apparent similarity in the overall ability of England and Australia is the main reason why the stage was set for Stokes to be the pivotal player in the Ashes, the man whose performances dictated whether England won or lost the series. He could still be that man, but it is far less likely now.
The Ashes 2017/18 begins at The Gabba, Brisbane at 00:00 GMT on Thursday 23rd November.
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