September 23, 2020, 16:16

England still have a number of questions to answer before the first Ashes Test in Brisbane

England still have a number of questions to answer before the first Ashes Test in Brisbane

Having had a week to acclimatise to conditions in Australia, England get their tour up and running with a two-day game against a WACA XI in Perth.

With the first Ashes Test now less than three weeks away, though, there are still plenty of questions surrounding the England squad and how they can be successful this winter.

Joe Root and the England coaching staff would have wanted to be able to be surer in their thinking by this stage and the Ben Stokes saga has only added to the list of dilemmas. Here, we look at some of the more pressing issues facing the tourists…

How do you treat the warm-up games?

With little over three weeks to make the required adjustments for Australian pitches, the tour games are of the utmost importance for England.

But while allowing time for technical fine-tuning, England were well served on their last successful tour of Australia by how seriously they took the warm-up matches and Rob Key, speaking to Sky Sports Cricket recently, emphasised the value of a batsman making a big score or a bowler taking wickets ahead of the first Test.

“Whether it is acclimatising or whatever, whenever you’ve had a little bit of a break you want to get back and get a hundred,” he said.

“That is what England did well when they won out there in 2010/11, they took the warm-up games very seriously, which is fine, but ultimately, there was a premium on scoring hundreds.

“If you go into the first Test at Brisbane with a hundred under your belt then you’ll feel a hell of a lot better than if you haven’t. Same with the bowlers.”

If England opt to take a similar approach this time around, that could mean playing their strongest side from the off but with Moeen Ali and Steven Finn ruled out of the match in Perth through injury and 16 players to keep happy and make feel involved, the visitors may choose to wait until closer to the Gabba Test to unleash what they consider to be their best XI.

Top-order troubles – who bats where?

England head into a Test series with significant questions over their top order. It was forever thus. Well, it has certainly been the case for the past two or three years – and with Stokes unavailable, those top-order troubles have spread into the middle-order too.

How to replace Stokes is a question England will have been asking themselves for much of the past month or so – and we took the liberty of considering a few of their options, too. With such strength in the lower middle-order, the most likely outcome seems to be promoting Ali, Jonny Bairstow and Chris Woakes and bringing in another bowler.

That still leaves the question of who will fill those top five positions and how best to order them. Barring injury, Alastair Cook and Mark Stoneman will open up and despite continued calls for him to move up to No 3, Root has all but confirmed he will stay at four.

That leaves James Vince, Gary Ballance and Dawid Malan competing for the spots at No 3 and No 5. Vince appears to be the clear frontrunner to bat at three but with Malan the man in possession and England maintaining that Ballance was only left out of the squad for the latter part of the summer due to injury, who bats at five may well come down to who performs best in the warm-up fixtures.

How will Root handle the pressure?

England skipper Joe Root reacts to David Warner's description of the Ashes as a 'war' – and says England don't need a miracle to win

The England captain has shown his stubbornness and that he will not be swayed by outside influences as he continues to ignore the appeals, not least from coach Trevor Bayliss, for him to move back to No 3.

Such defiance will come in handy over the next couple of months as the Australian media, public and players try to turn up the heat on Root.

How the Yorkshireman deals with such scrutiny in just his third series as skipper will be crucial but the Australians going after the visiting captain is nothing new, as Graham Gooch can attest.

Former England captain Graham Gooch says Ben Stokes would be a huge miss in The Ashes – and that Joe Root must bat at No 3

“It’s going to be tough – Australia always target the captain, look to undermine him if they can,” the former England captain told Sky Sports Cricket.

“If they can undermine his performance so he is not a big contributor in matches that undermines his wellbeing and confidence. Then, in theory, he might not lead the side so well.”

With Root’s importance to a potentially fragile batting line-up clear for all to see, England must hope that he is as unwavering when it comes to dealing with Aussie mind games as he is about where he wants to bat.

Will Anderson and Broad do it away from home?

“One of our slight worries is if Jimmy is going to be as effective in Australia. We love Jimmy, I think his longevity, his robustness, his skills are fantastic. He’s easily the best England bowler.

“But at 35, with almost five back-to-back Test matches, is he going to be as influential? We’d like to say hopefully but realistically? Unlikely. Hopefully he might get a couple of wickets where he is going to be influential.”

That was Gooch’s assessment of James Anderson and his chances of success this winter. It seems a fair question whether England’s record Test wicket-taker can replicate his home form in Australia but Anderson can point to the 2010/11 Ashes series as proof that he can and has done it before.

The Lancastrian took 24 wickets at 26.04 in that series and his struggles away from home have also been exaggerated as an average of 29.24 since 2010 outside of England shows. After a couple of injury-disrupted years, Anderson also got through all seven summer Tests unscathed, suggesting he is still capable of standing up to the rigours of Test cricket.

Of course, if he can stay fit, it remains to be seen whether he can repeat his heroics of seven years ago and again make the necessary adjustments to succeed with the Kookaburra ball on bouncier pitches with less movement through the air and off the seam.

Stuart Broad, too, was part of England’s triumph in 2010/11 but was involved in just two Tests, an injury in the second ruling him out of the remainder of the series, and as such is yet to achieve a sustained period of success in Australia.

His height should be an advantage on the harder surfaces but as the whitewash in 2013/14 showed, there is more to it than that. England need Broad to step up and produce the goods on what could well be his last Ashes tour.

Even if the new ball pair do find their best form this winter, they will be reliant on Chris Woakes and whoever is selected as the fourth seamer to provide dependable back-up.

With Finn missing the first two warm-up games due to injury, Jake Ball and Somerset’s Craig Overton have a chance to steal a march on the Middlesex quick and put themselves at the front of that particular queue.

The uncapped Overton perhaps has the edge due to his ability with the bat and has also spent plenty of time in the slips during England’s practice sessions – possibly meaning he could fill the space in the cordon left by Stokes – while, given his tall, powerful frame, he could add a different dimension to the England pace attack.


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