Official coverage of the 2021-22 Ashes series gets underway at 11PM tonight UK time, on five live sports extra for radio fans like me and on BT Sports for TV fans. The preliminaries have been turbulent for both sides, though at least England’s woes have largely been weather related (no on-field preparation time due to ridiculous amounts of rain), whereas for the second time in a few years an Australian test skipper has stepped down mired in scandal.
England welcome Ben Stokes back into the fold after a layoff for mental health reasons. Sensibly Pope, a massive talent and one seemingly well suited to Aussie pitches has been preferred for the number six slot to the perennially underachieving at test level Jonathan Bairstow (a magnificent ODI opener and a fine T20I number four, the two international roles he should now make his sole focus). The basic question left is between Woakes (for extra batting depth and arguably bowling variety), Broad (for maximum bowling firepower) and Leach (there is some talk of going without the spinner, but with Stokes back there is no excuse – three front line pacers plus Stokes as back up is plenty in that department). My own final 11 would be: Burns, Hameed, Malan, *Root, Stokes, Pope, +Buttler, Robinson, Wood, Broad, Leach but I would not unduly quarrel with Woakes being picked ahead of Broad.
Cynics would say that the loss of Tim Paine probably leaves Australia better equipped both batting and keeping wise than they were with him in post (Alex Carey makes his test debut as keeper-batter). Pat Cummins, who was Paine’s vice captain takes over the captaincy for this series (it is not common for a specialist fast bowler to be given this role – the last for England was Bob Willis who held the reins from 1982 to early 1984, and the only one ever to perform the role for Australia was Ray Lindwall in the 1950s – he stepped in on the field due to an injury). Mysteriously, Steve Smith, who could surely never be trusted with the captaincy again, has been appointed vice captain. Australia have a tried and not very trusted at no5 in Travis Head, a newbie at no six in Cameron Green and a debutant keeper in Carey. They have an experienced pace trio of Cummins, Hazlewood and the express paced but sometimes erratic Starc, and the second best test off spinner currently playing the game (sorry Nathan Lyon, Ashwin is definitely ahead of you). Their batting has three proven stars in Warner, Labuschagne and Smith.
While neither could be described as top class both of England’s openers, Burns and Hameed, have demonstrated an ability to bat time in test matches, and they provably gel well as a pair – three test century opening stands together already. Malan at number three is frankly a backward looking selection, but he may perform well. Obviously the skipper, batting in his regular number four slot, will be crucial to England’s chances, and at least the Burns/Hameed combo should insure that he is not too often coming in with the ball still new and shiny. It is a huge relief to have Stokes back in action, and a good series for him could well swing things England’s way. This is the series for Pope, who enjoys the type of pitches that Australia usually provides, to establish himself beyond question in England’s middle order, and I am expecting big things from him. Buttler has a respectable test batting record, and though he is not the equal of Foakes as a keeper I can understand why England have opted for him. The bowling, even with Anderson rested due to a minor calf issue, looks impressive. Robinson has been a revelation since his elevation to the test match ranks, Wood is quick and performs well away from home, Leach pays less than 30 per wicket and takes only just short of four wickets per game in his career to date and could well be crucial in this series, Broad has previously had success at the Gabba, and Woakes if picked will probably perform well.
Australia are in some turmoil, with four of their top seven genuinely questionable, though their bowling unit is its usual formidable self. Also Cummins is new to captaincy and there are at least two major ways a bowling captain can err – they can bowl themselves into the ground in an effort to lead by example, and they can go the other way and not give themselves enough overs. Also captaincy can have an adverse effect on form – Ian Botham took 7-48 in his last bowling innings before becoming England captain and 6-95 in his first after resigning the role, but never managed a five-for as captain.
A further factor in the equation is that due to their quarantine policy Perth (where England have only ever won one match, under Brearley in 1978) is off the roster, and if the weather forecasts are correct the opener at the Gabba is highly likely to be drawn.
Thus, even though it is half a century since an England team regained The Ashes down under (three retentions in that period, in 1978-9, 1986-7 and 2010-11), I really believe that England have a genuine chance. Australia will start as favourites and rightly so, but if England get everything right the upset is a definite possibility.
My usual sign off…