Ashes Ahoy

A preview of Ashes 2021-22, with official coverage starting at 11PM UK time.

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

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.

AUSTRALIA

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.

PROSPECTS

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.

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My usual sign off…

Thoughts About The Ashes Squad

A look at the England tour party for the upcoming Ashes and my selections for the Gabba.

A few days ago the England squad for the upcoming Ashes tour was announced. They opted for a squad of 17, and picked the following players:

In the rest of this post I will look at the problems with this party and then name the XI I would pick for the Gabba.

FOUR SELECTION HOWLERS

There are four players who certainly should not be in the squad. First is Jonathan Bairstow, a great white ball player whose test career comprises one fat year (Dec 2015 to Dec 2016) and eight lean ones. His place should have been given the Ben Foakes, who has been shamefully treated by the England selectors over the last few years.

Second is Dom Bess. English off spinners have generally struggled in Australia. Swann, the best English offie of my lifetime, paid almost 40 per scalp on the successful 2010-11 trip and broke down midway through the 2013-14 trip. Bess is nowhere near being in the same class as Swann, and is a disaster waiting to happen in Australia. This place should have been given to one of Matt Parkinson (pays 23.5 per first class wicket) or if you want more batting depth available Liam Patterson-White (left arm spin bowling all rounder) or Matt Critchley (batter who bowls leg spin and has had a fine season).

Third is Zak Crawley, a man who averages 11 in test cricket since his sole major innings at that level. Tom Abell should have been selected to fill the no three slot, with the bonus that he can offer some support in the bowling department with his medium pace and that if he manages to establish himself at test level he will be a serious candidate to replace Root as skipper when the time comes.

Fourth is Dawid Malan, a man now in his mid-thirties whose test average is rather less than his age. I would have selected Tom Haines as reserve opener in place of Malan.

I will not deem it a mistake but I also have concerns about two veteran seamers, Anderson and Broad both being named in the tour party. Neither have the greatest records in Australia and the likelihood of both of them being fit for the whole of a five match series seems small. Jofra Archer and Olly Stone are both crocked, but a gamble on the extra pace of Saqib Mahmood or Brydon Carse might have been taken.

AN XI FOR THE GABBA

Having laid out my most pressing concerns about the tour party and established the like the Irishman being asked for directions “I wouldn’t have started from here” it is time to select an XI for the Gabba:

The opening pair presents no problems – Burns and Hameed have two century stands in three innings and to break them up at this point would be positively frolicking with disaster.

No three is tougher, but since he is in the party it makes sense to stick with Malan for all my entirely justified misgivings about him.

No four is the one position that no one will argue about – Joe Root, the skipper, retains his regular slot.

Number five is a close call between two players who have yet to fully establish themselves at test level, and I opt for Ollie Pope over Dan Lawrence – Aussie pitches should suit Pope.

Number six is Jos Buttler, the keeper (no six is his best position, and the balance of the side also dictates that he should bat there).

Chris Woakes has to be at seven if one wants four genuine seam options and a spinner, and his record batting at seven in tests is stellar (albeit from a small sample size).

Ollie Robinson has inked himself into the side given the way he has performed in his test career to date, and he is well capable of batting at no eight.

Mark Wood is the only genuinely fast bowler in the squad, and the Gabba should suit him (I would spare him from the thankless task of attempting to extract life from the Adelaide Oval, as I suspect he will need a bit of nursing to get through the series).

There is only one spinner of genuine test standard in the squad, and with possibly exception of Perth he should play every match, so Jack Leach gets in at number ten.

At number eleven is England’s all time leading test wicket taker, James Anderson.

This side (Burns, Hameed, Malan, *Root, Pope, +Buttler, Woakes, Robinson, Wood, Leach, Anderson) is slightly short on batting, with two of the top five definitely unproven (Pope may change that, but I actually regard Malan as proven in the wrong way – provenly not good enough) but does have the bowling resources to take 20 wickets at less than ruinous cost with Anderson, the height of Robinson, the pace of Wood, the spin of Leach and Woakes as fourth seamer. Here courtesy of Wisden is a picture of my team:

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Time for my usual sign off:

England v India: Preliminaries and Opening Exchanges

A look at the opening exchanges in the England v India test series which got under way at 11:00 today.

The five match test series between England and India is under way, the first match at Trent Bridge having started at 11:00AM. This post looks at early developments.

ENGLAND SELECTIONS

England’s plans were thrown into confusion when Ben Stokes announced that he would be taking a break from cricket for mental health related reasons. I do not know when or even whether Stokes will return to competitive action – he should take as much time as he needs. However, neither that nor an injury to Ollie Pope excuse England’s actual selection. They have gone hypernegative, selecting only four front line bowlers none of whom is a spinner and none of whom is an out and out speedster. The team they have chosen is Burns, Sibley, Crawley, *Root, Bairstow, Lawrence, +Buttler, S Curran, Robinson, Broad, Anderson. I would have selected Hameed in place of Crawley, with him and Sibley then being in a bat off for who keeps their place in the side when Tom Abell, the man best equipped to bat three for England in this format, is fit again. I would not have selected Bairstow at all, going with Buttler at six and five genuine bowling options. My preferred line up from those available would have been Burns, Sibley, Hameed, *Root, Lawrence, +Buttler, S Curran, Robinson, Wood, Leach, Anderson. I regard the non-selection of Leach as criminal. In 16 test matches he has taken 62 wickets at 29.98 – that is his bowling average is the right side of 30 (only just admittedly) and he takes 3.875 wickets per match, which is around the par mark – most sides have five serious bowling options and to win you need to take 20 wickets, and 20/5 = 4. When then add in leaving out the only genuine speedster available, Wood, you have an attack that has no depth (only four front line options), and very little variety (three right arm fast mediums, all over six feet in height, with the only serious variation Curran’s left arm fast medium – no variation in pace whatsoever).

The side England have named has “picked to avoid defeat” rather than “picked to win” written all over it in bold capitals.

INDIAN SELECTIONS

Far fewer problems for the visitors although they somewhat surprisingly left out Ashwin, probably the best finger spinner in the world at the moment. They decided, again on ground of batting strength to rely on Jadeja as their sole spin option, with Thakur at eight and the three specialist quicks, Siraj, Bumrah and Shami at 9, 10 and 11. The alternative once they had decided on four seamers would have been take a chance an Ashwin at seven. While debatable this selection is not definitively wrong as some of England’s are.

THE PLAY SO FAR

England won the toss and chose to bat, the right thing to do on a sunny morning with clouds forecast for later in the match. They were off to a dreadful start when Burns fell in the first over. Sibley and Crawley held out for a while before Crawley was removed for 27. That brought Root to the crease and he and Sibley saw things through to lunch at 61-2. Sibley’s typically patient innings ended just after lunch, for 18,making the score 66-3. Root and Bairstow are still together at 73-3. Root is on 18, while Bairstow has reached two and has survived 15 balls which is quite impressive by his recent test standards. Bairstow has just scored a four off Bumrah to make it 77-3. Bumrah, Shami and Siraj have a wicket a piece.

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My usual sign off – the butterflies are out in force at the moment…

As I publish this post England are on 82-3, Root on 23 and Bairstow on 6.

Picking an England XI for the First Test Match v India

I pick my England XI (constrained by the squad from which it will be picked) for the first test match v India which starts on Wednesday.

The first test in the England v India series for the Pataudi Trophy (The senior Nawab of Pataudi, Iftikhar Ali Khan, played for both England and India, playing for the former in 1932-3 and the latter in 1946 when he was captain, while his son, Mansur Ali Khan, played for India) starts on Wednesday. With that in mind I devote this post to selecting an England XI for that match. The squad from which the XI has to be chosen can be viewed here.

THE TOP THREE

The openers are open and shut – Burns and Sibley will occupy those slots. On the face of it there are several options for no3: Zak Crawley is the incumbent, Jonathan Bairstow has batted there in the past and Haseeb Hameed, in good form at the moment and with a century for a County Select XI v The Indians under his belt into the bargain would also be a logical choice. Restricting ourselves to these three, Crawley is in no sort of form and has played only one major test innings, the 267 against Pakistan which is receding ever further into the past. Bairstow’s recent test record is dire – since the start of 2018 he averages less than 25 at that level. Therefore, with the most obvious candidate for England no 3, Tom Abell, injured at present I go with Hameed, reckoning that he and Sibley are in a bat off for who opens alongside Burns once Abell can come into the side.

THE MIDDLE ORDER

Numbers four and five are clear cut, Root and Stokes. Number six is between Pope and Lawrence, and is a very close call. I plump for Lawrence – Pope at test level has developed an unfortunate habit of making impressive starts but then getting himself out before he manages a significant score. At no7, and keeping wicket in the absence of the injured Foakes, is Jos Buttler.

THE BOWLERS

There are two logical candidates for no8, Ollie Robinson and Sam Curran. Although the latter’s left arm creates an extra bowling variation I plump for the former because I see him as more likely to take wickets at test level. At no9 I opt for Mark Wood, the only express pace bowler in the squad, and as such an automatic pick for me. Number 10 and sole specialist spinner is Jack Leach, who is the only serious candidate for that role at present (although there are some promising youngsters starting to emerge at county level). Rounding out the order is England’s all time leading test wicket taker, James Anderson. My feeling is that it would be foolhardy to select both veterans in the first match of a five test series, and I opt for Anderson ahead of Broad (the latter will then get fired up by his omission!).

THE XI IN BATTING ORDER

Tying all this together I present the XI in likeliest batting order as per the above text (I have no truck with XIs being presented in alphabetical order, which is meaningless in a cricketing context – it may be acceptable to present a squad from which the XI is selected in alphabetical order, but never the XI):

  1. Rory Burns
  2. Dominic Sibley
  3. Haseeb Hameed
  4. *Joe Root
  5. Ben Stokes
  6. Dan Lawrence
  7. +Jos Buttler
  8. Ollie Robinson
  9. Mark Wood
  10. Jack Leach
  11. James Anderson

PHOTOGRAPHS

My usual sign off…

Thoughts On England Squad to Face New Zealand

A look at the England squad for the New Zealand series and possible XIs from it.

This post is mainly devoted to looking at England’s squad to face New Zealand in the upcoming test series, but I have one thing to do first:

LYNN NEWS CHARITY
OF THE YEAR 2021

The votes for this have been counted and the result is in, and NAS West Norfolk, of which I am branch secretary are the winners!

THE ENGLAND SQUAD

Here, courtesy of cricinfo.com (read their article by clicking here) is the squad:

Story Image

The above contains few surprises and little in the way of controversy. England have left themselves with no genuine all rounder (Craig Overton comes closest, but although he is an effective lower middle order batter for his county I do not see him as a serious contender for a slot above no8 in an England batting order) and with only one spin option, Jack Leach. I am not surprised that they did not feel the need to name two specialist spinners, but would have liked to see Critchley included as a possibility for a no7 batter/ fill in bowler role. In view of the decision to not call on anyone who had played IPL the lack of a genuine all rounder is not surprising, but there could have been little harm in considering the merits of Ryan Higgins. It is now time to look at…

CHOOSING AN XI

There are three basic variations here: gamble on a slightly substandard batting line up to ensure the presence of five genuine bowling options (Overton bats seven), rely on four bowling options including Leach, or, a different form of gamble to our first option, rely on four seamers as the only bowling options. The XIs could look as follows:

  1. The five bowler combo: Sibley, Burns, Crawley, *Root, Pope, +Foakes, Overton, Robinson, Stone, Leach, Anderson.
  2. A balanced bowling quartet: Sibley, Burns, Crawley, *Root, Pope, +Foakes, Lawrence, Robinson, Stone, Leach, Anderson
  3. An all seam bowling quartet aiming at maximising batting strength: Sibley, Burns, Crawley, *Root, Pope, +Foakes, Lawrence, Overton, Robinson, Stone, Anderson…
    3a) An all seam bowling quartet: Sibley, Burns, Crawley, *Root, Pope, +Foakes, Lawrence, Robinson, Stone, Broad, Anderson…
    3b) An all seam bowling quartet including two genuine speedsters: Sibley, Burns, Crawley, *Root, Pope, +Foakes, Lawrence, Overton, Stone, Wood, Anderson.

Myself given that even without ace left armer Trent Boult being available for them NZ will feature a formidable bowling unit I consider playing Overton at seven to be very high risk and would not recommend it. I am also not entirely comfortable with an all seam attack (if the proverbial gun to the head proposition forced to me to go this route I would opt for combination 3b above, with Robinson maybe playing ahead of Overton), so my first choice combo would be no2. Please note that in the 7/4 combos I have Foakes at six and Lawrence at seven because I want someone between Foakes and the bowlers and because I believe Lawrence is better suited to producing the kind of controlled aggression often needed when batting with the tail.

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My usual sign off…