Aussies can’t wait to get stuck into England’s motley Ashes crew
IT wouldn’t be the Ashes without hype in the lead-up. This time, we’re away early. Six weeks to go before the series and we’re already well into the conversation after Ben Stokes was arrested. The all-rounder will not be on the first plane to the southern side of the globe, though he hasn’t been entirely ruled out.
A handful of my fellow Australians may have indulged in a moment of
schadenfreude after this news came through. And a bit more when he was replaced in the squad by Steven Finn, who celebrated his last trip to Australia by forgetting how to bowl.
Mostly, though, the mood is disappointment. While true partisans might be relieved at England missing a key player, the average enthusiast wants the world’s best players in the biggest contests. It’s far more appealing than a turnstile of demoralised county chancers. Which, hubris or no, is what England’s touring party makes us anticipate. In a beautiful balancing of national views, BBC’s Jonathan Agnew called it “one of the weakest squads I’ve seen” and ABC’s Jim Maxwell said it was “one of the poorest English batting line-ups I have ever seen to come to Australia”.
Building a Test order out of James Vince, Dawid Malan, Mark Stoneman and Gary Ballance is like trying to make dinner out of the tins at the back of the pantry. If Australia’s fast bowlers stay fit, England’s task on bouncy pitches will be immense. That’s said with some trepidation, given that a warm breeze has often been enough to twang a paceman’s hamstring. James Pattinson’s vertebrae have already ruined the fantasy of the Four Horsemen of the Yorkerlypse, but Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood are currently intact. The underrated Jackson Bird is in the wings and Peter Siddle is on the comeback trail.
Much has been made of Moeen Ali’s bowling form, and his aggressive opponents may give him a chance. But he will have to defy the history that makes Australia a graveyard for visiting off-spinners. For the home side, Nathan Lyon’s spin record in these conditions is at elite level.
In contrast to England, Australia’s batting is mostly set. David Warner has made 14 of his 20 Test centuries on Australian decks. Steve Smith makes them anywhere but averages 75 at home. Usman Khawaja has plundered runs at first drop in the past two southern seasons.
Like twin halves of a British referendum, Matt Renshaw has a willingness to leave and to remain; he is calm beyond his years, and starts the series at his native Gabba. And Peter Handscomb has proved a ready made player.
Uncertainty below is of less concern. Wicketkeeper Matthew Wade has struggled with the bat and may be replaced. Hilton Cartwright is a chance for No 6, even if Glenn Maxwell deserves that spot, but merit doesn’t count for much against Greg Chappell’s hunches. Or a few first-class games before Brisbane could throw up another candidate.
The mood is quietly confident. Far more so than in 2013 when England had just sealed its own home Ashes 3-0, and looked an even balance of ingredients against a salad of greenhorns and has-beens. Graeme Swann still had a right arm, Alastair Cook still had the captaincy, Jonathan Trott still had a career, and Kevin Pietersen still had the tolerance of his team-mates. And look what happened.
England all-rounder Ben Stokes arriving at the church yesterday for his wedding to fiancee Clare Ratcliffe. Stokes will not be travelling to Australia with the rest of the England squad.