Ten weeks before the Ashes, England look a side in permanent flux
England dazzle at times but fielding and back-up bowling will need to improve in Australia
As Mark Stoneman and Tom Westley chipped away at England’s modest target yesterday afternoon, cheered on by a packed Lord’s crowd, was it so far-fetched to imagine, on the other side of the world, Australia cheering them on too?
One suspects it would be their ideal scenario: two rookie English batsmen striding out at Brisbane in November. Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins, or perhaps Josh Hazlewood and James Pattinson, with new ball in hand. A baying crowd. A baking sun. The faint, perhaps illusory, smell of mint sauce.
Who can say for sure? One thing we can probably say, however, is that a 2-1 home win against the West Indies is not the sort of result to inspire too many palpitations Down Under. Ten weeks out from the first Test at the Gabba, England do not look a side capable of dictating terms. Instead, they look like a side in permanent flux, Test cricket’s most enduring work-inprogress, the world’s most experienced inexperienced team, unable to tell which version of themselves will emerge from the pavilion on any given morning.
Even at the moment of victory, there was something vaguely appropriate in the fact that the winning run was sealed by a desperate dive from Stoneman, scrambling for his crease after cutting his second run a little fine. It was an image that encapsulated a team scraping by, doing just enough, clutching to the coat-tails of competence.
Naturally enough, the three holes in the top five will continue to inspire most anxiety. Australia’s fabled pace attack will fancy its chances of getting England three or four down in a hurry. Counter-intuitively, though, it is England’s bowling that should actually be their greatest source of alarm at present. When they are good, they are a match for any batting line-up in the world. When they are bad, there are few teams capable of losing the plot as quickly or as thoroughly.
Third and fourth seamers are the bedrock of an Ashes triumph. If James Anderson and Stuart Broad are remotely on song, England can expect to pick up their share of wickets with the new ball. But in Australian conditions, it is how they use the old ball that will be key. In a long series, it is not the 50 and 100 stands that kill you, but the 150 and 200 stands, the sort that turn the game and sap the spirit. And since the start of 2015, England have been on the receiving end of more of these partnerships than any other team.
As Kraigg Brathwaite and Shai Hope demonstrated at Headingley, this remains their Achilles’ heel. How does Joe Root maintain the pressure after the Kookaburra has shed its shine, when Moeen Ali has been hit out of the attack, when the heat begins to take its toll? Who will take on the pressure-cooker role that Stuart Clark, Tim Bresnan and Peter Siddle made their own? Who will conjure a wicket out of nothing? Who will try something a bit different?
There are plenty of candidates, none outstanding. Toby Roland-Jones has been expensive but penetrative, and would be this writer’s choice. Mark Wood is stylistically the best fit but, given his injury problems, would represent a gargantuan leap of faith. Steven Finn remains Steven Finn.
Chris Woakes has a lively action and a winning attitude, but more than half of his Test wickets to date have come in a single home series, against Pakistan last year.
There is some evidence that Woakes is a handy bowler in helpful English conditions. There is very little that he is capable of delivering the dry, thankless, two-an-over spells that will be required of him this winter. Yet the England management rate his capacity to adapt, and the haste with which he was ushered back into the side after injury suggests he remains in favour.
There are other concerns, too. The spin cupboard remains perennially bare. For a Trevor Bayliss side, the catching has been uncharacteristically poor all summer.
But there are grounds for optimism, too: a win, after all, is a win, and this is the first time in four years that England have won both series in a summer. Joe Root has settled comfortably into the captaincy, and for now at least, it does not seem to have affected his batting.
Alastair Cook has slotted seamlessly back into the ranks. There are remarkably few of the cliques and neuroses that have riven teams of the past. The engine room – potentially Stokes, Bairstow, Moeen and Woakes – is among the best in world cricket. Australia’s, by contrast, is their greatest source of alarm. Even wicketkeeper Matthew Wade is not yet certain of his place.
So a foregone conclusion this is not. Indeed, it is the imperfections on both sides that make this an impossible series to predict.
Clearly, Australia have their own problems. Many of them were laid bare during the recent tour of Bangladesh. But if history has taught us anything, it is that not many teams as flawed as this England side arrive on the shores of Australia and leave with what they came for.
Time at the crease: Tom Westley hit an unbeaten 44 as England eased to their target