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

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - Jonathan Liew,

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

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