It feels to me as though it’s taken far longer than 27 months for the 2017 Ashes to roll around. Though the 2015 edition of cricket’s most famed rivalry was distinctly low on quality at points throughout the series, it was captivating in the way that the momentum swung so freely over the course of the five tests, leaving supporters yearning for more. England eventually ran out 3-2 series victors in that contest, but look an outside bet heading into this series.
There’s no questioning that this generation of England players has the collective talent to claim top spot in test cricket for the foreseeable future. They have class running right through their line-up, with just the right number of box office players in the ranks to turn a test on its head in a single session. That said, the team is not without its problems. Chief among which, you’d have to say, is top order batting.
Ever since the departure from the team of two of England’s 21st century run-making stalwarts Andrew Strauss and Johnathon Trott in 2015 England have been lacking a consistent number 2 and number 3 to lay the foundations for their innings. Seeing Joe Root (our number four and best batsman) coming out to the middle within the first twenty overs has been an all too regular occurrence over the last few series in which England have played. Despite the thorough search for the next crop of top order English batsmen, the team now head into an Ashes series with the one thing that no team wants to enter an Ashes series with – an unsettled side.
From the sixteen-man squad that was selected yesterday to embark on the tour down under, here’s the eleven that I’d pick to line up in the first test in Brisbane:
- Alastair Cook
Despite the team’s mini top order crisis, Cook’s form remains imperious. Any questions relating to the former skipper’s future in the team after relinquishing his duties as captain have been answered emphatically. A shoe-in barring injury.
- Mark Stoneman
The first of the hmm-yeah-maybes. Stoneman has played in three tests so far for England in which he has managed to card just a single half century, and at 30 years of age he still has a long way to go to convince the selectors that he is a viable long-term opening partner for Cook. Perhaps the dismal recent performances of some of his peers has meant that Stoneman’s less than assured start to international cricket has gone under the radar. He deserves his chance to start in the first test, but failure to make a big score in this series will probably spell the end of his stint as England’s number two.
- Gary Ballance
If Stoneman’s inclusion in the side raises a question mark or two, then Yorkshire captain Gary Ballance’s selection comes across as almost laughable, such has been the nature of his batting of late. It seems strange to think that Ballance first broke into the side back in 2014, and started very brightly. But over the past couple of years the left-hander has failed repeatedly on the big stage – a 70 at home against Pakistan constitutes his highest score since April 2015. It seems to be a straight shootout between Ballance and another faltering top order batsman James Vince for this spot. Ballance takes it for me on account of his additional experience at test level.
- Joe Root
The captain, and the guy that England will be looking to to score the lion share of their runs in Australia. No matter who is picked for the side throughout the series, Root must stay in his favoured number four position in order to get the most out of him as possible. He’s in no danger selection-wise of course, but make no mistake; this is a huge series for Joe Root the player and Joe Root the young captain. If he can produce the contribution we know he can, then he will stamp his authority down as one of the world’s best.
- Dawid Malan
Malan is another player who’s yet to set his test career alight since he got his chance to wear the three lions. That said, I think England should pick him for the first test on account of his showing in the recent series against the West Indies. In a topsy-turvy few matches, Malan showed application and a fair portion of grit to hang around when flurries of England wickets were falling. He seems like a batsman who’s got a bit of character – something that England will need plenty of in this Ashes series.
- Jonny Bairstow
One of few in England’s middle order who find themselves in pretty good shape. After enough patchy runs in the side, Bairstow is now really hitting his straps and showing everyone what he is capable of. The fact that he has gradually turned himself into a handy wicket-keeper over the past few seasons only furthers his claim for a spot in the starting XI. Let’s hope he can shoulder some of the burden for runs alongside Root.
- Ben Stokes
Stokes is a dead-cert for the starting line-up you would think, provided his recent scuffling outside a Bristol nightclub doesn’t come back to bite him. As well as being under investigation for causing actual bodily harm in the early hours of Wednesday morning, the all-rounder is now also nursing a fractured finger. Clever lad. Whatever the repercussions, from an England perspective you’d still be hopeful that Stokes will line up for the first test come November.
- Moeen Ali
Ali has gone from strength to strength in an England shirt over the course of the summer, and not only provides the team with some late order class with the bat, but also now poses a real threat with his off-spin bowling. England will rely on Mo to bowl a lot of overs in the series you would expect, and so his ability to remain consistent and patient with ball in hand is vital.
- Chris Woakes
There’s an argument to say that Jake Ball should occupy the fourth seamer spot in the team, but I’ve given the start to Woakes. To my mind, it’s a shame that we won’t be seeing any of Mark Wood in this series, who has failed to recover from an ankle injury in time for selection. He’s a bowler with the genuine pace to cause problems on the bouncy Aussie surfaces. Woakes will be looking to pull off a similar job – hit the deck hard and hurry the batsman into a false shot. His batting ability may come in handy too. A number nine with five first-class hundreds to his name is practically unheard of and has come in useful on many occasions for England.
- Stuart Broad
Broad has always shown that he’s capable of creating some Ashes magic, and heading into this series there’s certainly an argument to say that he is England’s most dangerous with the ball. It’s his ability to create something out of nothing that means that he’ll be heavily relied on to get through a lot of overs throughout the upcoming series. Another member of an England tail that has the ability to wag at important moments.
- James Anderson
For the veteran swing magician who recently brought up his 500th test wicket against the Windies, lateral movement of the ball will be the key. He will only be used in short bursts you would think, and that’s probably all that his 35-year-old body will allow. But England will pray that the ball does nip around for them during the series. If there is any movement, you know that Jimmy will exploit it to the full.
Authored by Alexander Mills