ENGLAND HAVE not yet named their team for the Ashes and cricket expert IAN CALLEN – himself a former Test fast bowler – is wondering whether they have a surprise weapon among their all-important but ageing pace bowling artillery:
AUSTRALIA’S LOSS of the Ashes at Nottingham in 2015 should have provided England’s coach Trevor Bayliss and his brains trust all the preparation time they required in their attempt to defend the urn starting at the “Gabba” in November, which isn’t far off now.
Since the last ball of the 2015 Kennington Oval Test, just over two years ago in London and even though England had won the series 3-2, alarms bells should have been ringing loud in Bayliss’s ears. His bowling attack is ageing, so could they do the job for him in Australia? He would surely have realised the need of a quick capable of bowling a heavy ball, consistently on line and preferably from height. Or even a workhorse, perhaps a Matthew Hoggard type… someone to lighten the load for the 35-year-old James Anderson and Stuart Broad, who is already under a cloud with heel troubles. In the sunburnt country that sore heel is not going to get any better.
The media has been all over this as have many qualified commentators, debating those who might, will or will not take part. Shane Warne has named his first Test teams, Jonathan Agnew has his opinions but seems to be more comfortable sitting on the fence these days and the “Dear Old Thing,” Henry Blofeld, has retired after a long and captivating stint as a commentator and writer. But there has been no mention of a new fast bowler capable of worrying any Australian batsman, let alone David Warner!
With time on their side Bayliss and Co took England to the UAE where they played Pakistan, losing 2-0. Then South Africa where confidence was restored with a 2-1 series win. They then slaughtered Sri Lanka at home two-nil and tied the series against an improving Pakistan before setting off on a demanding sub-continent challenge. With two Tests in Bangladesh and five in India, they started well, winning in Chittagong only to drop the next in Dhaka and then lost all but one of the five in India, the other one being drawn.
They returned home with tails well and truly between their legs, having had every opportunity to blood a couple of new “tearaways”. The English hierarchy however seem set on sticking with an attack which prefers to compete in their homeland than abroad, or is it that they have no promising lightning quick who might prevent Steve Smith and his men from winning back the Ashes?
For England to hold the Ashes, new blood is needed and the reasons are as follows: Stuart Broad’s past summers in Australia are not very flattering. He has played two Tests in Adelaide for four wickets, two in Brisbane for nine wickets (6/81 and 2/55), one in Melbourne for three, one in Sydney for four and one in Perth for three. Overall, he has taken 388 Test wickets (242 wickets at home, 146 away) and only 23 at 31.04 in Australia.
Anderson, who recently became only the sixth bowler, and third paceman, to take 500 Test wickets, is a huge asset to a captain in England where he has taken 327 of his 506. But in Australia he has played three Tests in Adelaide for 10 wickets, three in Brisbane for five, two in Melbourne for nine, three in Sydney for 13 and two in Perth for six. Of his 179 away wickets only 42 have been taken in Australia at 38.44. That is mediocre.
So, it would be difficult to believe Bayliss – who is Australian himself, of course, and well aware of the conditions awaiting his team — could sit idly through a summer against South Africa winning 3-1 and then for a 2-1 series win against a very poor West Indies without the slightest thought of giving his ageing attack an infusion of fresh new blood. That would mean the Australian series would be doomed before his squad received their seat allocations. Surely England has other strike bowlers on the horizon?
No cricket coach I know, would contemplate a trip Down Under without a big strong quick… so what does Bayliss have up his sleeve? Is he keeping someone in cotton wool, fine tuning him, for a very special mission?
So, let’s take a look at his options. It is possible he might turn to Steven Finn or Mark Wood. Both are capable of unsettling batsmen with pace. I like them both because they have a crack. Finn is tall and gets bounce, and although he didn’t play a Test this summer he has matured as a cricketer and did bowl some good spells on the sub-continent, which means he has heart. I could also argue that he has had greater bowling success in Australia than both Anderson and Broad. As for Wood, he claimed only one Test wicket this English summer, but I was very impressed with his five-wicket haul in the heat of the UAE desert. You don’t take a five-for, in those conditions, without a strong ticker.
Then there is the tall strongly-built fast medium from Middlesex, 29-year-old Tobias Skelton Roland-Jones. Toby burst on the scene with a five-wicket haul at the Oval against South Africa and in his four Tests he’s taken 17 wickets at a very impressive 19.65. However, my concern is that he strays into the pads of right handers and his margins of error are reduced because of it.
This leaves the last possibility and when we consider the task at hand it requires a group of players who are prepared to toil all day under the burning Australian sun. For me, the bowler who is most capable of being part of this, has been in cotton wool all summer.
From Warwickshire, the county that produced former England fast bowlers David Brown and Bob Willis, we find Chris Woakes, a fast-medium with a terrific action. He hits the track hard, gets surprising bounce as a result and is capable of getting late movement off the wicket. He has been leading an attack with one of our own home-grown Victorian quicks, Carlton’s Ryan Sidebottom (brother of Steele, the Collingwood footballer). I have had a bit to do with Ryan and I am disappointed he has been overlooked by Cricket Victoria but I am pleased he’s been able to find another path to higher levels. Who would have thought it possible he’d début for the “Bears” having been talent-spotted whilst playing in the local Birmingham League? I’m really pleased for him
But back to Woakes. Although not quite the pace of Australia’s Pat Cummins or Mitch Starc he might just be the man for captain Joe Root who knows his side has not won an away series since South Africa. He must know deep down that to have any chance of retaining the Ashes he requires a team of bowlers capable of working together in exhaustive spells. Woakes is ideally suited for this task. He has been able to maintain good seam position which is a must when wanting to maintain shine and this brings others around him, into the contest — just the tonic for Anderson and Ben Stokes who rely so much on movement through the air — and he’s no slouch with the bat either, which will provide England with valued lower order runs.
Australia on the other hand still look the goods in the pace bowling department and this will be all-important. Steve Smith is certain to have Starc in partnership with Cummins and Josh Hazlewood and possibly James Pattinson. I am looking forward to seeing them together.
Root, England’s best batsman as well as captain, has stated his men are not fussed about the Australians or the task at hand… but that’s just mind games!
He and his men like others before them will already be having disconcerting visions of Starc and Cummings in particular. They’d be circling in their thoughts, like two great white sharks, and with Hazlewood and prolific off-spinner Nathan Lyon in support the Australian bowling looks as strong as it has ever been.
I am reminded of the comments made by the great England Test captain Archie MacLaren who described in great detail just how difficult the Australian summer could be for the uninitiated. “The flies alone,” he said, “are enough to ruin the form of any cricketer.” It’s going to be a long, hot summer and we can’t be sure yet what to expect from England – but it’s certainly going to depend largely on their bowlers.
Here’s my guess on how the two teams might line up in Brisbane:
ENGLAND: Alastair Cook, Haseeb Hameed, Joe Root (c), Ben Duckett, Moeen Ali, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow (wk) Chris Woakes, Stuart Broad, James Anderson, Mason Crane.
AUSTRALIA: Matt Renshaw, David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Steve Smith (c), Peter Handscomb, Glenn Maxwell, Peter Nevill (wk), Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood and James Pattinson