hen Jos Buttler has described it as “surreal” that the Ashes start a week tomorrow, he was on the money. The build-up was overshadowed by Covid, a World Cup, allegations of racism, naughty images and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, the rain.
The two teams only met in full today, but they were not scheduled to play away cricket in Brisbane due to the weather.
They worked hard away from prying eyes, trying to prepare their players without spending significant time on the pitch. The only reason there has been any real debate over the selection is that Australia need a new wicket keeper. Alex Carey is expected to beat Yorkshireman Josh Inglis in this post.
So let’s start a debate on England’s bowling attack, as this is not just next Wednesday’s first test at Gabba, but the entire series.
When Australia retained the Ashes in 2019, they turned their bowlers superbly, even if it meant making some surprising calls. They left Josh Hazlewood out of the first test, only for him to play superbly in the last four. Veteran Peter Siddle has played more Tests (three) than Mitchell Starc (one). The planning had gone on for months and only involved Starc and Pat Cummins of their World Cup attack.
England’s planning for its bowlers in this series has also gone on for years. They wanted the express pace of Jofra Archer, Mark Wood, and Olly Stone to spin alongside wiser, older heads. Alas, only Wood made the flight, so much will be asked of him (let’s not rule out that Saqib Mahmood wins a promotion from the Lions if they want a second speedster).
Nonetheless, in the English camp there appears to be some disagreement over the key skills required in Australia. Marked by their experience of four half-fast straight guns that got rid of four years ago, skipper Joe Root and head coach Chris Silverwood want speed and variety.
James Anderson and Stuart Broad, perhaps unsurprisingly, see it differently. And they speak from experience. This is Anderson’s fifth tour of Australia and Broad’s fourth. They both won here and were whitewashed. They have seen it all.
For Broad, “the key to bowling in Australia is the moving ball”. On the BBC’s Project Ashes podcast, he said, “Let’s not be too nervous or too fast. Look at Hazlewood, what is he doing? He’s tall, he moves the ball, or Glenn McGrath for many years.
And Anderson? He says he will seek “aggressive patience”. It means ‘relentlessly precise’, ‘defying the stick all the time’ and ‘hitting hard on the court, not just throwing it up there’. He accepts that a certain rhythm is necessary for this last point.
“Why is Pat Cummins successful? Because he’s relentless and plays a good bouncer. It’s not rocket science, it’s nothing fancy, he’s just absolutely relentless and skillful and does it for a long time, ”he said.
Given the resources at their disposal, England need to be smart with their selection. As with every aspect of this team, the presence of Ben Stokes makes it easy to create an attack. Three other setters can play alongside Stokes, who will beat at No.5, and Jack Leach will have to be parsimonious; you can’t be spineless on the long, hot Australian days.
There has been a lot of talk in recent years that England would pull away from Anderson and Broad in the same overseas attack, but it never really happened outside of the subcontinent. They both played all the tests in Australia in 2017-18, New Zealand in 2019 and, if applicable, South Africa after that.
Now is the time, unless the conditions absolutely require it, for them to play together (and some in Australia think bad weather will be fine for them). A good plan could be for Broad to play in Brisbane, where he has a good record, and Anderson in the spotlight in Adelaide before seeing who is fittest for flat ground in Melbourne.
Wood must also be managed with care. It would be a huge surprise if he turned out to be physically tough enough to play even four of the five Tests, so pick his moments: and some pace will be essential at Gabba. It could be replaced by Chris Woakes’ silk in Adelaide.
Of the six crimps England are likely to use, five could be considered vulnerable. Anderson is 39 and Broad 35, and is coming back from injury. The wood is brittle and Woakes has chronic injury issues. Stokes is coming back from a long layoff. All of them could be seen as a risk in their own way for the Gabba, especially given the low buildup.
The exception is Ollie Robinson. He was up at the end of the summer, but had made a Herculean change in four tests against India before that, and will be much better physically for the experience.
Robinson is a melon in that Hazelwood mold; not quick, but relentless. He could well become a very important player for England in the coming weeks.