Authors: Rio Sports
The handbrake on Ashes speculation has been released with the conclusion of the Test series against West Indies. This may not be a good thing but it is inevitable. Even Trevor Bayliss, usually so wary about looking too far ahead, seems eager to enter the fray with observations about who he would prefer to bat at three and the likely provenance of the tour party. After the Lord’s Test he said the squad was likely to comprise only players chosen in the past 18 months, which is bad news for any blind-side runners around the counties.
For local readers it is possible to start on an optimistic note. England can set off for Australia with the No1 bowler in the world in their ranks. After nine more Test wickets at Lord’s, including his 500th, James Anderson now sits above the Indian spinners, the two Ravis, Jadeja and Ashwin. At 35 years of age Anderson remains a huge asset to a captain, wherever the Test is played.
Of course wickets will be harder to come by under the clear blue skies and hard tracks of Australia. The necessity to treat that Kookaburra ball like a precious diamond in those opening overs contrasts with the pattern of play in England where the mischievous Duke ball can keep swinging all day. Yet there remains great virtue in having a bowler with the skill, control and nous of Anderson whatever the conditions. He will find the swing if it is available and he knows better than any modern fast bowler where the ball will land.
However England may lack variety in their pack of fast bowlers for Australia, which is bound to include Chris Woakes and Toby Roland-Jones alongside the old firm. There is a shortage of pace and left‑handedness, which may not be solvable. Mark Wood has a few games to show that he can touch 90mph again, which is not the style of another contender, Jake Ball. Any “wildcard” may be housed among the Lions squad, which will also be in Australia when the Ashes series gets under way.
There will, however, be more debate about the batsmen. The selectors are delaying the announcement of their squad so they have the option of journeying around the counties to watch some of the likely lads – or at least one of them, James Whitaker, does; presumably Mick Newell and Angus Fraser will be more concerned that their sides, Nottinghamshire and Middlesex respectively, regain or retain first‑division status.
Bayliss can accept some responsibility this time for the final decisions. His hint that the party will be chosen from those who have already caught the selectors’ eye means that he will now have significant input to the final decision. No longer can he sit back and accept the selectors’ judgment. He has now seen the candidates play in Test cricket and – less importantly, but often more frequently – in the nets. At last he can make up his own mind.
His insistence that he would like Joe Root to bat at No3 is interesting because it is so public and obviously at variance with the view of his captain with whom he has a very healthy relationship. It is also very Australian, though there have been plenty of relatively modern examples of the best Aussie batsmen in the side not batting at three: Allan Border, Steve Waugh, Michael Clarke and, sometimes – though not in their last Test in Bangladesh – Steve Smith.
Currently Mark Stoneman and Dawid Malan, of the newcomers, look secure, though a few more runs for Surrey and Middlesex in the coming weeks would confirm their appetite for the fray. If Root is not intending to bat at No3 it might be useful from an England perspective if Surrey were to experiment a little by batting Stoneman there. It is one of the strengths of the Championship – it seems to matter so much – and a possible source of frustration for the England and Wales Cricket Board that Surrey would probably be reluctant to juggle their side accordingly at the sharp end of the season. Following the Bayliss indicator the form of Tom Westley, Haseeb Hameed, Gary Ballance, Alex Hales and Keaton Jennings in their remaining Championship matches should be of significance.
The delicious uncertainties – at least for those looking on from afar – continue in the keeping and spinning departments. Who will be Jonny Bairstow’s understudy after a Test summer when the Yorkshire keeper has made very few mistakes? Recently that man has been Jos Buttler but given that he is such an integral part of England’s white-ball teams is it counterproductive to have him traipsing around Australia for a couple of months before he takes centre stage again? In this conversation Ben Foakes of Surrey is always mentioned.
Moeen Ali’s understudy – and just conceivably his partner by the time the circus gets to Sydney – is another puzzle. The wrist-spinners seem to be the flavour of the month but Adil Rashid has been ditched; Mason Crane has been picked instead but never played. Logically one should have someone in the party who could replace Moeen if he turns an ankle on the morning of the match. He should probably be a finger spinner capable of giving solid support to the pacemen rather than a quixotic wrist spinner. No such men have been identified but a few candidates will have to be in Australia, either in the senior party or with the Lions come November.
In the meantime enjoy the speculation over the best list of names for the tour, a rather more relaxing pastime for us armchair critics than it will be for the selectors over the next two or three weeks.
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