Words by Simon Edwards; Comment Online Editor
The upcoming Ashes series will mark the end of a complex year for English cricket. COVID bubble fatigue, a cancelled tour of Pakistan, injuries to key players, the success of The Hundred and the rapidly expanding exposure of institutional racism within the county system, beginning with Azeem Rafiq’s accusations against Yorkshire, mark a year replete with seismic events. Through it all nonetheless, the Ashes were the ECB’s focus: as is often the case with the most storied and coveted prize in cricket (if you’re English or Australian), the upcoming series has loomed large over the year. There was even hope that a win in the T20 World Cup in November would galvanise the team going into the First Test on December 8th: that Australia ended up winning the tournament instead is, to put it mildly, a bad omen.
The Australian side, even without a World Cup under its belt less than a month prior, is a potent one: their batting line-up is a daunting prospect for opposing bowlers, with a middle-order containing two of the world’s finest Test batsmen, the unorthodox but pugnacious Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne. The retirement of fast bowler James Pattinson in October leaves a gap in the attack yet to be filled, but Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood provide plenty of firepowers, especially on home turf with a Kookaburra ball where pace and accuracy are kings. Experienced spinner Nathan Lyon is a stalwart of the side, the country’s finest spinner since Shane Warne with plenty of English scalps among his 400+ wickets. Despite losing to India at home in January and the shock departure last week of captain Tim Paine, this Aussie side has plenty of tools in its arsenal, and is not to be underestimated.
The England team relies, as it often does, on key anchor players to secure a fragile line-up. Joe Root as captain and chief run-scorer is in tremendous form this year: averaging 66 with six 100+ totals to his name, he sits a mere 333 runs behind Mohammad Yousuf’s all-time record for most runs scored in a single year by a test batsman – whether he chases that target or not, his good form is essential. Returning all-rounder Ben Stokes similarly has a lot riding on him, arguably too much for a player recently returned from injury and a break for mental health reasons. A cool head under pressure, hero of both the 2019 World Cup final and the Headingly test which secured his spot in British sporting history, he is a lynchpin of the team with both bat and ball, and his grounding presence in the line-up has been sorely missed. Stokes’ presence will hopefully alleviate some pressure on James Anderson, arguably England’s finest Test bowler but one whose swing-bowling style is hampered by the Australian conditions.
The series is a tough ask for this England side: shaky form and injury concerns abound, and many first-pick players lack experience of Australia’s blazing heat and hostile crowds. If opening pair Rory Burns and Haseeb Hameed can weather the Australian storm; if Ollie Robinson, Mark Wood and Chris Woakes can adapt to the bowling conditions; if England can pull together around their core players and present a united team, they have a chance. If they don’t, it’ll be a massacre.