The Ashes is always the most anticipated series in cricket, especially seeing as India and Pakistan don’t face off in the Test arena these days. On Thursday 23 November in Brisbane, the action kicks off with England seeking to retain the famous little urn and secure a first series win in Australia since 2010/11.
Both sides, at present, have holes throughout their batting line ups. With both sides looking relatively weak by way of comparison with sides that they’ve had this century, it could provide some hugely dramatic cricket, with both sides capable of collapsing in the face of world class seam bowling.
Here, we attempt to pick our England squad to travel Down Under. The selections are based on England taking a 16 man squad.
Joe Root, Alastair Cook, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali, Stuart Broad, James Anderson
These seven are the engine room of English cricket and are guaranteed starters, injury permitting, in Brisbane.
The likely lads
Mark Stoneman, Tom Westley, Dawid Malan, Chris Woakes, Toby Roland-Jones
If possession is nine 10ths of the law, then Stoneman, Westley and Malan look likely to fill the remaining batting spots in Brisbane. Stoneman and Malan have done just about enough to assure themselves of their spots, but the form of Westley is of grave concern. Simply put, he doesn’t look like he belongs at Test level. Having a walking wicket at first drop is no way to enter any series, let alone an Ashes series in Australia and Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins will be licking their lips at the thought of aiming at that big front pad.
Malan, too, has looked unconvincing so far in his Test career, but I have a suspicion that the wickets in Australia may be to his liking. If nothing else, he at least showed some dogged determination to put a price on his wicket this summer.
Stoneman is a beneficiary of a paucity of options. He is Cook’s umpteenth opening partner since the retirement of Andrew Strauss and no combination has stuck atop the order for England. Stoneman deserves his chance as he has been a consistent scorer on the County circuit over the past five seasons. Who the hell would you replace him with, anyway?
Woakes and Roland-Jones appear to be vying for the remaining spot in the starting XI. Woakes is valued for his batting, but he needs game time before he can be considered a starter. TRJ had an encouraging introduction to Test cricket this summer, but he lacks genuine pace which could make him cannon fodder to the likes of Warner and Smith with a soft Kookaburra ball in his hand.
The back up
There are four slots available here assuming all of the above are selected and this where the conversation gets interesting. Another opening batsman, a reserve wicket keeper, a spinner and another seam bowling option will be required.
The identity of the reserve opener is perhaps the greyest area. With Stoneman hardly a banker as a long term option at present, he is only the latest in a long line of iffy selections. The only one to have really looked the part is Lancashire’s Haseeb Hameed last winter in India. He managed three Tests before breaking his finger in India and has endured a wretched season with his title chasing County.
He has failed to register a single century and despite finding some late season form, he has scored his runs at a coma inducing rate. He was dismissed for four from 56 balls against Somerset this week. That sort of plodding won’t get him or England anywhere and at the tender age of 20, his time will soon come round again. He should be left to tour with the England Lions this winter and find his form again next season. The talent is so obviously there, the form so obviously isn’t.
Middlesex’s Nick Gubbins has been mentioned, but his selection would smack of ‘we’ve tried every other fucking batsman in the country, let’s give this one a go.’ He’s also averaging 24.15 this season so has hardly yelled his case for inclusion.
Keaton Jennings, despite enduring a torrid time of things this summer, would appear the most likely to go. There’s a good player in there, as he showed in India last year with a century on debut, but his form has collapsed this year. He’s hardly the most compelling choice, but he does represent the future.
The other batting option England may consider is Gary Ballance. He’s batted superbly for struggling Yorkshire this season, although he was a walking wicket in Test cricket against South Africa this summer. Joe Root appeared keen on having his former housemate in the ranks, so he cannot be discounted at this point.
If England decide against a backup opener, then Liam Livingstone could be another name in the frame. The Lancashire batsman had an horrific international debut, costing England a win in a T20 against South Africa, but he clearly has talent and a healthy First Class average. He would be a leftfield selection, though.
The reserve keeper should be a little easier to decide upon. Jos Buttler was the man to carry out the duty last winter, but for reasons unkown, he has struggled in Test cricket and has even lost the gloves at Lancashire this season to the promising Alex Davies.
That leaves Ben Foakes, the Surrey gloveman, as the man to support Bairstow. This potentially solves two problems for England. If Westley or Malan need replacing, as it seems likely they will at some point, Foakes can come in for Bairstow with Bairstow moving up the order to shore up the middle order batting. He’s well capable of batting in the top four if Root has to move to three and Foakes is an exceptional keeper who has scored plenty of runs in 2017.
The reserve spinner is another conundrum for England. Zafar Ansari, Gareth Batty, Liam Dawson, Adil Rashid and Mo Ali have all played Test cricket in the past 12 months. Ansari has since retired from cricket, Batty has been fitted for a Zimmer frame, Rashid has dropped out of all selection thoughts in Test cricket and Dawson was utterly useless. Ali, however, has gone from strength to strength.
So who will his deputy in Australia be? Mason Crane, the Hampshire leg spinner, appears hotly fancied by the selectors, although his record leaves a little to be desired: he has taken 16 wickets this season at 41.43. He’s also only 20. It’s surely way too soon to throw him into an Ashes tour.
Jack Leach must have done something pretty terrible to someone at the ECB. The Somerset spinner was tipped to tour Bangladesh and India last winter but after his omission there was public questioning of his ability to handle an overseas tour and then his action was called into question. This season he has taken 42 wickets at 27.07 and has a First Class bowling average of 27.53. He’s a consistent performer and surely should be ahead of Crane in the pecking order. Still, England’s recent record of throwing Test caps at unconvincing spinners has gone really well…
The final seam berth should go to Mark Wood. His pace is a genuine asset, but his fitness is a genuine concern. It would appear unlikely that he could play three Tests this winter, let alone all five, but he offers an X factor that is missing amongst TRJ and Woakes.
Jamie Porter is the current top wicket taker in the County Championship for champions elect Essex, with 64 wickets so far in 2017. Given that Trevor Bayliss has never watched a County Championship match in his life, however, his selection would be a massive surprise.
Craig Overton at Somerset has been a name that has been hanging around the England set up for a couple of years now and it wouldn’t be such a shock if he got the nod. Players like Steven Finn and Jake Ball appear to have fallen completely out of favour, although Finn has experience of Test cricket in Australia and, if fit, can be a real asset to any side.
Probable England squad
- Root (capt.)
- Stokes (v.c.)
My England squad
Root, Stokes, Cook, Stoneman, Ballance, Malan, Bairstow, Ali, Broad, Anderson, TRJ, Woakes, Wood, Jennings, Foakes, Leach
By Miles Reucroft