It won’t be great if England play the Ashes with eight

Alec Swann Columnist

By , Alec Swann is a Roar Expert

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    Now that Cricket Australia and the ACA have seemingly kissed and made up, it looks as though the Ashes will take place as scheduled.

    Given that so much was at stake – advertising, sponsors, broadcast revenue, the goodwill of those providing the aforementioned, commitment of the supporters etc. – the chances of the biggest and most traditional of contests being allowed to sail by unchecked were negligible at best, whatever any of the protagonists may have said.

    Fouling on your own doorstep is one thing, and this whole fiasco has been a shabbily conducted PR gaffe, but being unprepared to clean it up is another entirely. The proverbial bullet will have been successfully dodged when Jimmy Anderson/Mitchell Starc delivers the first ball to David Warner/Alastair Cook at the Gabba in late November.

    And now that the ticket sellers can go about their business confident they actually have a product to sell, it seems apt to start making some robust predictions.

    With the future always looking more assured in the warm glow of victory, and the thumping of South Africa warrants as much, it is ‘safe’ to say that come the first couple of weeks in January it will be Joe Root, and not Steve Smith, holding the small urn up for the cameras.

    This may be jumping the gun a little bit, but if you’re going to support your team then you’ve got to support your team and that means optimism in large amounts.

    Watching Anderson, Stuart Broad and Moeen Ali make mincemeat of Faf du Plessis et al at Old Trafford, it was tricky to see anything other than a comprehensive series triumph Down Under, in homage to that of 2010-11. I’m going to phone the bookmakers right away.

    Okay, I’ll stop with the patriotic jingoism and climb back down to reality, one which finds England in decent shape, especially on the bowling front where there is a good balance, but with worryingly big cracks in the facade.

    Question marks over the odd player is usual and not many sides have taken to the field with a completely unchallengeable XI, but to have a top five with three under the hammer is hardly desirable. A strong lower middle order is all well and good, and it is very good, but they will only bail you out so many times.

    However, if England turn up in Brisbane with no decent opening partner for Cook, a number three with obvious technical shortcomings, and a far from convincing number five they are serving themselves up for the taking.

    If I was Starc or Josh Hazlewood I’d be licking my lips at the prospect of bowling at Keaton Jennings, Tom Westley and Dawid Malan. The first is a catch behind the wicket waiting to happen, the second has a tendency to try and hit balls from outside off through mid-on, and the third just doesn’t appear to have the game for the highest level.

    Westley has looked the most at home of the trio, and his debut at the Oval was nice and composed, but it didn’t take long for a high-class attack to pinpoint a weakness – I’ve never seen a top order batsman at Test level faced with no cover point – and the Australian seamers are no mugs.

    If the Essex man can iron this out then he could prosper as there is enough there to suggest an ability to contribute on a consistent basis, but the same can’t be said for Jennings and Malan. Both have had their respective temperaments praised and this is undoubtedly a major asset but the mind doesn’t hit the ball.

    Keaton Jennings plays a shot for England.

    (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

    In Jennings’ defence, he had an excellent season for Durham last year and started his Test career brightly, but at this moment in time he’s either out of form, devoid of confidence, or has been found out. Keep the ball off his legs and he doesn’t look like scoring at all.

    As for Malan, his selection at least made up for the rather strange choice of an average spinner in Liam Dawson, who is more accomplished as a batsman than bowler, to go in at eight, yet it looked like a short-term fix initially and that hasn’t changed. There, surely, has to be better option out there and that goes for the opening slot as well.

    The one saving grace is three Tests against the West Indies for the selectors to get their hunches right. It isn’t as if they will be making decisions based on a series defeat, and any hope some of those under pressure still have would’ve been extinguished by such a scenario, yet if it is going to be done then it has to be done immediately.

    Basing everything around the Ashes, certainly a year or so out as some are wont to do, is the best way to ignore what is in front of you but at some stage this has to be the focus.

    A strong England XI, especially if their bowling unit are fit and firing, will have a good chance of holding on to the urn.

    A strong England eight, regardless of whether they’ve thumped South Africa or not, won’t.

    Alec Swann
    Alec Swann

    Alec Swann is a former Northants and Lancashire opener turned cricket writer. Outside of the joys of a Test match, Newcastle United and golf generally occupy his other sporting interests with a soft spot for the Newcastle Knights.

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