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Proteas exposing England’s Ashes frailties

Ronan O'Connell Columnist

By Ronan O'Connell, Ronan O'Connell is a Roar Expert

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76 Have your say

    Let’s put aside Australian cricket’s pay dispute for a moment and consider the weaknesses and strengths of their Ashes opponents being highlighted during England’s current Test series against South Africa.

    England’s pluses are well documented – the brilliance of captain Joe Root, the stability offered by grafting opener Alastair Cook, their very long batting line-up, and the skill and experience of quicks Stuart Broad and James Anderson.

    Yet the Old Enemy yesterday crashed to a massive loss in the second Test against South Africa, who helped emphasise the home side’s two glaring weaknesses – a fragile top-order and poor pace-bowling depth.

    The latter issue is embodied by quick Mark Wood. The 27-year-old has been hyped for months now, with fans and pundits predicting he will become a high-quality Test player and a key weapon in this summer’s Ashes.

    It seems Wood’s fans have been seduced by his pace. This is likely due to the fact genuinely quick bowlers have long been scarce in England, as opposed to in Australia where there is a battery of talented 145kmh-plus bowlers in Mitchell Starc, James Pattinson and Pat Cummins.

    Wood is the only Test bowler England have had in the past five years capable of consistently reaching such startling speeds. When the skiddy right armer is operating at top pace he can be penetrative. The problem is that Wood’s fragile chassis means he is injury-prone and often loses the extra 5-10kmh in pace he desperately needs.

    At 145kmh, Wood is a threat. At 135kmh, as he has often been against South Africa, the 183cm-tall quick is largely impotent due to his middling accuracy and lack of bounce or swing. England’s pace attack has had minimal variety in the current series, with four right armers (Wood, Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Ben Stokes) all bowling mostly in the 130-140kmh bracket.

    The good news for England is that evergreen swing bowler James Anderson has been superb, baffling the Proteas batsmen with his hooping deliveries. Anderson will be confident of running through the Aussie batsmen in the same way in the second Ashes Test, a day-night fixture on what should be a juiced-up Adelaide pitch.

    England's bowler James Anderson grimaces in frustration

    AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

    His long-time new-ball partner, Broad, has bowled better than his figures against South Africa suggest, and shapes as England’s most important bowler in the Ashes. Beyond that veteran pair, England’s bowling is threadbare.

    Wood took just one wicket across the first two Tests against South Africa and has a poor record of 26 wickets at 41 from his ten Tests. A heel injury means he is likely to miss the third Test and England won’t be able to recall their third-choice paceman, Chris Woakes, who also is injured.

    Woakes has a sensational record at home, with 40 wickets at 22 from ten Tests. But his bowling figures abroad are nothing short of horrendous, averaging 64 while managing only eight wickets from seven Tests. To this point of his career, at least, Woakes has been exposed as reliant on the seam movement offered by many English pitches and the consistent swing of the Dukes ball.

    It is hard to see how Woakes will have significant success this summer on flat pitches with a Kookaburra ball, which rarely will move off the straight.

    Outside of Broad, Anderson, Woakes and Wood, England have no fast bowlers with solid Test records.

    And their spin department continues to be an Achilles heel, with all-rounders Moeen Ali and Liam Dawson favoured ahead of a specialist tweaker. Even the finest visiting Test spinners have laboured in Australia, so Moeen and Dawson are unlikely to offer much value with the ball in the Ashes.

    Moeen is assured of his place thanks to his blossoming batting, having piled up runs over the past year. Dawson is a bits-and-pieces player, neither a proper spinner nor a frontline batsman, and will battle to maintain his place.

    Englands cricketer Moeen Ali


    The spots of top-order batsmen Gary Ballance and Keaton Jennings are similarly shaky. While England have a quality middle order thanks to Root, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes and Moeen, all too often they lose several wickets against the new ball.

    In their past ten Tests, England 11 times have been two down with 50 or less on the scoreboard. In that brief period, Cook has had five different opening partners – Alex Hales, Ben Duckett, Haseeb Hameed, Moeen and current partner Jennings.

    The 25-year-old South African made a terrific start to his Test career with England, cracking 112 in his first Test innings. Jennings has floundered since, however, scoring just 99 runs at 14 from seven innings.

    The South Africans have honed in on a chink in Jennings’ defence by bowling around the wicket to the left hander to cramp him for room. With Hameed mired in a deep form trough in county cricket, England’s opening options are limited.

    In the same period, England have tried six different players at three or four – Root, Ballance, Moeen, Duckett, Stokes and James Vince. In this way, England’s top order woes have been reminiscent of the merry-go-round that has been Australia’s Test top three for many years.

    Root finally seems to have found a permanent home at four, after starting his career in the middle order, then moving up to open, then falling back to the middle, prior to a decent stint at first drop.

    The latest man to be handed the role of batting at number three is Ballance. In 2015, Australia’s quicks ended Ballance’s first stint in Test cricket by maintaining a full length and exploiting his flawed technique, which sees him hang deep in the crease, never getting a good stride towards the ball.

    Ballance was recalled for the current series against South Africa after dominating in county cricket but has refused to correct his technique. If he survives to the Ashes, the left hander shapes as an easy opponent for Australia’s gun new ball pair Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc. Like Jennings, Ballance has no obvious replacement at first drop.

    While England’s batting remains quite strong overall due to their prolific middle-to-lower order, their top three and their shallow pace bowling depth shape as major hindrances ahead of the Ashes.

    Assuming it goes ahead.

    Ronan O
    Ronan O'Connell

    Ronan O'Connell has been a journalist for well over 13 years, including nine at daily newspapers in WA. He now traverses the world as a travel photojournalist, contributing words and photography to more than 30 magazines and newspapers including CNN, BBC, The Toronto Star, The Guardian, The South China Morning Post, The Irish Examiner and The Australian Financial Review. Check out his work and follow him on Twitter @ronanoco

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    The Crowd Says (76)

    • July 18th 2017 @ 8:08am
      Nudge said | July 18th 2017 @ 8:08am | ! Report

      Moeen has been very good this series with the ball. No doubt he will be the specialist spinner during the ashes. England need to strengthen there batting. At the moment they are playing 6 decent bowlers. They should play Moeen at 8 and a specialist bat at 7. Something like

      • Columnist

        July 18th 2017 @ 8:19am
        Ronan O'Connell said | July 18th 2017 @ 8:19am | ! Report

        Nudge I think England should let Bairstow play as a specialist batsman and give the gloves to Ben Foakes, who is widely considered a gun gloveman while also averaging 40 with the bat in FC cricket.

        Bairstow is batting very well already but his game could go to another level if he was freed up of that responsibility.

        • July 18th 2017 @ 9:36am
          Nudge said | July 18th 2017 @ 9:36am | ! Report

          Spot onRonan, that’s exactly what you’d hope they don’t do. That could help fix the top order as well as Bairstow could move to 3, or Root to 3 Bairstow 4. If they were to stick with Ballance he’d be a lot better chance of success at 5. Foakes would be most likely but Butler would be very dangerous coming in at 8 with the bowlers perhaps in there 4th or 5th spell

        • July 18th 2017 @ 12:09pm
          DLKN said | July 18th 2017 @ 12:09pm | ! Report

          So we’d end up facing Foakes, Woakes and Stokes? Hmmm, different strokes.

          Enough of the bad jokes. This sounds like a hoax. Pick other blokes.

          • July 18th 2017 @ 2:12pm
            Junior Coach said | July 18th 2017 @ 2:12pm | ! Report

            Lillee caught Willey bowled Dilley

        • Roar Guru

          July 18th 2017 @ 1:08pm
          Chris Kettlewell said | July 18th 2017 @ 1:08pm | ! Report

          If they are happy to have Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes as the 4th and 5th bowlers, thus only selecting 3 specialist bowlers, then it would be easy to let Bairstow play as a batsman and pick another keeper as you’ve already well and truly got the allrounders covered, so in that lineup, the keeper could easily bat at #8. Probably find that if they want to slip in the fourth genuine bowler into the lineup, playing Bairstow probably gets the gloves.

        • Roar Guru

          July 19th 2017 @ 1:46pm
          JamesH said | July 19th 2017 @ 1:46pm | ! Report

          Ronan, what the hell happened to Finn? Is he injured or just not in the frame? It seems to me his height and bounce could be very useful in Australia, provided he has some miserly bowlers around him.

          • Columnist

            July 19th 2017 @ 5:38pm
            Ronan O'Connell said | July 19th 2017 @ 5:38pm | ! Report

            James, Finn has had a few injuries over recent years but has also struggled with his rhythm – one spell he’ll look elite, and the next he’ll clearly be distracted by his run-up and/or delivery stride and bowl poorly.

            He’s looking more and more like a lost talent. When I first saw him as a 21yo in the 2010-11 Ashes I thought he was set to become a superstar of Tests and ODIs – a 201cm express quick who swung the ball.

            Finn’s fallen back in the Test pecking order for England but I’d be surprised if he’s not considered very strongly to tour Australia if, that is, he produces decent county form over the next six weeks or so.

      • Roar Guru

        July 18th 2017 @ 10:04am
        Rellum said | July 18th 2017 @ 10:04am | ! Report

        Those pitches have looked like they have taken a fair bit of turn. The SA spinner has looked like Warnie on occasion.

        • July 18th 2017 @ 2:42pm
          Mike Dugg said | July 18th 2017 @ 2:42pm | ! Report

          Maharaj is no mug. His bowling was pretty solid here last summer

          • Roar Guru

            July 18th 2017 @ 6:16pm
            Rellum said | July 18th 2017 @ 6:16pm | ! Report

            I didn’t say he was, he looks very impressive to me, but he is not Warne and some of his deliveries turned square in this series.

    • July 18th 2017 @ 8:37am
      Bert said | July 18th 2017 @ 8:37am | ! Report

      As always; the team with the best bowlers wins.

      Also batting first; as shown in these two tests is a huge advantage in test cricket.

      • Roar Guru

        July 18th 2017 @ 1:19pm
        Chris Kettlewell said | July 18th 2017 @ 1:19pm | ! Report

        Two tests is hardly a statistical significant data set. And I don’t know that they really show advantage for batting first anyway.

        The highest innings score in the 2nd test was the third innings. So it was still good enough for batting for SA to manage 343 in that innings. England just didn’t play well. SA managed 335 in the first innings after 96 overs. Hardly a total to cause some sort of “scoreboard pressure” or a long innings to leave England players tired from a long innings in the field. Yet they were rolled for 205. If England had come out and scored 450 then SA would have been under pressure, but they didn’t, they got 205. And you can’t blame that on the conditions favouring SA in the first innings over England in the second, because SA came right out and score 343 in the next innings.

        No, England just lost because they were thoroughly outplayed. Can’t blame the toss for that one.

        The first test was different. You could potentially have an argument for batting first being an advantage in the first test where the scores got progressively worse with each innings, suggesting that it started out good for batting and just got harder and harder to bat on as the match went on, which are definitely conditions that favour the side batting first. But the second test doesn’t show that at all.

        • July 18th 2017 @ 1:50pm
          The Fatman said | July 18th 2017 @ 1:50pm | ! Report

          In test cricket; the wickets get worse the longer the game goes on.


          • Roar Guru

            July 18th 2017 @ 8:30pm
            Chris Kettlewell said | July 18th 2017 @ 8:30pm | ! Report

            Actually no, that’s not true. Some pitches are best to bat on day one and just gets worse as the match gets on, that’s a pretty bat test pitch. Some pitches start out with lots of grass and moisture giving lots of seam movement and flatten out as the match goes on and are best to bat on at the end. In general the best all round pitches will have something for the fast bowlers on day 1, something for the spinners on day 5 and are best to bat in the middle.

        • July 18th 2017 @ 5:03pm
          Nudge said | July 18th 2017 @ 5:03pm | ! Report

          343 in the first innings is definitely scoreboard pressure Chris. 343 is a very decent first innings score. When RSA batted in the third innings they had no scoreboard pressure because they were leading by 130 after the 1st innings, and that played a huge role in the third innings being the highest team score for the game. You’re kidding yourself if you think the toss doesn’t player a major factor in today’s game. The toss will be critical during the ashes

          • Columnist

            July 18th 2017 @ 6:30pm
            Ronan O'Connell said | July 18th 2017 @ 6:30pm | ! Report

            Anecdotally it does seem like batting first is a bigger advantage in Tests now than it was 10-20 years ago. Teams batting second seems not to cope well with scoreboard pressure these days probably because it requires some graft rather than just playing your shots.

            • Roar Guru

              July 18th 2017 @ 6:50pm
              Rellum said | July 18th 2017 @ 6:50pm | ! Report

              Pitches even in today’s game still deteriorate over the five days, so the flat track dashers find it more difficult as the game goes on. As you say, the lack of players who can graft, or who can pace their innings shows.

            • Roar Guru

              July 18th 2017 @ 8:33pm
              Chris Kettlewell said | July 18th 2017 @ 8:33pm | ! Report

              Probably has more to do with pitches less often being left with anything in them for the fast bowlers at the start. The classic pitch giving the fast bowlers some movement on day 1, the spinners some movement on day 5, and the best batting in days 2-4 isn’t as common these days. Often they just start out good to bat on and just get worse.

              But even saying that, India, which is the classic place for these sorts of pitches more than anything, India regularly manage to win matches batting second, just see whatever the other team score batting first and bat way past it.

          • July 18th 2017 @ 11:58pm
            SJ said | July 18th 2017 @ 11:58pm | ! Report

            Actually the toss made no difference. Root said he would have bowled 1st anyway…

    • Roar Rookie

      July 18th 2017 @ 9:06am
      Lancey5times said | July 18th 2017 @ 9:06am | ! Report

      What good is a solid middle order when 2 of your top 3 are suspect? Maybe a specialist keeper and Bairstow at 3 is worth a try between now and the Ashes. Even Moeen Ali at 3 could be worth a try. He’s unlikely to do much bowling out here. Ballance would be a huge mistake on our wickets and against our attack.

      And coming out here with 2 proven bowlers is a massive worry. Puts a heap of pressure on Stokes.

      • July 18th 2017 @ 12:32pm
        Nudge said | July 18th 2017 @ 12:32pm | ! Report

        Pattinson, Cummins, Starc and Hazlewood would be licking their chops if Moeen came out to bat at 3 Lancey

        • Roar Rookie

          July 18th 2017 @ 1:14pm
          Lancey5times said | July 18th 2017 @ 1:14pm | ! Report

          I was basically highlighting their lack of options for that gig

      • Roar Guru

        July 18th 2017 @ 1:28pm
        Chris Kettlewell said | July 18th 2017 @ 1:28pm | ! Report

        It’s certainly one of those tough ones, when you have a player who’s the clear stand-out in the domestic competition, but has always done well there with the same technique that’s failed him at international level and doesn’t appear to have changed anything. One one hand you look at such a player and think, he’s scored the runs in County cricket and earned selection, on the other you think that he’s likely to be a walking wicket against a top test attack.

        Not sure what other options England have. Guys like Handscomb and Renshaw for Australia were very good prospects, but someone who doesn’t follow Shield cricket and was just looking at stats might have trouble picking them out as such, so I don’t know if there are any similar sort of young players who look like really good prospects in England, but don’t necessarily have the games under their belt to show on the radar of a stats searcher.

        • Roar Guru

          July 18th 2017 @ 1:37pm
          Chris Kettlewell said | July 18th 2017 @ 1:37pm | ! Report

          Maybe get Jonty Jenner in there. 19 y/o with potential. Only one F/C innings under his belt, but he averages 68 in first class cricket! Or Sam Evans, another 19 y/o. Only 2 F/C innings, but already has a hundred and averages 63! Pick em green, keep em keen!

          • Columnist

            July 18th 2017 @ 5:41pm
            Ronan O'Connell said | July 18th 2017 @ 5:41pm | ! Report

            Interesting to see that England have called up Mark Stoneman to open the batting – a 30-year-old who averages just 34 with the bat in first-class cricket.

            • July 18th 2017 @ 5:51pm
              DavSA said | July 18th 2017 @ 5:51pm | ! Report

              That is not going to work for them . Facing Philander and a fired up Rabada with a new ball .Good luck to the fellow.

            • Roar Guru

              July 18th 2017 @ 7:35pm
              Ryan H said | July 18th 2017 @ 7:35pm | ! Report

              Almost as bad as them going back to Compton two years ago.

            • July 18th 2017 @ 8:26pm
              John Erichsen said | July 18th 2017 @ 8:26pm | ! Report

              It would be like picking Aaron Finch in our test side. They must be terribly stuck for options.

            • July 19th 2017 @ 6:30pm
              JW89 said | July 19th 2017 @ 6:30pm | ! Report

              Replying to all above as well, that average takes into account domestic T20 as well. It’s a much healthier (still lower than ideal) 42 or so in the longer format of the game. Comparisons with Finch aren’t really appropriate in this case.

              Whilst it’s difficult to read too much into stats and they can always be manipulated to suit your needs, most of his career has been spent in Durham which is known for being a bowlers ground throughout the season.

              From those more knowledgeable than me, what has stood out for Stoneman is the amount of time he seems to have at the crease. Hopefully this translates well into tests.


            • July 19th 2017 @ 11:07pm
              George said | July 19th 2017 @ 11:07pm | ! Report

              Stoneman’s call-up is long overdue based on his FC efforts of late. While Hameed is in a form slump, it’s a good selection.

    • Roar Guru

      July 18th 2017 @ 9:29am
      Paul D said | July 18th 2017 @ 9:29am | ! Report

      Gee I hope they bring Balance to Australia. Not since Rob Key waddled out to take guard in the 2002 ashes will an Australian bowler feel so confident of taking out an overweight overrated flop.

    • July 18th 2017 @ 10:12am
      Bert said | July 18th 2017 @ 10:12am | ! Report

      Anderson hasn’t had much success in Australia.

      • July 18th 2017 @ 2:14pm
        Junior Coach said | July 18th 2017 @ 2:14pm | ! Report

        Anderson is a few days away from his 35th birthday- his bowling average in Australia is a smidgen under 40- he aint going to improve from here.

      • Columnist

        July 18th 2017 @ 5:50pm
        Ronan O'Connell said | July 18th 2017 @ 5:50pm | ! Report

        Anderson could be a match-winner in the day-night Test but otherwise I think he’ll really struggle. England are fortunate that the day-night Test is early in the series as that Test will suit them and could be the match that helps them build some momentum.

        • Roar Guru

          July 18th 2017 @ 6:18pm
          Rellum said | July 18th 2017 @ 6:18pm | ! Report

          I would rather be Aus facing Anderson than the Poms facing Starc in the first hour of a night session.

        • Roar Guru

          July 18th 2017 @ 8:38pm
          Chris Kettlewell said | July 18th 2017 @ 8:38pm | ! Report

          People keep saying that, but last year they didn’t leave as much grass on as the first day/night test, and they’d developed the ball a bit more, and it didn’t seem to really do that much more than any other test. So I’m not sure that it will be as wonderful for him as people are making out.

          • Columnist

            July 18th 2017 @ 9:12pm
            Ronan O'Connell said | July 18th 2017 @ 9:12pm | ! Report

            Chris are you talking about the Adelaide day-night Test against SA or the Brisbane day-night Test against Pakistan?

            Because the Adelaide pitch last summer definitely offered more help to the seamers than a normal Adelaide pitch, particularly during the first 20 overs of each innings.

            The Brisbane pitch wasn’t quite as lively.

          • Roar Guru

            July 18th 2017 @ 10:00pm
            Rellum said | July 18th 2017 @ 10:00pm | ! Report

            Based on CA’s comments last season I do think they are very keen to make sure the ball doesn’t do much in the night sessions.

            If you look at the Shield day night games there is usually a pattern, the afternoon is full of runs, then the first hour of the night session is suddenly swinging and seaming all over the place, wickets galore. Then strangely the last hour of the night session we start to see more runs again. I assume it is to do with vision of the ball and the coming night conditions.

    • July 18th 2017 @ 10:30am
      Worlds Biggest said | July 18th 2017 @ 10:30am | ! Report

      He hasn’t but will fancy bowling in Adelaide in the day / night game, if he gets to bowl in the evening session he could be very productive.
      Ronan regarding Wood, do you think his unorthodox bowling action contributes to injury / wear and tear ? The Poms will be very competitive, this pay dispute needs to get sorted.

      • Roar Guru

        July 18th 2017 @ 1:38pm
        Chris Kettlewell said | July 18th 2017 @ 1:38pm | ! Report

        He might fancy it, but may well find it doesn’t live up to reputation. The first Day/Night test they left lots of extra grass to take care of the ball. After that they realised they overdid it. With a bit less grass and one more year of refinement on the ball, the ball didn’t do much differently in the evening sessions than the rest of the day last summer.

      • Columnist

        July 18th 2017 @ 5:55pm
        Ronan O'Connell said | July 18th 2017 @ 5:55pm | ! Report

        Regarding Wood’s action I think part of the problem is that he flogs his body trying to bowl 145kmh when he isn’t really a natural express paceman.

        He has to really strain to get to that kind of pace whereas guys like Starc and Cummins do it easily as they are natural 145kmh bowlers.

        I think Wood is a natural 135-140kmh bowler who absolutely pushes his body to the limit to get that extra 5kmh of pace.

        Broad is able to bowl 145kmh too, but he doesn’t because he knows it’s not sustainable and he can still be effective at 135kmh. Wood, I think, knows that bowling 145kmh is all that differentiates him and gets him picked so he thrashes his body to try to get up to that pace consistently.

    , ,