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England's form looks ominous for Ashes

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Expert
16th July, 2019
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Australia were already underdogs for the upcoming Ashes but their task looks even tougher now given the hot form of key English players and the confidence and momentum earned by their World Cup win.

England stars Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow are all flying with the bat, while the fine touch of quicks Chris Woakes, Jofra Archer and Mark Wood has now given the hosts considerable bowling depth.

Aside from veteran swing bowler James Anderson, every one of England’s most valuable Test players was on the field as they claimed their first World Cup in a phenomenal final against New Zealand.

Anderson, Root, Stokes, Bairstow, Buttler and Woakes are the core of this England Test team in home conditions. If fit, I expect all six of those cricketers to play the first Test in 15 days from now, alongside an uncertain top three, one out of Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, and either Archer or Wood.

No Stuart Broad? Yes, that’s right.

I don’t expect the veteran to play in the Ashes opener if Anderson is healthy. In addition to Anderson, England surely will want the variety offered by express pace and in Wood and Archer they have two appealing options.

Then the third pace spot would be between Woakes and Broad, with Sam Curran also considered. Woakes, these days, is a vastly better batsman than Broad and England love batting deep.

Plus, Woakes owns a dominant Test record in the UK, with 54 wickets at 23, and is coming off an impressive World Cup in which he took 16 wickets at 27.

Chris Woakes

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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Broad, meanwhile, is currently having limited impact in county cricket, taking just 17 wickets from seven matches at an average of 30. His lack of penetration is highlighted by the fact that out of the top 35 wicket takers in Division One, Broad has the second worst strike rate at 69.

Australian Peter Siddle, by comparison, has taken 32 wickets at 20 in the same division with a strike rate of 47. Broad’s experience and previous success against Australia is a selling point. But I don’t think that will be enough to overcome the bowling form and batting value of Woakes.

England will love the idea of unleashing Anderson, Woakes and Archer/Wood against the Australian batsmen on a seaming pitch. Although the Aussie bowling attack has done a solid job during their recent Ashes losses in England, their batting has been brittle.

This has been particularly so on surfaces offering sideways movement. While Broad may be searching for touch, his long-time new ball partner Anderson is in terrifyingly good nick.

England’s all-time leading Test wicket taker has torn Division Two to shreds this season with 30 wickets at 9. Anderson took only ten wickets in three Tests in the last Ashes in England, but since then he has run amok in home Tests, taking 102 wickets at 16 from 20 matches.

England will have the luxury of either pairing Anderson with the seam, swing and accuracy of Woakes, or going for greater contrast by handing the new ball to one of the intimidating pair of Archer and Wood.

As well as Archer bowled in the World Cup, taking 20 wickets at 23, Wood may have the edge on him due to having been man of the match in England’s most recent Test. Long known for his short run-up, Wood lengthened his approach before that Test in the West Indies, and has since enjoyed the best form of his career.

Complementing these quicks will be Stokes, who is in equally ominous touch.

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The all-rounder was a strong contender for the World Cup player of the tournament after taking seven wickets at 35 to go with 465 runs at 66, a haul which featured several pivotal knocks, including in the final.

Widely known as a hitter in white ball cricket, Stokes showed admirable technique, composure and doggedness with the blade in this World Cup. He looks ready for a massive Ashes with the bat.

England's James Anderson, centre, celebrates taking a wicket

England’s James Anderson has a tremendous Ashes record (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

What’s more is that Stokes’ recent bowling form in Tests has been scorching, with 29 wickets at 25 in his past ten matches.

The only weakness in the England attack is in the spin department. Whereas Australia boast an elite Test spinner in Nathan Lyon, England’s slow bowling options are comparatively poor.

Off-spinner Moeen Ali has had a nightmare with the ball in Ashes Tests, averaging 66 from ten matches.

Leggie Adil Rashid, meanwhile, is coming off an ordinary World Cup in which he averaged 48 with the ball. Rashid also has an underwhelming Test bowling record, averaging 40 from 19 matches.

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What Rashid and Moeen do offer, though, is batting depth. With the likes of Woakes, Curran and Archer also gifted with the bat, England’s tail will pose a significant challenge to Australia.

So, too, will the middle order, with Root, Stokes, Buttler and Bairstow likely to line up between four and seven. Each of those batsmen has been in tremendous touch in ODIs and will carry with them the confidence earned from their heart-stopping World Cup victory.

Australia will not be easybeats thanks to the quality and experience of the likes of Steve Smith, David Warner, Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Usman Khawaja and Tim Paine.

That is a very strong core. But with all of England’s key players in fine fettle, the Aussies are up against it.