It’s still six months until the first Ashes Test starts, but I’ve been trying to work out who will be the impact players from each team.
For Australia there are the obvious candidates: David Warner, Steve Smith Marnus Labuschagne and the fast bowlers.
England will be looking to Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, Jofra Archer and their other fast bowlers.
In reality the series may come down to two factors: the captaincy decisions made by Root and Tim Paine and how well each team’s spinners perform.
Australia has had a bowling formula that’s worked pretty well in recent years. Choose three fast bowlers and Nathan Lyon. Use the three quicks for the first 20 overs or so then give Lyon one end for 20 or 30 overs and ask the fast guys to bowl short, sharp bursts from the other.
The reason this approach works is because Lyon is a world-class spinner. He’s able to tie up one end and still take wickets. He is able to bowl in partnership with any of Australia’s fast attack and can maintain pressure on batsmen for long periods.
In effect he makes Tim Paine’s task in deciding who to bowl that much easier. Paine for the most part can set one end with Lyon and rotate his quicks. They can respond with an all-out effort knowing they probably won’t be asked to bowl a long spell.
Joe Root is also blessed in having a world-class all-rounder in Ben Stokes playing for him. That means he too can choose three quicks and a spinner, but on paper he has a distinct advantage with that extra fast bowler.
It’s tough to know who England would chose as their best attack in Australia. Other than Stokes, they could include Jofra Archer, James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Mark Wood, Olly Stone or maybe even Chris Woakes, Ollie Robinson or one of the Curran brothers. They also have Jack Leach and Dom Bess as the likely candidates for the spinners spot.
The issue Joe Root has to address is how he manages these bowlers, and right now his biggest dilemma is his spin option.
Jack Leach and Dom Bess have been in contention for the England spinning role for the past few seasons and neither has really demanded to be chosen.
In the recent tour of India, which was dominated by the Indian spinners after the first Test, neither Leach nor Bess set the world on fire.
Leach played all four Tests and returned figures of 18 wickets at 28.72, while Bess played only two matches and took six wickets at 29.40. More to the point, Leach went at 3.21 runs an over and Bess at 3.86, so neither bowler was penetrating, nor were they building pressure by drying up the runs.
Bear in mind that Root himself bowled 45 overs in the Indian series, taking six wickets at a touch over 23. He also went at 3.13 runs per over, which might explain the absence of a recognised spinner from the England side in the recent Test series against New Zealand.
Granted, the conditions favoured the faster men and Stokes didn’t play, but Root bowled 31 overs of gentle offies, which suggests a recognised spinner could have been worth a spot.
So where does this leave Chris Silverwood, coach and sole selector, and Joe Root? I suspect with a lot of conundrums to solve.
First they have to get the balance of bowling types right. Any attack needs at least one or more bowlers capable of holding an end tight, which will likely mean having to bowl long spells.
That responsibility would fall on guys like Anderson, Broad, Robinson and either Leach or Bess, but in reality Anderson’s record in Australia is so-so, Robinson’s a complete unknown in Australian conditions and the spinners are struggling to keep the runs down.
That puts huge pressure on attacking options Stokes, Wood, Stone and Archer.
Rather than having them bowl three or four overs and then have a spell for an hour or more, Root may be forced to bowl them for much longer periods, which will blunt their effectiveness the longer the innings lasts and the longer the Test series goes.
Australia’s issues will be getting the right rotations in place for the quicks so we avoid the same situation the team faced in Brisbane against India, with out-of-form, tired bowlers trying to back up through a tight Test series.
Paine and the fast guys will be counting on Lyon doing a job at one end while attacking with the other three bowlers, assuming England’s batsmen settle in. Paine will still need to get his field placements right, which will be crucial for Lyon to do his job successfully.
Root, on the other hand, has to sort out his spin attack over the next five Tests against India. He has to show confidence in their ability to do a job, first of all by selecting one or both and then by setting fields to support them.
If neither spinner can meet that brief, I’d suggest England are in trouble.
Test cricket is all about building pressure, and that’s seriously hard to do on the true pitches in Australia. Batsmen can and will sit on a quality bowler like Archer knowing they can milk the bowler at the other end and keep the scoreboard moving.
Joe Root will be hoping his Test spin bowling issues are solved well before 8 December. If not, it could be a long couple of months for him and his team.