The first Test in the Ashes series starts on Wednesday, 8 December, and already most pundits have written off England’s chances of winning.
Bookies have Australia at $1.55, England at $3.50 and a drawn series at $7.00. In a two-horse race the price for Australia, given its performances in Tests over the past year or so, seems a little short, while England’s price seems a tad generous.
Should Australia be such clear favourites? Is England a genuine chance of winning? I believe they can, but they need to plan well, think outside the box and have every player execute well.
The first step in winning is to look at the Test schedule.
England’s squad will likely comprise Joe Root, Ben Stokes, James Anderson, Jonny Bairstow, Dom Bess, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Zak Crawley, Sam Curran, Haseeb Hameed, Dan Lawrence, Jack Leach, Craig Overton, Ollie Pope, Ollie Robinson, Dom Sibley, Chris Woakes and Mark Wood.
The next step is to treat this like a three-Test series. In other words, go hard from the first ball in Brisbane and give it absolutely everything for the first three Tests.
If England are going to win the Ashes, they can’t afford to ease into the series. If they do, they could end up with a repeat of 2006-07.
They have to be leading in the series before they get to Sydney, preferably by two Tests.
Blind Freddy knows the strength of the England squad will be their fast bowlers. Even without Jofra Archer they have a strong, varied and quick attack. They must take advantage of the skills and speed these guys possess to assert dominance over the Australian batsmen.
England’s best chances in this series are in the first two games, which again is why they have to get off to a flyer.
The attack should comprise Stuart Broad, Ollie Robinson, Mark Wood and Olly Stone for the Brisbane Test, then Broad, Anderson, Robinson and Wood for Adelaide. Decisions on who to play in Melbourne can be made once performances in the first two games are assessed.
Stokes has to play and, more importantly, has to bowl. England need his ten or 12 overs per innings as well as his ability to pick up wickets. Having him there gives the attack more balance and obviously takes some of the workload off the other four bowlers.
They must bowl the right line and length and for inspiration need to look at how the Australian attack bowled to the Black Caps in the three-Test series in 2019-20. That was some of the most accurate and penetrating bowling I’ve ever seen.
None of this bowling a sixth stump line. All bowlers, but especially Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, were on our just outside the off stump at pace and few Kiwi batsman had any answers, hence the 3-0 series scoreline.
The attack will know this is a frail Australian line-up, marginally better on paper than England but just as prone to underwhelming totals. The bowlers will target David Warner around the wicket and Marcus Harris the same way if he plays as well Will Pucovski, Travis Head and Tim Paine. They also need to contain Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne just as Neil Wagner, Tim Southee and co did two seasons ago.
The English attack has to take ten wickets, and if they bowl with the same intent Australia showed against the Black Caps, this should result in scores around the 200-250 mark. These are very manageable totals for the current English batting line-up to match.
The key to England’s batting has to be how long the top three can stay in, depriving Australia any chance of getting at Joe Root Ben Stokes while the ball is new. Rory Burns, Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley must bat ugly but with intent.
They need to be really looking for runs, not boundaries (they’re a bonus), but ones and twos. That means no flashy cover drives, expansive cut shots et cetera. Play through the mid-off and mid-on but with intent, and the runs will come.
The openers need to aim for at least two or three singles per over for the first hour of the innings. It’s not good enough to bat for 200-odd deliveries but score only 46 runs, as Sibley did at Trent Bridge. This means the Australian attack is dictating terms and will get guys out, just as India did, for only a handful of runs.
The strength of England’s batting is at Nos. 4 to 7, with Root, Stokes, Ollie Pope, Ollie Bairstow and Jos Buttler all capable of scoring. The problem with the bottom four players is they’re very good attacking batsmen but not so great defensively.
They need to come in with a score around the 3-140 mark, in which case they can and will score runs. If they’re in at 3-40, it’s entirely possible the team could be shot out for 150 or less. Again, it’s imperative the top three batsmen get a total that the rest can improve on.
The observant will have noticed no mention of spin, and nor should there be for the first three Tests. England does not have a quality spinner unless Jack Leach or Dom Bess has a miraculous series in the remaining four Tests against India and maintains that form in Australia.
They should not be fazed by the attack Australia chooses. The England attack has world-class quicks, no world-class spinners, so don’t pick one.
Joe Root has proven to be perfectly capable of rolling over his arm for eight or ten overs to rest bowlers or provide some variety, and he’s not the worst when it comes to off spin bowling. In any event, if the other five bowlers are doing their jobs, a spinner should not be needed until the new year.
The one area where England must beat Australia is creating and taking chances and keeping up the fielding pressure generally. England must know they aren’t likely to score more than 300 against the Australian attack, so the only way the team can win is to keep Aussie totals down to manageable levels.
The fieldsmen and keeper need to set a target of missing one chance for the first three Tests and two chances for the series. Players like Warner, Labuschagne, Smith and Cameron Green are far too capable of batting long and scoring a pile of runs if they’re put down early in their innings.
There’s one final piece to this Ashes puzzle, and that’s attitude. The English players must truly believe they can win the first three Tests. They must have the attitude that supports that belief – that is, that they are not only good enough to match it with Australia but good enough to beat them too.
That attitude was clearly visible during their tour of Sri Lanka and again in the first Test in India. By the third Test that attitude was starting to wane, and by the end of the fourth Test many players looked seriously relieved the series was over and they could go home.
Attitude is the key element Joe Root and Chris Silverwood need to work on over the coming months. There’s no doubt the Ashes will be a hard series, but if England plays seriously tough cricket for the first three Tests, there’s every chance the little urn could be heading to a new home.