The Ashes series is about to commence, and there is no doubt that if England are to be extremely competitive, their batsman will need to score runs against one of the best bowling attacks in the world.
The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) named the Ashes tour squad a few days ago, and there were no real surprises in store.
The only issue for me was why they named only a 17-man group for what is likely to be a tough series.
The attrition rate in Australian series in recent years has been high, with New Zealand, India and Australia all having more than a few players drop out through injury.
England have solved that problem by announcing a Lions tour that will bring a number of fringe players to Australia prior to the first Test.
Tom Abell, Josh Bohannon, James Bracey, Brydon Carse Mason Crane, Matthew Fisher, Ben Foakes, Alex Lees, Saqib Mahmood, Liam Norwell, Matt Parkinson, Dom Sibley, Jamie Smith and Rob Yates.
In effect this gives England 31 players to choose from prior to the first Test starting.
England have openly admitted to following Australia’s lead set prior to the 2019 Ashes, when we had two teams of first-class cricketers in England. This squad will play warm-up games against the Ashes selected players as well as a four-day game against an Australian A side during the first Test.
One of the reasons the ECB gave for going down this path was the poor quality of lead-up games on previous tours. In fairness, they have a point. I think for some years now both Australia and England have done the touring side no favours with the opposition provided in early tour matches.
This becomes even more critical in the modern era, when time for all forms of international cricket is tight to the point where the England Ashes squad will have only one three-day and one four-day practice game prior to the first Test. Sadly though, young cricketers or players not quite good enough to make first-class level miss out on a chance to mix it with the big guys.
One really interesting comment came from England performance director Mo Bobat when the squad was announced: “There is a likelihood that a player can put forward a compelling case in the warm-up games and end up being around for the Ashes.”
I think this doesn’t apply to all players in the Lions squad. I can’t see guys like Mason Crane, Ben Foakes or James Bracey doing enough to force their way into contention for a crack at the first XI. There are some, though, who could be bolters.
Saqib Mahmood is one player who I believe has a real chance to stay for the Ashes. He played in the ODI series against Pakistan in the England summer and was named man of the series. He is a genuinely quick fast bowler who could be a serious handful on Australian pitches. The England Ashes attack lacks pace apart from Mark Wood, so Mahmood could be a real chance to make his debut in Brisbane or Perth.
Rob Yates’s first-class numbers are underwhelming, with a batting average of just 32, but he had a great county summer that culminated in back-to-back hundreds as his county took out the championship final. He’s only a young fella, but he seems to have a solid technique, and being a left-hander could make him an option if Rory Burns were to underperform. It will be interesting to see which of Dom Sibley or Yates gets the nod to stay given England included only two openers in its Ashes squad.
Josh Bohannon is a middle-order player who averaged 53 this year in county cricket and averages 44 in first-class cricket. I can’t see him outing Pope, Buttler, Bairstow or Stokes – if he makes the tour – but he might be an option for future Ashes tours if he does well on this trip.
The final player I really hope does well is Matt Parkinson. Dom Best and Jack Leach are fair to middling first-class spinners, but finger spin in Australia is incredibly hard to bowl well. All know how James Swann struggled on his last Ashes tour, and these two are not close to his calibre.
Parkinson is a young leggie with pretty impressive first-class numbers: 102 wickets at 23.35 and a strike rate of 50. He probably doesn’t have huge variety, but there’s no doubt he can get lots of spin on the ball as well as dip and swerve.
With the lack of quality spin options available, I think England should jump at the chance to keep him in the squad. To be honest, I didn’t understand why he wasn’t in the original Ashes party. He could be a serious handful in Sydney and perhaps in Adelaide if England were to be bowling on a Day 5 pitch.
There’s no doubt the Lions players will be giving it everything in the matches they’ll play in November, with the prize being a chance to stay on with the main touring party.
Hopefully they get to play on competitive pitches so these games are both exciting to watch and good practice for England’s batsmen and bowlers.