Australia paceman Josh Hazlewood has declared himself ready to return from the side strain that ended his Ashes series after the first Test in early December.
England will enter the Ashes with one of the most brittle batting line-ups brought to these shores up against the combined might of a bowling attack with 1030 Test wickets.
Of the nine players in contention to fill England’s batting slots against Australia when the first Test gets underway on Wednesday at the Gabba, all of them apart from captain Joe Root average between 28 and 38 with the bat.
Most of them have a much lower average in Tests against Australia, including Root, whose career clip of 50.15 plummets to 40.33 when confronted by the baggy green attack.
And the fragile touring batting brigade is set to come up against a four-man wicket-taking machine with more than 1000 scalps between them – new captain Pat Cummins (164), fellow quicks Josh Hazlewood (212) and Mitchell Starc (255), plus spinner Nathan Lyon who is one shy of his 400th victim.
And young all-rounder Cameron Green is over his back problems and is ready to unwind at full pace against the tourists.
To be fair to England, there will be plenty of experience on their bowling attack’s resume if they play both veteran seamers James Anderson and Stuart Broad, who have 632 and 524 wickets respectively.
And Australia’s batting prospects will also depend greatly on Steve Smith, Marnus Labuschagne and David Warner.
Australian spin king Shane Warne thinks that if England’s top order can weather the storm and take the shine of the new ball, Root and Stokes could keep them competitive.
“For Australia if they can take early wickets and get into that middle order of Root, [Jonny] Bairstow, Stokes, [Jos] Buttler while the ball’s still new then England’s going to struggle,” the Fox Cricket commentator told The Roar.
“If the top order does half a decent job against Cummins and Hazlewood with the new ball, then England can post a big score.
“I think England’s biggest problem is taking 20 wickets. Everyone talks about their batting but if you match up both batting teams, there’s not much between them with the bat.
“We rely very heavily on Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith and they rely heavily on Stokes and Root but they’ve also got Bairstow and Buttler. We’ve got David Warner in a bit of form again but [Marcus] Harris, [Travis] Head, Green and Carey making his debut, so our batting doesn’t look as strong as people make out either.”
England coach Chris Silverwood would not reveal his top three to go in before Root and Stokes while also saying Pope and Bairstow both had genuine claims on the six slot.
“Jonny has good experiences and memories of playing here, he has been successful here before,” he told reporters at the team’s pre-Ashes camp in Brisbane.
“Then you have the promise of young Ollie. We know he is a good player and have to take in the fact the wickets here will suit the way he plays. We saw him get some good runs at the end of last summer at The Oval and we know his pedigree is very good.
“Those are all things that will be thrown in the mix and taken into consideration. It’s one of the talking points we have at the moment.
“As we stand it is about keeping a close eye on the two of them and we will make a decision closer to the time over who we think is the right man to go into that.
“Both of them are playing well at the moment in the nets so that is the talking point as it stands.”
Former Australian paceman Brett Lee rates Root among the top run-scorers in world cricket.
“Everyone’s got a plan until it goes pear-shaped, preparation is great and you’ve got to have that in cricket. You can’t be overawed by someone’s name,” the Fox Cricket commentator told The Roar.
“It’s like when I used to bowl to Sachin Tendulkar. I had to keep saying to myself, he’s a right-handed batsman, even though he’s the best batsman in the world at that time, you’ve got to have plans but also back yourself.
“As the Australian guys will have to have to someone like Joe Root. He’s got a wonderful technique, plays the ball late. I just think they need real good Test match bowling, building up pressure upon the other batsmen and hopefully someone like Root will play a false stroke.
“Stokes is pretty much as close to an Aussie as you can get even though he was born in New Zealand. He’s got that never-say-die attitude so he’s definitely going to be a guy who’s going to stand up to the Aussies.
“I think England have got a good side. I’m not going to say they’re going to beat Australia but it’s not going to be a walk in the park, I can promise you that.”
The top order
Rory Burns: A lock to be one opener – he averages 32.3 after 29 Tests but held his own against Australia in 2019, making 390 at 39. The not-so-stylish left-hander made a century, 133 first up at Birmingham but struggled the rest of the series, passing 50 only twice more in his other nine innings.
Haseeb Hameed: Is vying with Zak Crawley to be the other opener. Yet to play Australia and has 359 runs at 35.9 from his first six Tests – three in India five years ago and another three at home this year.
Zak Crawley: Capable of opening or batting first drop, he has a modest average of 28.34 from 15 Tests and is also yet to face Australia. His average is inflated by his sole century being a mammoth 267.
Dawid Malan: Looks likely to bat at No.3 and also has a middling Test average of 28.62 from 17 matches although he racked up 383 runs in Australia in 2017-18 at 42.55 including a century, 140 at Perth.
The middle order
Joe Root: The captain is the bedrock of the England line-up who will come in at No.4 – if the Australians have their way with the top order, he will be on a rescue mission early in the innings more often than not. A veteran of 109 Tests, his rich vein of 2021 form has lifted his average back above 50 to 50.15 and he enters the Ashes fire with 23 centuries and 50 fifties on his resume.
However, his record against Australia of 40.33 is his worst against any nation he’s played more than twice and he has only made three tons in 24 Tests. His numbers in Australia are even worse, a clip of 38 from nine Tests without being able to convert any of his half-centuries into triple figures.
Ben Stokes: It would be incorrect to under-estimate Stokes’ potential to be an Ashes game-changer despite his recent break from the game. If you were to judge Stokes on batting stats alone, his numbers are good, not great. He averages 37.04 in Test cricket from 71 matches and 38.37 from his 14 games against Australia stretching back to his breakthrough tour in 2013-14.
But it’s his ability to produce a match-winning knock, take incisive wickets and snare stunning catches which makes him the all-round package that Australia will both target and try to contain.
Ollie Pope: In contention for the No.6 role with Jonny Bairstow, he’s been in and out of the side since 2018, tallying 965 runs at 32.16 from 20 starts with only one triple-figure total of 135 not out in South Africa last year. Is yet to face Australia.
Jonny Bairstow: A known commodity, he’s also had his fair share of being dropped and recalled. In 78 Tests since 2012 he scores at 33.7 and averages a century every 12 games. Against Australia, his record drops to 26.96 and he’s tonned up just once in 19 contests. Weirdly enough, his average when he’s not keeper is higher (37.37) when he’s not (27.41) which is likely to be the case if selected in Brisbane.
Jos Buttler: Another player whose average is significantly lower against Australia – the keeper averages a commendable 33.33 from 53 Tests, although he has been the gloveman in 20 of those games in which his figure rises slightly to 35.68. In his 10 Tests against Australia, Buttler has managed just 369 runs at 20.5 with only one half-century.