2pts England to win the Ashes at 7/1 (Unibet)
David Warner is a declining force and this winter’s Test series against England will highly likely be his last Ashes involvement, potentially even the last time we see the controversial figure in Test cricket.
Warner has been a fine player: a pugnacious opening batsman who has spent the vast majority of his career with an average hovering around 50 and a reputation for meeting the new ball with fire and fury in a way his contemporaries have been unable to match. Warner also had the ability to play another way when the situation required, and showed it as early as his maiden Test century against New Zealand. Batting on a green top in Hobart, Warner demonstrated that different side to his game by nullifying an excellent attack while his teammates wilted under the pressure. To this day, that remains Warner's best hundred for Australia.
But things change, and since returning from a ban incurred for his role in the Newlands ball-tampering scandal, Warner hasn’t looked anything like the same player. The numbers might argue to the contrary, but they mask the truth and anyone watching this year’s IPL will have seen a man who is a shadow of his former self. Of course, some won’t place much importance on T20 franchise cricket, but the bowling is generally good, occasionally fast, and Warner has continually been rushed and proved incapable of dominating like he once could. His strike-rate in IPL 2021 is 107.73.
When Warner last came up against England, he averaged 9.50 in 2019 as Stuart Broad gave him a torrid time, while he struggled in two Tests against India last winter. In his defence, Warner rushed back from injury to play in those matches, but rarely did he look convincing.
There have been some moments of cheer since his return, most notably scores of 154 and 335 not out against Pakistan and a century against New Zealand, but those three hundreds are the only times Warner has passed 50 in Test cricket since Leeds in August, 2019.
Opportunities for the Australian Test team have been limited in that period, more recently because of the coronavirus pandemic, but when we have seen Warner, his movements at the crease, his bat swing, and his ability to pick up length against pace have provided some worrying signs.
Warner will no doubt start the series at the top of the order, and probably finish it there, but he will likely have an inexperienced opening partner by his side, while a middle order of Travis Head, Cameron Green and Tim Paine won’t be giving England’s bowling attack sleepless nights.
Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith will be expected to stand tall at three and four in the order, but much of the pre-series talk will be about Australia’s big three batting stars being able to mask the obvious weakness elsewhere in the line-up. The problem for Australia is that one of their bankers isn’t as rock-solid as they’d like to believe, and the need for Labuschagne and Smith to carry the burden will once again be great.
Warner is a declining force – anyone to have watched him bat in the last few months will know that. By the end of this Ashes series, he may well be a spent one.
When Australia toured England in 2019, their fast-bowling depth shone through. The fact Josh Hazlewood started the series on the bench, and that Mitchell Starc only played one Test, demonstrated that strength as the likes of James Pattinson and Peter Siddle provided dependable support to spearhead Pat Cummins.
As he has for so much of his career, Michael Neser watched on from the sidelines throughout that summer, while England wrestled to cope with James Anderson’s absence and were forced into bowling Broad and Jofra Archer until they were ready to drop.
Three years later, and it is Australia whose bowling stocks are looking threadbare, with Siddle since retired, Pattinson still plagued by injury problems, and he and Neser overlooked throughout last winter when India claimed a memorable series win Down Under.
It was Australia’s lack of faith in Pattinson and Neser that persuaded the team's management to stick with Cummins, Hazlewood and Starc despite their heavy workloads across four Tests – a decision that ultimately cost them dear as Rishabh Pant ran the weary trio ragged to chase down 328 on the final day of the series at the Gabba.
Stamina has never been an issue for Cummins, famously nicknamed after legendary racehorse Winx, and he got through five Tests in England in 2019. Hazlewood has never been the same level of athlete, though, while Starc tends to blow hot and cold and can be particularly wayward when his legs start to go.
Australia are lucky to have been blessed with a finger spinner as good as Nathan Lyon for a decade, but England played him really well in the last Ashes, while his nine wickets against India came at 55.11. If he isn’t able to control the run-rate against England, Australian reliance on their three fast-bowling kingpins has the potential to be thoroughly exposed.
In home conditions, where pace and bounce are the keys to success, there is little doubt that Cummins, Hazlewood and Starc form a formidable attack. But Hazlewood and Starc are both into their thirties now and is it fair to assume they will be able to play five Tests in just over a month? Even the most patriotic Australia fan must admit that will be a stretch.
With changes inevitable, the question is where will Australia turn? Pattinson would appear the obvious choice, but injuries have caught up with him and he is a good yard slower than the fiery 90mph bowler who looked such a fine prospect early in his career.
Neser’s swing and seam would seem ideally suited by the day/night Test at Adelaide, but Australia didn’t pick him there against India last year and its position in the schedule – being the second Test of five – might mean they are reluctant to make a change to the bowling attack so soon into the series. If Australia opt to finally hand Neser his Test cap later in the series, he could suffer a similar fate to Jackson Bird who sent down 30 lifeless, wicketless overs at the MCG in the 2017/2018 Ashes. Neser’s First Class record is very similar to Bird’s, as are their bowling styles, and it is easy to see why Australia have opted to look elsewhere so many times before.
A look at Australia’s domestic cricket tells you there isn’t much else to shout about, and while Western Australian Jhye Richardson could well jump ahead of Pattinson and Neser in the pecking order over the next few months, he too has endured his fair share of injury problems and has only managed 17 First Class appearances in his career to date.
England, on the other hand, will travel to Australia with a strong battery of pace bowlers, which is even more commendable when you consider that Archer and Olly Stone would have been on the plane but for injury.
Anderson and Broad will be back for another crack at Australia, and both have performed well enough in the last couple of years to suggest they’ll have a big role to play in what might be their final Ashes series. Their roles might be different in these conditions – Anderson likely to be asked to attack with the new ball and hold an end in the middle part of the innings – but experience counts for plenty in big series and there is enough depth in the England squad to allow both to be kept fresh for three or four matches.
That should certainly be the case with Broad who now has Ollie Robinson for competition following the latter’s breakthrough summer in England. Robinson claimed 28 wickets against New Zealand and India at 19.60 and though he might be more 80mph than 90mph, he is a tall man who generates steep bounce from a good length. A fiery character, he is tailor-made for an Ashes series in Australia.
For all Chris Woakes’ numbers away from home are yet to match what he has achieved at home, some words of wisdom from Darren Gough when England toured New Zealand in 2019 appeared to set him on the right path and he is at the peak of his powers right now.
Looking at the schedule, England should be able to rotate Mark Wood throughout the series, with the curtain-raiser at the Gabba, the third Test in Melbourne and the finale in Perth looking the obvious matches for him. While Australia have Starc and Cummins for pace, none are as quick as Wood who has regularly clocked 95mph and above in the last 18 months. If England can keep him fit, and crucially, fresh, they have that x-factor they have been so badly missing on past Ashes tours.
It’s still perfectly fair to argue that Australia’s first-choice attack trumps England’s in these conditions, though not in the day/night Test with the pink ball, but it is the tourists’ depth that is the stronger this time around. They’ve already absorbed injuries to put a strong group on the plane and they should have variety and different skill-sets to choose from in every Test.
If Australia pick up injuries, or need to rest and rotate, they just don’t boast the same level of depth. England have lost Archer already, but will still send a high-class attack onto the field at the Gabba. If Australia were to lose a Cummins or Hazlewood, the cupboard would immediately look bare.
For the first time in quite a while, England are sitting pretty with bowling options ahead of an Ashes series Down Under.
There is no getting away from the fact that when immediately comparing batting line-ups, Australia can boast the stronger credentials and superior numbers.
In Labuschagne and Smith, they have two world-class batsmen at number three and four who both average over 60 in Test cricket. From England’s touring party, only Joe Root (55.02) averages over 40.
But there is hope. I’ve already referenced the potential problems at the top of the order for Australia, with Warner not inspiring much confidence. Paine doesn’t compare favourably to Jos Buttler or Jonny Bairstow, while Head has a decent record but was dropped following a run of low scores against India. Green rates a good prospect, but that’s as far it’s gone with him so far.
Labuschagne and Smith apart, this Australian batting unit looks weak while England’s, as maligned as it has been, appears ideally suited to these conditions.
Dawid Malan was recalled in the summer with this series in mind, and he was England’s top runscorer in 2017/2018 when making 383 runs at 42.55. His century in Perth confirmed his suitability to Australian conditions and the strength of his back-foot game against quick bowling.
I have no concerns about him this winter, nor Ollie Pope who is a prodigious talent whose Test career hasn’t quite taken off in the way it should owing to injuries and his failure to cash in on a number of good starts. He’s a classy player who is still only 23 years of age, and he showed what he can do when returning to the England side to make 81 against India in the fourth Test in September.
In county cricket, where the majority of his batting is done on the flat, hard surface of The Oval, Pope has scored 861 runs at a staggering average of 78.27 this year and I’m of the strong belief that the wickets in Australia – true, hard and fast – will suit his free-scoring game to a tee. If he can find the right tempo to his batting, he could be one of England’s biggest weapons this winter.
Similar sentiments are applicable to Buttler and Bairstow. These two – like Malan in T20 cricket – are giants of the limited-overs formats when the pitches are generally true and the ball tends to move sideways far less than in Test cricket in England. Against the Kookaburra ball in Australia, this pair should find conditions much more to their liking than in England, and I hope they are given the license to play their natural games.
Bairstow did just that when stroking a fabulous hundred in Perth in the last Ashes in Australia, while Buttler averages close to 40 in ODIs in Australia.
I am in no way trying to argue that this current England batting line-up is a great one, and at times it has been a long way from that, but I do think it has the potential to be well suited to Australian pitches when having the technique to combat the moving ball is less of a necessity than the ability to face fast bowling with a sound back-foot game and attacking horizontal shots.
This side has that, and while the opening pair still concerns me, Australia are no better placed in that department. With Root enjoying the best spell of his career having made six Test centuries in 2021 alone, England have a genuinely great player to bat around and masses of potential elsewhere in the line-up.
The hosts will, of course, expect to rely heavily on Labuschagne and Smith, but in 2017/2018 the latter was brilliantly supported by Shaun Marsh and Usman Khawaja; two excellent players with strong records at home. Both are out of the frame now, and while Warner averaged 63.00 in that series, don’t expect the same returns this winter.
The class of 2021/2022 of Warner, Head and Paine is primed for plucking and England’s middle order of powerhouse, flat-track bullies promises to give them the edge they have been missing on recent tours of Australia.
It’s still relatively early days for Chris Silverwood, but England’s head coach is slowly but surely beginning to show his hand and it was refreshing to see him make his mark by putting faith in the likes of Robinson and Malan in the summer. By bringing back Pope and Bairstow, we also got a glimpse of what he wants in Australia and the type of middle order he will put on the field.
In making clear his preference for Buttler as the number one wicketkeeper in all three formats of the game, and promoting him to vice-captain in Stokes’ absence, England have provided clarity on a much-debated selection issue and also given more responsibility to a highly respected member of the dressing room.
The players like Buttler, just as they do Silverwood and Root, and they will follow them over the top and into battle.
What is clear is that the Australian players do not like Justin Langer and their respect for him as a coach has been declining for some time. It speaks volumes that Langer has publicly resolved to improve himself as a coach following player unrest that sparked crisis talks between himself, Test captain Paine, his deputy Cummins, limited-overs captain Aaron Finch, and Cricket Australia executives.
What Langer doesn’t appear able to grasp is that his headmaster-style of leadership, demanding his players spill blood for the Baggy Green, will only be tolerated for so long by a modern player who invariably has bumper IPL contracts and lucrative merchandise deals to ensure playing for Australia in a sour environment isn’t as attractive as Langer might like to believe. Just ask Nathan Ellis, who has recently enjoyed notable success at the IPL having had to withstand a torrent of abuse from Langer on Australia's recent limited-overs tour of Bangladesh after he was spotted wearing a watch while fielding and taking a sharp catch. Such an innocuous occurrence didn’t go down well with Langer, who gave Ellis a volley of abuse when he left the field, an incident that upset many of his teammates.
Paine and Finch have come out in support of Langer, but the hallmark of Darren Lehmann’s tenure was the relationship and trust he built with his players, and when that bond was broken with the aforementioned ball-tampering scandal, Lehmann knew it was time to move on.
Langer has been unable to build anything like the same relationship with this team, and Khawaja’s continued absence from the Test side is more down to his laidback attitude not sitting well with Langer than his output as a batsman. Is Khawaja really not a better Test batsman than Head or Matthew Wade? Of course he is, but Khawaja is a different personality to Langer with other interests and a broad outlook on life. His face does not fit. The problem for Langer is that Khawaja isn’t alone and with the patience of the players wearing thin, cracks are beginning to show.
They say that touring Australia is a challenge like no other for an international cricket team, and keeping the dressing room together when the whole of Australia is against you is crucial. This time, the boot might be on the other foot, and if England can start the series well at the Gabba and then in the day/night Test at Adelaide, the Australian dressing room could easily turn on itself.
Starting well will certainly be a challenge for Australia, given the first match of the series will be their first Test since losing to India at the same venue back in January. With the scheduled Test with Afghanistan now cancelled, Australia will start the series cold, while England have spent the last year playing hard Test cricket against New Zealand and India.
It’s just another hurdle that Langer and his team must clear at the start of an Australian summer which is already playing out much differently to the way they would have hoped.
That’s not to say Australia won’t start as favourites. England haven’t won in Australia since 2010/2011 and the task of regaining the Ashes on away soil is an incredibly tough one. In Cummins, Labuschagne and Smith they have three outstanding cricketers among their ranks and a few more who will hope that home comforts give them a big advantage over an England side with plenty of faults of its own.
But make no mistake, this is a moderate side by Australian standards with a serious lack of depth within the international set-up and domestic cricket. The coach is disliked by his players, and the schedule, featuring a day/night Test with the pink ball, gives England a real chance.
England have some champion players within their own squad, not least Root who is the best batsman in the world right now. For all James Anderson might not be made for Australian conditions, he was outstanding when England won here in 2010/2011 and he claimed 17 wickets at 27.82 in 2017/18. In Wood, Anderson can look forward to bowling in tandem with the fastest bowler in the world, while the backing singers look a whole lot stronger than Australia’s bowling bench strength.
England should head to Australia with genuine belief that they can regain the Ashes, or at least prove very competitive against a home outfit who are terribly short (prices ranging from 4/7 to 1/5). The 7/1 (Unibet) about England winning the series is a long way out, as is the 6/1 with William Hill, and I suspect the tourists will be a good deal shorter after the T20 World Cup.
This should be a close series between two fallible sides too reliant on too few. It’s certainly a series England can win and the current prices most definitely underestimate their chances.
Published at 2200 BST on 10/10/21
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