Ashes diary: Australia's pace bowlers in focus and Jonny Bairstow under pressure

Jonny Bairstow is out bowled again
Jonny Bairstow is out bowled again

Richard Mann's latest Ashes diary looks back on England's victory over Ireland at Lord's while Australia's impressive pace attack comes under the microscope.

Bairstow's slump comes under the microscope

England escaped from Lord's with an ultimately convincing 143-victory over Ireland last week but, for much of the three days they were well off the pace, the batting, in particular, proving bitterly disappointing once again.

England's top-order proved ill-equipped to handle the moving ball as veteran seamer Tim Murtagh bundled them out for 85 on the first morning and the likes of Rory Burns and Joe Denly, though only in the infancy of their Test careers, will know they need big runs sooner rather than later.

Both have made the 14-man squad for the first Ashes Test match at Edgbaston which starts on Thursday and Burns is almost certain to open the batting alongside Surrey teammate Jason Roy who endured an eventual debut in London, a failure in the first innings left behind with a typically punchy 72 second time round.

He still has questions to answer against the moving ball but a half-century in his first Test match is sure to do his confidence the power of good while Denly will be hoping England don't opt to field an extra seamer in Birmingham following a couple of bright starts at Lord's.

Given England's batting frailties, I suspect Denly will make the starting XI for the Ashes opener with captain Joe Root, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow following him in a middle order that really needs to fire in the coming weeks.

Joe Denly
Joe Denly

Having been rested last week, the return of World Cup final heroes Stokes and Buttler will give Root a big boost but the continued struggles of Bairstow will be of more concern to the England management.

Bairstow has become one of the pillars of the current England set-up but though his form in white-ball cricket remains excellent, his numbers in Test cricket over the last two years have taken a nosedive and since the start of 2018, the Yorkshire man has only averaged 26.62 with the bat, down from a career average of 36.24.

That's not to say his overall numbers don't leave him vulnerable, competing for a spot with a host of talented middle-order batsmen across the country, but it's his more recent decline, and the consistent manner of his dismissals that is most concerning.

Bairstow's weakness against deliveries coming back into him and targeting the stumps is something that has been an ever-present throughout his career but it was something he had appeared to have conquered until it's ugly re-emergence in the last 18 months.

Whether an increased focus on the limited-overs formats is hindering Bairstow's red-ball preparations is a question only he can truly answer but after 64 Test matches, England need Bairstow, who is now approaching his 30th birthday, to start delivering the big things long expected of him.

This isn't a young man making his way anymore, Bairstow is a senior member of England's batting line-up and one who was batted as high as number three as recently as last winter.

With Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins likely to target Bairstow's stumps in Birmingham, he better be prepared because with Ben Foakes already averaging over 40 in his short Test career and widely regarded as the best gloveman in the country, and Buttler desperate to re-claim keeping duties himself, the pressure is starting to mount just a little.

Averaging mid-thirties doesn't do Bairstow's talents justice and if his slump in form continues for much longer, England might start to lose patience.

Jonny Bairstow
Jonny Bairstow

Aussie pace pack on the prowl

England's recent success at the Cricket World Cup was built to a large extent on a strong seam attack that had Chris Woakes' swing, the pace and bounce of Jofra Archer and Mark Wood's hustle and bustle.

With James Anderson expected to be fit for the first Test and Archer also in line to make his Test debut, England look to have most boxes ticked ahead of the five-match Ashes series but Australia might well claim to boast a stronger all-round battery of pace bowlers.

As was the case last winter, Pat Cummins is expected to lead the attack with Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood joined by spinner Nathan Lyon but the return to fitness of James Pattinson and Peter Siddle's excellent record in England has left coach Justin Langer with a few selection headaches.

They are certainly good headaches to have and Hazlewood's absence from the World Cup squad in order to prepare for the Ashes should ensure he is raring to go, similarly Pattinson whose exciting international career has been blighted by injuries but has left us under no illusions as to what a bold talent he is.

In 17 Tests, Pattinson has already picked up 70 wickets at an average of 26.15 and another summer of strong returns in county cricket at Nottinghamshire will ensure he is perfectly acclimatised to English conditions.

Pattinson has been a big hit at Trent Bridge in his two stints there and his bowling has drawn praise from non other than Stuart Broad who has seen him close up in recent months.

James Pattinson is struggling for fitness
James Pattinson

How Langer finds room for him in the side remains to be seen. Starc's brilliant World Cup has surely done enough to banish the memories of the disappointing winter he endured against India and it is hard to imagine Australia opting not to field their left-arm paceman given the rough his follow-through invariably creates for off-spinner Lyon.

With Cummins' emerging as Tim Paine's trump card over the last year and Hazlewood sure to be well suited to surfaces anything like what we saw at Lord's last week, Pattinson and the evergreen Siddle might find themselves on the sidelines for a short while at least.

Like Pattinson, Siddle has been honing his skills in county cricket over the last few months, this time with Essex, and Australia seem at pains not to ignore his experience and craft just as they did when he only played the final Test of the last Ashes series in England back in 2015.

Australia had already lost the Ashes by the time Siddle was recalled to play at The Oval but his six wickets there helped the visitors claim a consolation victory and offered a stark reminder of his value in English conditions.

All of Australia's bowlers enjoyed a good workout in their recent intra-squad match at the Ageas Bowl, Pattinson and Cummins the two stand-out performers with the ball, to ensure Langer and Paine will have plenty to ponder over the coming days.

Though they seem likely to stick with the 'big-three' for the series opener, five Test matches in just over month promises to be tough work for the pace bowlers in particular and with Pattinson and Siddle waiting in the wings, the tourists certainly boast the depth needed to keep coming hard at England.

Ian Chappell once claimed that bowlers win matches. Australia have plenty of them in this touring party, and very good ones at that.


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