Richard Mann takes a look at England's possible tactics for the first Ashes Test which begins at the Gabba at midnight on Tuesday evening, with James Anderson and Stuart Broad coming into focus.
George Graham was the master of the 1-0 win. The former Arsenal manager was very much defence first, attack second. Loyal Arsene Wenger fans might have scoffed at his style, but Graham won the Premier League twice with Arsenal and a European Cup Winners’ Cup. Oh, how some of Wenger’s later teams could have done with a slice of that George Graham resolve. A good mix of the two would have been perfect.
You are still on the cricket page, for those wondering. The point I’m trying to make is that for England to win the Ashes they will need to find a way to take 20 wickets on pitches that might not suit their attack ideally, and with a Kookaburra ball that doesn’t swing anywhere near as much as its Dukes counterpart. For England to win the Ashes, their bowling unit will need to mix attack and defence, a plan that will need to be executed with precision and skill, one which will require captain Joe Root to know exactly when to press right buttons.
As ever, the centrepiece of England’s bowling attack is the ageless James Anderson, still going strong at 39 years of age, with 166 Test matches and 632 Test wickets to his name. Many Australians – though one suspects not those inside Pat Cummins’ dressing room – might have already written the veteran off as he attempts to scale this vast mountain once more in conditions much different to those at home. Nevertheless, Anderson invariably comes up with the answers and don’t discount the possibility of him doing so again.
Anderson’s record in Australia – 60 wickets at an average of 35.43 – is modest by his standards. There is no getting away from that. But he’s enjoyed some very good times in Australia, too, most notably when taking 24 at an average of 26.04 in that stunning 3-1 series win Down Under in 2010/2011. Nobody on either side took more wickets than Anderson in that series. Or what about four years ago when he had already entered veteran status and was again being written off, when the rest of England’s attack failed to show up and the home side won 4-0? Anderson led the line manfully with a typically wholehearted display that earned him 17 wickets and saw his economy rate only just top two runs per over.
Anderson has always been a threat with the new ball, in any conditions, and for well over a year now he has been deadly accurate and stubbornly miserly. But in the later stages of his career, he has become even better at drying up the run rate. Bowling dry, as they term it. In Sri Lanka and India last year, when conditions offered him nothing, Anderson claimed 14 wickets at an average 12.35, with his economy rate in India a staggering 1.92.
Like most overseas fast bowlers, India had previously been a county that had provided big challenges for Anderson, but this time he attacked with the new ball and went into defensive mode with the old ball, offering next to no scoring opportunities until the ball started to reverse and his attacking game came into play again.
That series, and even what he produced in Australia last time, should be the template for his game-plan over the next few weeks: attack with the new ball, bowl dry with the old one unless it suddenly starts to talk.
The problem in 2017/2018 was that he was a lone wolf, attacking up front but then needing to combine attack and defence in the middle overs because none of his colleagues could offer Root anything like the same level of control. Moeen Ali was as leaky as a burst pipe, while the supporting seamers didn’t deliver. All Australia had to do was to play safe against Anderson and feast on the rest.
This time around there is more cause for optimism. Stuart Broad enjoyed a fantastic home Ashes series in 2019, and in Ollie Robinson England hope they have found a tough cookie whose bounce should be ideally suited to these conditions. With Chris Woakes appearing a much more well-rounded operator than four years ago, things to do look brighter.
Perhaps more significant, though, is Mark Wood’s presence in the squad. There isn’t a faster bowler than Wood in the world right now and though three Tests will probably be his limit here, he has the raw pace to attack in the middle overs after Anderson has attacked with the new ball. At this point, Anderson’s second and third spells can take on a more defensive role while England attack at the other end with that point of difference they just didn’t have up their sleeve four years ago. Bowling is all about partnerships and Anderson is the perfect partner whatever the weather.
With Ben Stokes now available for this series, having been absent four years ago, England also have that priceless commodity every team craves: a world-class all-rounder who can also bowl fast and short – perhaps here in this series when Wood has done his thing. Expect the Durham duo to fulfil that role in short bursts on quick pitches such as the Gabba and in Perth, if the fifth Test does indeed take place in Western Australia.
All the while, Anderson can do what he does best: attack with the new ball and defend with the old one. George Graham and Arsene Wenger would be very proud.
When Dawid Malan was recalled for the third Test against India at Headingley in the summer, stroking a silky 70 in his first innings back, it appeared that England had made the selection with one eye on the winter.
An excellent player of fast bowling with a strong back-foot game, Malan’s 383 runs in the 2017/2018 Ashes series saw him finish as England’s leading runscorer having struck a brilliant hundred in Perth. Though he subsequently lost his place in the side, Malan’s excellent recent run in T20 cricket suggests he is a better player four years on, and locking him in to fill the troublesome number three position for a return trip Down Under made obvious sense.
England looked a stronger line-up for Malan’s return, with him and Root a nice combination at three and four and steadying hands before the flurry of strokemakers to come afterwards.
However, Chris Silverwood could yet spring a major surprise for the first Test, with England’s deep faith in Zak Crawley meaning the Kent man might well win the nod in Brisbane.
On the face of it, it would appear a strange move given Crawley was axed at the expense of Malan following a poor run of form in the summer. Nevertheless, it wasn’t that long ago that Crawley struck a mammoth 267 against a good Pakistan attack from number three, at the time apparently nailing down his spot in the team.
Watching Crawley compile that double hundred showcased the talents of this patently fine prospect and just what he is capable of on the big stage. Though a torrid tour of the subcontinent followed before his struggles last summer left England with no choice but to make a change, the fact the 23-year-old has been selected for an Ashes tour would suggest England have by no means lost faith.
Initially, it had appeared that Crawley had been picked as a back-up opener, and that remains an option, but there must be the temptation to bring him back at number three given the likelihood that he will enjoy batting in Australia where the pitches are generally good and should suit his attacking game in much the same way white-ball cricket does. If England want to meet fire with fire and take the aggressive option against Australia, Crawley might be their man.
The other thing to consider is that Malan’s presence in the top six along with Rory Burns and Stokes gives Nathan Lyon three left-handers to go at from England’s first five batsmen. Given that Lyon is so important to the success of Australia’s bowling attack and that he particularly enjoys bowling to southpaws, opting for Crawley over Malan for that reason alone would have some merit.
Above all else, selection sometimes comes down to hunch and gut feel. England have long liked the look of Crawley, while Malan has had to work much harder for attention. It’s not the way I’d go, but don’t be surprised if Crawley earns the vote on Wednesday.
I wrote in my specials preview here on Sunday that Sussex seamer Robinson was close to making my staking plan for top England series bowler, but that doubts about him starting in Brisbane were putting me off. With Anderson, Wood and Stokes surely locked in for three of the five bowling spots at the Gabba, Broad, Woakes and Robinson might find themselves competing for the final fast-bowling role.
Having taken 21 wickets in four Tests against India in the summer, Robinson is the man in possession and very much the man of the moment. Woakes finished that series, too, and his batting is something that England always like to have in the side, particularly with doubts remaining about those above him. The sensible move would be to save Woakes for the day/night Test in Adelaide, but if England want a spinner in their five-man attack, that still leaves a shootout between Robinson and Broad.
Having bowled well against England Lions on Thursday, Broad has at least confirmed he is fully recovered from the calf injury that kept him out of that India series, but Robinson has done nothing but impress in his short international career to date and his extra bounce is seen as a potentially huge asset in Australia. He can hold a bat, too.
And so, Broad would appear to be up against it as far as Brisbane goes. But 118 Ashes wickets is plenty of credit in the bank, as is his recent stranglehold over Warner: Broad dismissed the left-hander seven times in 2019.
Warner’s importance to Australia’s batting was again in evidence at the T20 World Cup when his sudden return to form brought about stark improvement from a team that had looked dead and buried when mauled by England, but went on to title glory. Warner finished as Player of the Tournament.
Once again, how Warner fares over the next few weeks will be critical to deciding the series and England simply cannot afford for him to dominate in the aggressive way he can. If they can take him down early and keep him down for the rest of the series, along with the unproven Marcus Harris, England’s bowlers will have a new ball to go to war with against Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith.
That might put Broad in pole position. His angle from around the wicket left Warner bereft of answers in 2019, and though he can’t expect to gain anywhere near as much swing in Australia, that line that targets Warner’s pads and stumps and takes away his favourite cut shot is absolutely the way to go.
Whether Robinson and Woakes can do that quite so effectively remains to be seen and, when picking their starting XI for the series opener, England will have to factor in Warner and how best to keep him quiet. Broad, it seems, is the man with the answers and that may win him the vote.
Given the unseasonably wet weather Brisbane continues to experience, England might be tempted to forget spin and go with a five-man pace attack, thus accommodating both Broad and Robinson. They’ve done it before, but if four pacers can’t get the job done, it’s doubtful five will, and the beauty of having Stokes back is the variety you can have in your attack with him there to balance things out.
Silverwood and Root will have plenty of thinking to do over the next few days and picking the right XI for the Gabba won’t be easy. In this case, at least these are good problems to have, selecting between fine bowlers who will be confident of delivering if making the final cut.