Ashes 2017-18 shaping up to be horror rerun of 2002-03 campaign for England
England may be already staring down the barrel with Ben Stokes’ self-inflicted wound and the long injury list that has followed, and the Ashes 2017-18 is currently shaping up to be like the disastrous 2002-03 campaign, writes former Australian cricketer Ian Chappellcricket Updated: Nov 12, 2017 08:52 IST
Apart from the militarily planned, successful assault on Australia in the 2010-11 Ashes series, the story of English tours in the last thirty years has been one of futility.
Joe Root will need to be an extremely strong leader and his team exceedingly resilient if the current Ashes tour isn’t to unravel like so many in the recent past. Commencing with the considerable setback of Ben Stokes’ arrest in late September, this tour is shaping up as a replica of the disastrous 2002-03 campaign.
In an act of supreme optimism, the 2002-03 tourists arrived in Australia with injury ravaged fast bowlers. The two main protagonists - Darren Gough and Andrew Flintoff - failed to overcome their injuries and then, to rub salt into English wounds, the speedy Simon Jones damaged his knee in the opening contest and flew home.
The suspension of Stokes, the pre-tour injuries to Toby Roland-Jones and Mark Wood and then the recent setbacks suffered by Moeen Ali, Steven Finn and Jake Ball mean this Ashes series has all the hallmarks of a familiar English horror story.
In the lead up to the tour England featured a strong pace attack and a dodgy batting line-up. Australia were similarly placed but they’ve since lost only one pace bowler to injury, while England’s fast men are going down like nine pins.
Thanks to Stokes’ self-inflicted wound and the long injury list that followed, Australia’s brittle batting line-up will now be facing a seriously challenged string of England seamers.
This will provide Root with his greatest captaincy challenge yet; winkling out batsmen on hard pitches where the ball doesn’t do a lot once it loses hardness. This takes a lot of imagination and perseverance from both captain and bowlers and this is where Stokes will be sorely missed.
With Stokes batting at five England could have played an extra bowler and gambled on promising leg-spinner Mason Crane. On Australia’s unforgiving pitches a good leg-spinner can be invaluable and in this case he’d have been one of six front-line bowlers, so Root could have used him selectively.
In Stokes’ absence this is not a realistic option. They now have to hope Jimmy Anderson finds ways to make the Kookaburra ball swing, as he needs to be a reliable spearhead if England are to remain competitive.
If Root is unable to restrict Australia’s scoring because his attack lacks potency, then the England batsmen will be under extreme pressure from an opposition line-up with ample fire-power.
While batting in Australia - like anywhere else - can be challenging in the early stages of an innings, the degree of difficulty decreases as the innings progresses, especially if the batsman can play the horizontal shots.
This is where pace plays its part. If all else fails, the team with the quicker bowlers can launch a short-pitched assault to unsettle the batsmen. The ability to score off the back-foot is crucial to success in Australia and is one reason the ‘baggy greens’ are hard to beat in their own backyard --- they’re used to bouncy pitches and facing faster bowlers.
Without that extra pace to call on, a skipper needs to rely on subtlety, variation and accuracy. England lack both variety and genuine pace, as the attack features all right-arm fast medium bowlers and the addition of Stokes’ fiery approach and a leg-spin option would have come in handy.
Consequently, it’s going to take planning similar to that produced by Andrew Strauss’ side in the successful 2010-11 campaign for England to retain the urn. However, this approach is dependent on having decent totals to allow the bowlers a bit of leeway in seeking wickets.
For England to succeed, they’ll need the remaining pace bowlers to produce top form, the batsmen to improve on their recent meagre offerings and for Root to excel in artful captaincy. That’s a lot of things that need to be at peak efficiency to achieve victory.