After England announced their Ashes squad two months ago, betting sites saw a huge increase in people placing bets on Australia to win the series in a 5-0 whitewash, so it is safe to say that many cricket fans did not feel hugely optimistic about their chances. This lack of optimism got even worse when news broke that Ben Stokes had been arrested after being involved in a brawl outside a nightclub following England’s ODI win over the West Indies at Bristol. As of writing, Stokes is still under investigation by the Somerset and Avon Police and has not travelled with the squad to Australia, being replaced by Steven Finn (who in turn has been replace by Tom Curran due to a knee injury), and is looking increasingly unlikely to make the tour at all despite the latest revelations from a gay couple that he stepped in to protect them from homophobic abuse.
However, England are not the only ones who are struggling to choose their best XI, Australia have problems of their own. Their bowling line-up is virtually sorted and, barring any injuries, it is widely expected England will be facing Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazelwood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon when the series begins at the Gabba on 23rd November. It is only when you get to the batting that you see the problems the
selectors have. David Warner and Matt Renshaw will be the opening pair with Usman Khawaja, captain Steve Smith and Peter Handscomb making up the spine of the middle order.
This is a stark contrast to England who have questions over three of their top 5 slots with opener Mark Stoneman having played just 3 tests, James Vince expected to return at number 3 despite a distinctly average County Championship season where he averaged 32.95 as well as a terrible run of form last summer in the Test team where he averaged a paltry 19.27. There is also the so far unconvincing duo of Dawid Malan and Gary Ballance battling it out for the number 5 slot plus the issues of who will take Stokes’ spot in the side with it looking increasingly likely he will not make the trip.
However, England’s great strength (even with a missing Stokes) is their ability to get lower order runs through the likes of Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes – not forgetting the fact that Stuart Broad does have a Test Match hundred – and this is where Australia run into problems of their because they simply do not have that depth and with just 10 days to go until the first Test there are still spots up for grabs.
Number 6 is normally reserved for an all-rounder but with Moises Henriques, Mitchell Marsh, Glenn Maxwell and Hilton Cartwright all having had unsuccessful spells in the side only averaging in the mid to low 20s with the bat and taking 39 wickets in 34 Tests between them, all 4 of them have not contributed anywhere near enough with both bat and ball to warrant a place at the Ashes.
The only other all-round option that is yet to be tried at Test level is Cartwright’s Western Australia teammate Marcus Stoinis. However, he scored a meagre 197 runs at an average of 17.90 and took a paltry 8 wickets from 97.5 overs at the huge average of 43.87 in the most recent edition of the Sheffield Shield. Not exactly the figures of someone ready for Test cricket let alone an Ashes series.
With the lack of credible Test all rounders to choose from, Australia may decide that 4 bowlers is enough and choose an extra specialist batsman, in which case the likes of Cameron Bancroft, Travis Head, Shaun Marsh and Jake Lehmann may well be in contention. The first few rounds of the new Sheffield Shield season will be key.
Current wicket-keeper Matthew Wade is another whose place in the Ashes side is far from certain following a measly run with the bat where he has averaged in the low 20s since replacing Peter Nevill last November. Whilst Wade has improved behind the stumps he is not the best pure glove-man Australia have to offer and his terrible form with the bat means the likes of the aforementioned Nevill and Alex Carey are the most prominent challengers for his spot. Head coach Darren Lehmann’s insistence on the need for runs from his keeper could even offer occasional keepers Handscomb or Bancroft an opportunity behind the stumps. Again, a good run of form in the
Sheffield Shield will likely decide who is chosen.
Speaking of the Sheffield Shield, the opening round ended recently but offered little in the way of confidence for the selectors. Maxwell scored just 7 and 20 for Victoria, Head fared even worse with scores of 3 and 0 for South Australia, Henriques batted just once and made 11, Stoinis made 9 and 32, Mitchell Marsh scored 36 and 4, Bancroft made 18 and 17 opening the batting and Lehmann a poor 10 and 6. The best of the bunch were Cartwight who made 61 and 38 and Shaun Marsh who scored 63 and 11, leaving the selectors no closer to deciding who will get the number 6 slot.
The potential keepers however did even worse with current incumbent Wade continuing his struggles with scores of 1 and 6, Nevill managed to reach double figures with 20 in his only innings for New South Wales and Carey (making made) a disappointing 12 and 4, again leaving the selectors scratching their heads over who will be behind the stumps in Brisbane for the first Test.
All is not lost England fans as while Joe Root’s side may have frailties in their top order, Australia have similar issues in their lower order which do not look like sorting themselves out anytime soon.