Preparation has hardly been ideal for Joe Root’s first crack at skippering an Ashes tour given the nightclub incident involving his vice captain Ben Stokes.
It goes without saying the all-rounder’s absence leaves a large gulf in Root’s England side both on the pitch and the public’s thought-process towards it.
Every international cricket team strives for the perfect balance and Stokes has given England’s director of cricket Andrew Strauss the ideals he would want.
Unfortunately for Stokes, Strauss made his bed over the Kevin Pietersen saga and has had to stay lying in it – and credit to him for sticking to those principles. It would have been entirely hypocritical for the England supremo to defy his own strict policies just because an Ashes series was around the corner. But Barcelona without Lionel Messi, New England Patriots without Tom Brady, USA without Jordan Speith. It has its problems.
That said, the tour will not be won and lost because of his omission. England do have others capable of offering his aggressive counter-punching to restore initiative when the going gets tough.
Yorkshire’s Jonny Bairstow has come of age in the past two years and can negate the all-rounder’s loss in leadership, on and off the field. Likewise, Chris Woakes has shown his promise to step up from the support act, and will want to cement his place as Jimmy Anderson’s successor.
Like any Ashes tour, the captain’s senior core will have most bearing on the results. If Anderson, Stuart Broad, Cook and Root play to their experience, England will put themselves in line for a famous victory.Ed White
Many will look at the first Test for pointers of how this England team will cope without Stokes. But the real test is England’s ability to shrug off bad spells in matches and, inevitably, a defeat.
Four years ago, Alastair Cook’s side caved in once the pressure of Mitchell Johnson and co mounted. The early barbs have made it evident that this tour won’t be plain sailing, either, and Root and his men will need broad shoulders. Like any Ashes tour, the captain’s senior core will have most bearing on the results. If Anderson, Stuart Broad, Cook and Root play to their experience, England will put themselves in line for a famous victory.
However, while their quality can hold the sway against the likes of West Indies and an under-strength South Africa, it will not be enough on its own against bristling Aussies on home turf.
England’s issues at the top of the order have been well-documented and the Ashes could hinge on Mark Stoneman and James Vince. Too often in recent series, Root has arrived at the crease under pressure against a fresh cherry with the No. 2 already in the wickets column.
From England’s last four tours, winning teams bowling last have averaged 636 runs in a match – on six of the 14 occasions they have only needed to bat once. Big first-innings totals are imperative and England can ill-afford to find themselves 40-2 or less.
To do that, Stoneman and Vince must provide stability. With four half-centuries on tour (including a ton), Stoneman has shown signs that he has resolved the pursuit of Cook’s partner.
Vince is yet to convince. He was suspect playing forward outside the off-stump during his first run in the side and that will come under scrutiny again on quick pitches. The bigger worry surrounds Dawid Malan. The Middlesex batsman has found it hard to find fluency and his unnatural gritty-style can increase pressure on the team, rather than allowing the shackles to come off.
One out-of-form batsman can be carried – but two or three cannot. Should the largely untested trio wilt, the Ashes may as well be gift-wrapped in yellow and green wrapping paper.