Small margins could decide tight Ashes tussle

Although Australia start as favourites, expect a tight Ashes series as both teams line up with obvious flaws in their armouries. 

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And so, the Ashes are again upon us. Four years have flown by since Mitchell Johnson ripped through the visiting Englishmen like a knife through butter as the hosts recorded their second 5-0 whitewash in three home Ashes encounters.

This time around Johnson will be watching on his couch at home – two years into International retirement – However, for England other threats remain. None more so that Johnson’s predecessor, Mitchell Starc.

Starc has started the Sheffield Shield season in red hot form. His figures – 2-46, 8-73, 4-56, 3-41 – suggest that he’s at the top of his game and with two hat-tricks in his previous match against Western Australia, there could be plenty of sleepless nights in the England camp.

With that being said, this could be a much closer Ashes tussle than most had previously expected. For there are obvious weaknesses in each side heading into the series opener in Brisbane on Thursday.

Australia, although boasting a fine and well balanced bowling unit, have deep concerns over their middle-order batting composition. Despite the heroics of Johnson four years ago, it was the continuous late-order bailing out by wicketkeeper Brad Haddin which helped Australia regain the urn. Haddin’s 493 runs were second only to David Warner in the series as he regularly dispirited the English when they’d often broken the back of the Aussie batting.

This time around it’s the contentious recalling of 32-year-old gloveman Tim Paine that has led to several questions being asked down under. Paine, who last played Test cricket over seven years ago, has kept wicket for Tasmania only three times in the past two years after a serious finger injury and hasn’t made a first-class century since 2006. Averaging just 20.40 in his last two years of first-class cricket, his recall has come hugely out of the blue despite the continuing failures of previous incumbents Peter Nevill and Matthew Wade.

At number six, Shaun Marsh’s inclusion had led to more contention. Marsh has been chosen ahead of Glenn Maxwell due to his recent form and experience according to head selector Trevor Hohns. His inclusion at number six means that Australia will go into the first Test with just four bowlers in Starc, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon.

Instead of including an allrounder at number six they’ll be banking on by selecting inform batsmen Marsh and Cameron Bancroft to compliment Warner, Steven Smith, Usman Khawaja and Peter Handscomb they’ll score enough runs to allow the three quicks plenty of time to rest.

And the three quicks will certainly need enough rest. Starc has played only two first-class matches since being diagnosed with a foot stress injury in March, while Hazlewood injured a side during the most recent Test series in Bangladesh and has played just once since. Cummins, meanwhile, has a studied history of breakdowns since making his debut six years ago.

Keeping the trio fit and firing for five successive Tests remains key to Australia’s chances, especially as immediate backup options James Pattinson and Nathan Coulter-Nile have already been ruled out of contention leaving Jackson Bird and Chadd Sayers as the next in line.

England have could have worries in the bowling department too. Their over reliance on James Anderson and Stuart Broad is undeniable. If either man or Chris Woakes were to succumb to injury early in the series then it could leave them ruthlessly exposed.

Without the all round qualities of Ben Stokes, and also missing the unfit trio Mark Wood, Steven Finn and Toby Roland-Jones, they are left to decide between the undercooked Jake Ball or the untried Craig Overton for the fourth seamers role. Beyond that the reserves are even more raw with George Garton and Tom Curren providing the initial backup options.

This Ashes campaign could well be decided by the fitness of either side’s main quick bowlers and the effectiveness of their reserves.

While the Australian’s have experienced recent batting woes in the middle order, the English have struggled to find the right formula at the top of theirs. Their over reliance on Alastair Cook and Joe Root has been well documented in recent years and they still find themselves unsettled at positions two, three and five.

Both opener Mark Stoneman and number five Dawid Malan found form with centuries in the final warm-up fixture in Townsville – albeit against weak opposition bowlers and on a flat wicket. Stoneman, with plenty of experience playing Grade cricket, should fair well as his game is well suited to the fast Australian wickets. Malan, like number three James Vince, could well be a lottery.

For England to have any chance in the series they must look to post gigantic first-innings totals much like they did when they won down under in 2010/11. On that occasion they had massive contributions from Cook, Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen, while Andrew Strauss and Matt Prior also chipped in with valuable contributions.

Ashes campaigns can often end and define careers. The 2013/14 Ashes whitewash effectively saw the end of a generation of successful England players. Longtime stalwarts Pietersen, Prior, Graeme Swann, Tim Bresnan, Monty Panesar and Jonathan Trott either retired or were faded out after the series.

Likewise, Australia’s 3-2 series defeat in England in 2015 saw the back of Haddin, Shane Watson, Ryan Harris, Chris Rogers and captain Michael Clarke.

But with departures also comes new beginnings. Both current skippers Smith and Root had career lightbulb moments during the series four years ago. Smith regularly claims his hundred in Perth was the catalyst to his successful upturn in form that saw him captain the side just twelve months later and eventually become the best Test batsman in the world.

For Root, it was his dropping for the Sydney Test that held him in good stead when he later forced his way back into the side. His return against Sri Lanka in 2014 was the beginning of a run that has seen him become England’s premier batsman and now captain marvel.

How the pair cope with the bat and in the field will be crucial to how the series unfolds later this week.

Look out for:

Moeen Ali – England

After missing the first two warm-up matches with a side injury, Moeen is now deemed to be fit and ready to go after getting through 48 overs unscathed in Townsville last week.

With Stokes still unavailable due to an ongoing Police investigation, Moeen’s importance to the side has never been higher. It’s likely that he will move up a place to number seven in the batting lineup in Stokes’ absence and his late order hitting will be key to England’s chances of posting big totals.

His bowling will be equally important to the cause. With Australia readily renowned as a graveyard for offspinners over the years, Moeen will need to offer his captain control at important junctures of the match as Root will look to rotate his quicks.

If he can pray on the mind’s of Australia’s attacking batsmen – who regularly underestimated him during the 2015 Ashes – then he can again enjoy success.

Pat Cummins – Australia

Cummins could be forgiven for believing he may never play a home Test match let alone an Ashes series.

Yet, he’s now nailed on to join his New South Wales bowling teammates at the Gabba on Thursday morning as a key component in Australia’s plan to regain the little urn.

Still only 24-years-old, injuries have ravaged his young career to date. Since making his debut at the tender age of 18 six years ago, Cummins has succumbed to a series of stress injuries to the back and has, until this year, been unable to string together any meaningful cricket.

At his best he’s capable of bowling 90mph plus and swinging the ball both ways, however after such a checkered injury history will his fitness hold up to the rigours of a five-Test Ashes campaign?

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