Fallible batting line-ups set to be at the mercy of formidable pace units as English conditions will likely ensure a series for the bowlers.
And so, the Ashes have arrived again. With cricket very much in the public spotlight once more, the sport’s greatest rivalry is set to resume in Birmingham on Thursday morning – just a mere 18 days after England lifted their first World Cup on home soil.
Because of that home World Cup, the 2019 version of the Ashes is very much cricket in the fast lane with five Tests – spread across four cities – arriving in just six weeks.
And with such a short turnaround between matches, this series could well hinge on how each side handles their squad rotation and fast bowling depth.
With the English wickets expected to offer plenty of swing and seam, coupled with the obvious batting frailties on either side, it looms as a low scoring series set to be dominated by the ball.
Thankfully for each side they’re stacked in that department. Between them England and Australia have both opted to include six front line seamers in their respective squads.
England will again rely on the evergreen pair of James Anderson and Stuart Broad as chief destroyers alongside the dependable Chris Woakes, the all-round package of Sam Curran and the new speed merchants Jofra Archer and Ollie Stone.
While Australia have the veteran UK specialist Peter Siddle, the World Cup’s leading wicket taker Mitchell Starc, the ever-reliable Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins, and are rounded off with the hustling seam of Michael Neser and the trump card James Pattinson.
After almost five years of frustration, Australia finally has the ‘Big Four’ of Cummins, Hazlewood, Pattinson and Starc all fit and available for selection. This, once distant, dream dates back to late 2014 when Hazlewood was the last of the quartet to make his Test debut.
A combination of injuries, both minor and serious, have meant that, until now, the four have never simultaneously been available. However, with Hazlewood having recovered from the back injury that’s ruled him out since January and Pattinson also seemingly over his own back troubles, they suddenly have an abundance of riches.
Now the visitors must stick to the fundamentals of succeeding in English climes and pick accordingly to the varying conditions. Their 2019 squad make-up suggests they have learnt plenty of lessons from their flawed 2015 Ashes campaign.
After a successful 2013-14 campaign, in which a fiery Mitchell Johnson blow England away, Australia entered English shores in 2015 intent on following a similar pathway.
However, although a pre-tour career ending injury to Ryan Harris scuppered their plans somewhat, an attack of Johnson, Starc and an off-colour Hazlewood was quickly found out across the series despite Johnson’s match winning contribution at Lords.
The 2015 surfaces of Edgbaston and Trent Bridge, in particular, were crying out for the wiles of Siddle, however he was only turned to once the series was already decided in England’s favour.
Siddle, now entering his twilight at 34, is again included in the touring party. And after a successful recent spell in county cricket with Essex, where he’s reaped 34 Championship wickets at 20.08, he’s likely to play a larger role from the get-go this time around.
With Pattinson and Cummins already etched into the starting XI for Edgbaston, Siddle’s in a three-way battle with Hazlewood and Starc for the remaining seamers role.
For England there were similar dilemmas regarding the third seamers role. With Anderson and Broad already certain to begin the series, Woakes has edged out Archer for the final spot.
With his strong Edgbaston connections and figures of 6-17 against Ireland last week, Woakes was the obvious candidate for the role, however, Archer’s inclusion is likely to come later in the series.
Despite a fine start to his international career, Archer has been carrying a slight side injury since his World Cup final exploits and is also short of red-ball practice, having not played a first-class match for ten months.
In the batting, Australia must decide whether Marcus Harris or Cameron Bancroft will open the batting alongside David Warner. Despite Harris being the incumbent, it’s likely that Bancroft will get the nod after his steady runscoring feats with Durham and match-winning contribution of 93 not out in the Australian inter-squad match last week.
England captain Joe Root has already confirmed that he will swap places with Joe Denly in the order and bat at number three. After pressure from parts of the English media and also his coach Trevor Bayliss, Root has decided to make the jump to add more experience to a top three also containing Surrey pair Rory Burns and Jason Roy – who have a combined eight Tests between them.
So, where does this leave us?
England are perhaps slight favourites at this stage with home conditions taken into account and the simple fact that not many current Australian batsmen are very equipped at playing the moving ball.
However, England’s own frailties in the batting department will concern them too. While they pride themselves on batting all the way down to number 10, their top order is a serious worry. After getting bundled out for 85 on a green Lords wicket by 37-year-old county stalwart Tim Murtagh – there are plenty of issues to iron out.
Burns is averaging just 22.28 after 14 Test innings and Denly isn’t fairing much better with 24.16 across six innings. It’s beginning to appear that a lot will rest on Roy’s ability to transform his limited overs form into the Test arena as England continue their long quest to replace Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook at the top of the order.
Keep an eye on:
Now 29, Pattinson’s only previous Ashes experience was as far back as six years ago when he played in the opening two Tests of the 2013 Ashes series before breaking down with yet another unfortunate injury setback.
After career-threatening back surgery in late 2017, Pattinson has finally returned to his fearsome best this summer during a county spell at Nottinghamshire and the recent Australia A fixtures.
While its doubtful he will play in all five matches, Pattinson’s ability to swing and seam the ball at high speed whilst also offering control will make him a tough proportion to face for the English batsmen.
While England have a number of talented batsmen in their ranks, only Root can claim to be truly world class.
After stating for much of the past year that he prefers to bat at number four, Root has finally budged and moved up one.
The number three spot has been problematic for England ever since Jonathan Trott departed from the international scene in 2015 and despite Root averaging 40.47 batting there instead of the 48.00 he averages at four, it’s a decision made with the best interests of the team at heart.
How Root handles the responsibility of captaincy with the added burden of batting at first drop will likely define the series.