For Australia and England, there is no battle in cricket as crucial as the Ashes. A total of 69 times, the series have been played ever since its inception in 1882-83 in the Australian summer. Australia and England have won it 32 times each. The upcoming series, which will be the 70th time the two nations will fight for the Urn, will be the crucial tie-breaker that will take either of the teams one series up.
When England began their Test season a few months back, every step taken by the team, selectors and captain keeping the Ashes 2017-18 in mind. England ended their Test season last year with the thumping defeat in India in the five-Test series, where they narrowly escaped a 5-0 whitewash as they drew the first Test. When they began their 2017-18 season a few months back, every strategy was made according to the Ashes. They have hosted South Africa and West Indies in the last couple of months and the two Test series have been a rehearsal for the English men for the Ashes.
As England were expected to dominate both the sides at home, they indeed stuck to the plan but a loss in a Test to the West Indies at home was something they weren’t ready to face at the moment. Although it only came as a morale drubbing, it came at the right time as they could discover their weaknesses and do the damage control before the vital Australian summer. In a little over months, the English team will be ready to board their flight to Brisbane for the first Test.
The misfiring No. 2
There is no doubt, in the fact that England will head to Australia high on confidence after beating South Africa 3-1 and West Indies 2-1 at home this season. To maintain the same confidence, England have very less to time to look for solutions for a few major concerns in the team – one being the misfiring in the No. 2 position and Alastair Cook’s opening partner.
Ever since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012, England’s misery to find Cook’s permanent opening partner seems to be never ending. A total of five years have passed and there still has been no solution to this. There was a time when England sighed a relief when they picked a teenager Haseeb Hameed for the India tour towards the end of 2016. Maybe there is a lack of data to back him as Cook’s regular partner but the composure and technique he demonstrated in his first three Tests, certainly, cannot be ignored.
He might have missed out on a century on debut but what is important is the way he batted against ruthless Indian spin attack and registered a score of 82, which was also a new highest score for a teenager in Test cricket for England. The standout show from him during the tour was when he was dropped down the order at No. 8 due to a broken finger. He remained unbeaten on 59, having faced 156 balls with the injury.
Since Hameed’s India tour had ended with the injury, Cook walked into Wankhede’s field with a 11th opening partner since Strauss’ retirement. The 11th man happened to be Keaton Jennings, who was called in seeing his form in Division One, where he had scored more runs than anyone else in the tournament. He lived up to the expectations as he scored a century in his maiden Test innings but that was followed by a dismissal for a duck. The next Test in Chennai saw him scoring a fifty and one run.
With a 4-0 loss in India, England flew back and hoped for Hameed to do well in domestic circuit before the commencement of their home season. The first series was against South Africa which was inclusive of four Tests. Unfortunate for Hameed and England, the 20-year-old had since struggled for Championship runs at Lancashire, where he had averaged 15 against the red ball that summer. Hence, selectors gave Keaton the green signal to continue to partner Cook in the South Africa series.
In the eight innings Keaton batted, he failed to record a single fifty, he was dismissed twice for a duck and at the end of the series, he averaged 15.87 in four Tests. Prior to England’s series against West Indies began, that would be the last one before the Ashes, former South African cricketer Graeme Smith slammed Jennings by suggesting that Australia could be a “scary place” for him.
Smith, who did not have the best of times in Australia, had his hand broken by Mitchell Johnson in the Sydney Test of 2008-09, knows exactly how difficult it can be to tour with fast and bouncy wickets that fast bowlers enjoy. “If I was a selector I’d be thinking it was time to make a change with the West Indies and then the Ashes coming up. The way that Jennings plays, I think Australia might be quite a scary place for him,” he added.
Cook welcomes 12th man
While the England coach and captain did not want to bring panic in the team by bringing a 12th partner for Cook, with the Ashes being around the corner, the English selectors had other thoughts. Considering Jennings’ poor form with the bat they exactly did what Smith said. Former Durham batsman Mark Stoneman became Cook’s 12th partner since Strauss’ retirement.
England, initially, had to decide between Hameed and Jennings for the No. 2 position for the Ashes. Now with Stoneman’s 120 runs in three Tests which is inclusive of an unbeaten 52 in the final innings that won England the series. Stoneman, who had passed 1,000 First-Class runs for four successive seasons in Durham, has continued his good touch with the bat now that he has moved to Surrey. The 30-year-old batsman has enjoyed a superb season in the domestic circuit, scoring more than 1,000 runs at an average of 58.82.
Stoneman’s County performance in the ongoing season has contradicted Hameed’s poor show for the majority of the season. Hameed, who surely is selectors’ first preference for the Ashes for the No.2 spot, does not have enough numbers in the northern summer so far. He has just one First-Class century and he needs a sustained period of good form before he is picked again.
England were crushed 5-0 the last time they visited Australia for the 2013-14 Ashes and keeping that in mind, the selectors cannot afford to make any mistake in the selection. The situation seems very tricky to pick a partner for Cook and England coach Trevor Bayliss said he can’t see the selectors going outside of the group that has played in the past 12-18 months. That means, along with Stoneman, Hameed and Jennings, the batsmen such as Alex Hales, Jos Buttler and James Vince are all in contention. It’s more than clear that the player who will score two or more First-Class centuries before later September looks highly likely to earn the spot.