Nick Compton will write for the Express in association with Ladbrokes throughout the Ashes
Seventeen England cricketers have the opportunity to become heroes during the next seven weeks of the Ashes series.
If individuals can embrace the toughest challenge in world cricket and inspire the team to become winners, their names will be indelibly-linked to the cricketing heroes of yesteryear who succeeded Down Under: Jardine, Hutton, Illingworth, Gatting and Strauss are all men whose careers have been remembered for all the right reasons. Joe Root will be hoping he becomes known as more than a top-class batsman. The next five Tests could see him crowned as a champion cricketer. But it’s going to be a tough gig.
It’s very hard to gauge where England stand going into the first Test in Brisbane.
The standard of the opposition has hardly been testing up to now, which can often give us all a false sense of security.
I remember my first tour to India in 2012. We played a couple of warm-up matches in India before the first Test in Ahmedabad and the opposition on each occasion were nothing better than a Saturday afternoon club side. As the first day of my first Test dawned, I was unsure as to whether I was truly prepared or not.
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I had made a few runs before the Test but the prospect of facing R. Ashwin, Zaheer Khan and Ravi Jadeja a week later in front of 50,000 screaming fans was another matter all together.
The most important question a player asks themselves when they arrive in a foreign land is: ‘Can I find form and can I find it early?’.
A few nets and gym sessions in a freezing indoor school back home in October is better than nothing, but it barely skims the surface regarding where you need to be – the skin you need to slip into.
At the outset, everyone is queuing up to contribute and make that starting line up if at all possible. In a side with great team spirit this can be enervating – a real positive. I think this squad has that overriding quality of selflessness about it.
Mark Stoneman made England’s first hundred of the tour in the final warm-up game
Mark Stoneman needs to be a trump card in England’s batting line-up
The general consensus is that apart from Root and Alastair Cook, there are a lot of question marks regarding the top order. Even Cook needs a big series in my opinion but there is even more focus on his opening partner, as well as the gaping holes at No 3 and No 5.
Put simply and spun positively, there’s a great opportunity for the new crop of batters to step up and grasp on to. The reality is that these opportunities don’t come round every day for batsmen. I’ve known very fine players wait in vain for years to get in the Test side whilst Alec Stewart, Mike Atherton, Graham Thorpe or Nasser Hussain were effectively permanent fixtures in the team due to their excellence in performance terms.
Of course you need to add into the mix too that this is the Ashes. Expectations are higher than for any other series – and the Australian support in a home series is a major factor too.
The coaching staff will want the starting line-up to perform from the off. This was clearly what they and the selectors had in mind when choosing the squad.
James Vince struggled during his first spell in the England team
I think in Mark Stoneman, England are hoping to find the more aggressive partner they have been searching for to be the foil to Alastair Cook. I like him as both a player and a person. I love his no-nonsense attacking nature and single-minded determination to not give up on his England dream after many years being disregarded by the selectors. He has earned his opportunity through stealth. The Surrey opening batsman has already made an impact on the tour and scored a fine century yesterday against a Cricket Australia XI. I think he could become a key player for England because the conditions will bring the best out of him. We may get off to the odd flier with his style of play!
But at first wicket down, there’s doubt surrounding the quality of James Vince, much like Tom Westley before him. Until a batsman scores runs consistently at test level, the question marks will remain. Vince’s selection to bat at three was a decision based around his ability to play the short-of-a-length ball. And, if one remembers Michael Vaughan’s remarkable series in Australia in 2002/03 where he dealt with the miserly McGrath imperiously off both front and back foot, I really hope the Hampshire batsman can find his best game at No 3 because England will need a Vaughan-type series if England are to retain the Ashes.
There seems to be a conviction among the selectors and team management he will flourish on the true, generally flatter wickets of Australia against a ball that rarely deviates. While there’s no doubt he possesses a very good pull shot and one of the best cover drives in the game, it looks like a gamble to expect him to dig in, if required.
Like so many in this England side, Vince is a stroke-player who I suspect will look to fight fire with fire. It should make for exciting watching but in all honesty, I wouldn’t have selected him to tour Australia. I think my Middlesex colleague Sam Robson is a more solid batsman and at No 3, I would prefer to see another opener rather than a shot player in the England team for this series. You need to ‘blunt’ the new ball if England’s powerful middle order is to have its best chance of excelling on a regular basis.
England’s inexperienced Test players have never played against the kind of bowling on the pitches they will be batting on over the coming seven weeks – that’s a massive thing for three or four of these guys. And when you consider how many of Australia’s batters average over 50 in their own country, it is hard to see how, on paper, Australia cannot be anything other than strong favourites going in to the series. However, we all know the game isn’t played on paper!
The key for England is going to be the need to play well in Brisbane and achieve a Test victory. At worst, England will need to leave Queensland with a drawn match against their name and go to Adelaide with the confidence that the two teams are relatively equal once the hype dies down and the real cricket has begun.
Dawid Malan looks likely to bat at five. A long-time team-mate, he has become a fine player and capable of adapting his game to conditions and the situation, but I suspect he is having to work hard on improving his skills against pace and bounce.
I love that he has thus far given himself the best chance of succeeding at the highest level by curtailing his natural game and adapting to spend long periods in the middle, building an innings in the tried and tested way.
He has been seen as a bit of a ‘dasher’ – especially when he burst onto the international stage by thumping an audacious 70 in a T20 against South Africa.
When picked for the Test side, people were expecting more of the same, but Malan showed his adaptability at Headingley against West Indies with a committed, determined and defensive innings which suggested he had both the game, and the mind for Test cricket. The key for Dawid will be how well he deals with a higher quality pace attack.
Mitchell Starc is expected to be the pick of Australia’s bowlers – if he can stay fit
Australia’s bowlers could find fitness is the winning strategy
So much has been said in the build-up about the Australian fast bowling quartet of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Jackson Bird.
Forget the hype. I think this series is not only going to be decided on the fitness levels of the teams’ respective opening bowlers. Broad and Anderson are superb. But, they are in the latter phase of their career as a pair of bowlers and the back-up men have been injured already. The challenge for Broad and Anderson (should they get injured) is how quickly their bodies can recover.
Bowling in the intense heat of Australia, on flat pitches, is a total different challenge from bowling in England, on every level: technical, mental, emotional and physical. If they struggle for form or fitness, the options are limited, whereas Australia have a collection of opening bowlers in domestic cricket, fit and most likely in some good form over the coming weeks. Home advantage is massive from this perspective.
In recent years, Australia have developed some quick bowlers of note, and if they stay fit, England’s batsmen may be in for a torrid time. But one by one, Australia’s emerging pacemen have been troubled by a variety of ailments, from stress fractures of the lower back to hamstring problems and in the case of Mitchell Johnson, old father time catching up with him and forcing his retirement from Test cricket.
Australia will have a great starting line-up in Brisbane, but will ‘the fearsome foursome’ last all five Tests? I somehow doubt it.
If they do stay fit, then the key for England will be in the quality of their defensive skills against the hard, new ball when the pitch is at its freshest.
Anyone who knows me and my philosophy will understand that I am tied to one very strong principle. You have to have batters at the top of an order that can blunt an opposing attack. Many people came up to me after the recent South African series and said the duel I had with Dale Steyn in the first Test in Durban and his resulting injury had a major impact on the final result.
Whether England get starts and get through those initial 20 to 30 overs is at the heart of it all for me. I would rather see us 100/0 off 50 overs at Brisbane than 200/4. To me Test cricket is and will always be about playing the long game. The bullying can be done by England’s awesome middle-order when the platform is truly set.
The importance of Cook and captain Root’s contributions is loud and clear. This is a massive series for my one-time England opening partner. He knows it and will do everything in his power to make a massive impact on the series by just focusing on what he does best – score runs at his own pace in his own inimitable way. No fuss, no sweat, just good clips off his hip, rasping square cuts, strong pull shots and powerful checked drives through extra cover and back past the bowler.
Craig Overton impressed on Championship debut five years ago, having just turned 18
For England to succeed, the middle order has to maintain its recent brilliance, but to do so, they will need to be coming in at 200/3, and not having to counter-attack their way out of trouble from 95/4. Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes will be licking their lips down the order if Stoneman, Vince and Malan do the business up front.
And if Broad and Anderson can find top form and stay fit, England have a real chance in the first two matches of establishing a strong foothold in the series to take to Perth. Get ahead in any sporting contest, and you never know how your opponent will deal with adversity. They may lose form, confidence, and could start to turn on each other, which will help England find a place of relative dominance going to the WACA in the all-important third Test match.
Every England cricketer is faced with a career-defining chance to come home from Australia as cricketing hero. Let’s hope they do…
Nick Compton is Ladbrokes‘ Ashes brand ambassador. Australia are 8/11 favourites to win the Ashes, with England 5/2 outsiders.