The Ashes: Key questions facing Joe Root and England as their warm-up schedule begins

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 (Getty Images for Cricket Austral)
(Getty Images for Cricket Austral)

England have seven days of warm-up cricket before the Ashes begin. Unlike previous tours, this will all be done in-house.

Starting on Monday night, there is a three-day warm-up at Redlands, then next Monday a more serious four-day match will follow at Ian Healy Oval.

Here, Standard Sport’s cricket correspondent Will Macpherson looks at the key questions facing Joe Root and Co. ahead of the First Test at the Gabba in Brisbane on December 8.

How to fill the top six?

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Ben Stokes’ selection makes things a lot easier for England. They have a bowling option in the top seven, meaning they can play four seamers and a spinner without being totally under-resourced with the bat.

However, that does not mean we are totally clear on who will get the nod in the top six, and there appear to be two places up for grabs: one opening berth and No6.

England finished the summer with a top three of Rory Burns, Haseeb Hameed and Dawid Malan. Things went well, with the openers twice sharing a century stand and Malan looking in good form too. Burns, who had a strong series against Australia in 2019, and Malan, who was excellent down under in 2017/18, appear certain starters.

Whether Hameed joins them seems up for debate. Will his low-handed technique suit Australian conditions? Has he got the weapons to survive against Australia’s pace attack?

The alternative is Zak Crawley, who has had a dismal year, averaging 11 in seven Tests, but has long been touted for this series and, of course, has a Test 267 to his name. It is quite conceivable that he gets the nod if he outscores Hameed in the warm-up matches.

No6 is a straight shootout. Ollie Pope has been the anointed one for years now, and made 81 in his most recent Test and 274 in his most recent first-class match. He performed superbly in South Africa two years ago, which should suggest his game suits Australian conditions.

However, he was set to be dropped for the postponed final Test of the summer against India, with Jonny Bairstow keeping his place at the end of a season in which he promised plenty but could not make a big score. Bairstow has experience, and a Test hundred in Perth, on his side, but a very patchy recent record.

How many T20 World Cup players is too many?

 (REUTERS)
(REUTERS)

England currently have 13 Ashes squad members in Brisbane, plus the Lions squad. Still in quarantine on the Gold Coast are the five players involved in the T20 World Cup (Malan, Bairstow, Jos Buttler, Chris Woakes and Mark Wood), as well as plenty of support staff, including head coach Chris Silverwood. They won’t be released to travel to Brisbane until the day of the second warm-up fixture.

Both sides look likely to be undercooked in Brisbane. Australia have not played for 11 months, and half their team has been in the UAE.

England’s preparation looks a little light too, so is it wise to bulk up on those whose focus has been entirely on this series?

Malan, Buttler and Wood are all in England’s best side in these conditions, but does it make sense to hold Bairstow and Woakes back? England must get out of Brisbane with at least a draw if they are to stand a chance.

How much is too much to ask of Stokes?

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

We should still temper our expectations around Stokes’ involvement. He has barely played since April, when he suffered a very significant finger injury, and has also had mental health struggles in that time.

It seems a tall order asking him to hit the heights of 2019/20 again.

We know he will bat No5, be the fourth seamer, and a key fielder, so it might just be sensible if England hold off giving him back the vice-captaincy for now.

He will remain a natural leader and key confidant of Root, but could Buttler keep the official title to take one thing off the talisman’s plate?

How to balance the attack?

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Four seamers, including Stokes, and Jack Leach should be England’s formula. They have five proven Test seamers in the squad, plus Craig Overton, who did fine in Australia last time, and Saqib Mahmood with the Lions. That is more than enough to rotate for five Tests inside seven weeks.

England need to carefully select where they want Wood – who is almost always a fitness concern – to play. Managed well, they should get at least three Tests out of him.

It could also be an unforgiving tour for James Anderson and Stuart Broad, so they should be delicately rotated (how about Broad in Brisbane, where he has bowled well, and Anderson under lights in Adelaide?). They also need some batting from their bowlers, so one of Woakes and Ollie Robinson should always play.

The crucial thing before the Test is getting their workloads exactly right, so they don’t start tired.

Is there scope for a bolter?

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

With Brydon Carse injured, Mahmood is the obvious Lion that could make an Ashes appearance. He is, after all, England’s second fastest bowler after Wood, and they will want some pace in their attack wherever possible.

With no wrist spin in the main squad, Matt Parkinson or Mason Crane are others who could make a claim to at least remain with the group after the Lions tour ends.

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