England need bunker mentality and open mind in the Ashes build-up if they are to have the last laugh

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Much will rest on Mark Wood’s shoulders this winter  (Action Images via Reuters)
Much will rest on Mark Wood’s shoulders this winter (Action Images via Reuters)

It was hardly an Ashes squad announcement to set pulses racing or to lift spirits that this tour Down Under will be any different from the past couple.

There was, in the reaction from Australia, a little mirth. Just one batter with an average north of 35. Just one bowler capable of touching 90mph. Ten first-time tourists. And so on.

What, though, were we expecting? England are not a great Test side, and much of their spark is unavailable. They are without their talismanic, side-balancing all-rounder, Ben Stokes. They are missing another all-rounder, Sam Curran, through injury, and a third, Moeen Ali, because he just retired. And they are missing two of their three fastest bowlers, Jofra Archer and Olly Stone, to long-term injuries.

It is a squad that provides emphatic reminders that Test cricket, alas, is not a beast easily tameable through planning. Coach Chris Silverwood and captain Joe Root have spoken endlessly in their two years at the helm about building a “blueprint” to win in Australia. It was hardly atom-splitting genius – score big first innings runs, bowl fast – but their vision was admirable.

They looked to bring together a battery of fast bowlers. Archer, Stone and Mark Wood provided raw pace, Stokes ballast, and Chris Woakes and Ollie Robinson skill and accuracy. The old guard of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, could be used sparingly, when conditions suited.

Then Archer went down, followed by Stone then Stokes (who is the likeliest of the three to emerge at some stage in the series). Wood is the last quick standing and, while his fitness has been much better recently, it would be wishful to expect him to play more than three Tests.

England also invested time in young batters. A year ago, Rory Burns and Dom Sibley were building an ugly but effective opening partnership, while Zak Crawley and Ollie Pope were extremely exciting prospects. Dan Lawrence was waiting in the wings. Now, only Sibley has not made the trip but only Burns is sure of his place in Brisbane. Twelve bruising Tests this year have chewed up and spat out England’s plans.

So while it was a clear plan – and a single way of playing – that transformed England from white-ball no-hopers to World Cup winners, Test cricket, with all its variables, cannot be managed so easily, especially when you throw in a global pandemic that has increased the strain on players.

Rory Burns should be in the team for the First Test but it has been a difficult year for England batters (Getty Images)
Rory Burns should be in the team for the First Test but it has been a difficult year for England batters (Getty Images)

Silverwood was forced yesterday to pivot towards “bringing the stumps into play time and time again”, rather than bowling quickly. With the batting, he must hope that Root retains his princely form, and at least two more players have the series of their lives.

The one aspect of “the blueprint” that has made it out alive is that Silverwood did not want to take debutants in his squad to Australia. All 17 men are capped, and it is in the England Lions squad – named this week – that new faces and excitement will be found.

This will be a mix of young starlets, like Surrey’s Jamie Smith, and genuine Test candidates like Saqib Mahmood. They will be involved in two intra-squad games in Brisbane ahead of the First Test, and the best will stay on throughout the series. Impress against the incumbents, and Ashes involvement is possible. It is hard to get too upset about absentees when they are going to be in Australia anyway.

It is in this first month of the tour, away from prying eyes, that England’s best hope of building a competitive side lies.

Surrey’s Jamie Smith is part of the exciting young talent likely to be in Australia with the England Lions (Getty Images for Surrey CCC)
Surrey’s Jamie Smith is part of the exciting young talent likely to be in Australia with the England Lions (Getty Images for Surrey CCC)

In 2019, Australia got this absolutely right. They held an Australia A tour, captained by Tim Paine, in the shadow of the ODI World Cup. From that, Matthew Wade and James Pattinson reemerged as Test cricketers. Peter Siddle and Marnus Labuschagne were among the Australians tuning up in county cricket.

After their World Cup elimination, an expanded squad of 25 assembled at Southampton. There, they continued their careful planning (particularly over which bowlers played which Tests) and played tough internal cricket before whittling the squad down to 17.

England’s warm-up cricket must be hard, not fluffy 13-a-side fare. They must foster a bunker mentality. And crucially, they must keep an open mind on selection, because they have many more than 17 players at their disposal.

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