Stoic batting, go after Nathan Lyon and use five bowlers - how England can win the Ashes

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Stoic batting, go after Nathan Lyon and use five bowlers - how England can win the Ashes - SHUTTERSTOCK
Stoic batting, go after Nathan Lyon and use five bowlers - how England can win the Ashes - SHUTTERSTOCK

At home in Test cricket, Australia used to lord it over all-comers, not losing a single Test series at home between 1993 and 2008, and drawing only three. But things have changed and England will meet a very different foe in this Ashes.

Rightly, Australia are strong favourites to retain the urn, reflecting the potency of their pace bowling attack, the middle order combination of Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith and the importance of home advantage in modern Test cricket.

Yet in the past 13 years they have been defeated in six Test series at home – three by South Africa, two by India and England’s 2010-11 Ashes triumph. Over the past five years alone, Australia have been toppled by South Africa, and India twice.

For all the challenges that await England over the next six weeks there is, at least, a modern template for how to win down under.

Bat for a long time, not a good time

India have defeated Australia twice in their history; both times have been during the past three years. On both occasions, Cheteshwar Pujara faced the most deliveries of anyone on either side: 1,258 in the four Tests in 2018-19, then 928 in 2020-21.

While Pujara’s average was unremarkable in the 2020-21 Border-Gavaskar Trophy – his 271 runs came at 33.9 apiece – his central insight was that the longer he batted, the easier it would get for he and his team-mates alike.

The night before India clinched a stunning series victory at the Gabba, after scoring 324 on the final day, India’s bus driver asked Pujara what would happen. “I told him that if we bat 98 overs we are going to chase this target,” Pujara told Telegraph Sport.

“You could trust the pace and bounce – apart from variable bounce, but otherwise the outfield was great. And it was the last day of the series. It’s never easy for bowlers if you challenge them if you keep them on the field – they had been bowling so many overs throughout the series.”

India's Cheteshwar Pujara says the key to batting in Australia is to aim to bat for a long time - AFP
India's Cheteshwar Pujara says the key to batting in Australia is to aim to bat for a long time - AFP

On the final day of the series, it took Pujara 97 balls just to reach double figures. Over 211 balls, he hit just seven boundaries while being hit nine times. But while Australia could hit him, they could not dismiss him. Pujara’s defiant 56 set the game up for Rishabh Pant to take India to victory, with the help of brisk cameos from Ajinkya Rahane and Washington Sundar.

If batsmen are as skilful as Pujara, such a stoic approach is perhaps better-suited to Australia than anywhere else. Unlike in England, batting becomes appreciably easier as an innings progresses, with the Kookaburra rapidly losing the swing offered by the new ball. The heat also renders bowling in Australia more physically demanding.

While Cameron Green is a cricketer of outstanding potential, at this stage in Test cricket he is emphatically a batsman who can bowl, rather than an all-rounder. He did not take a single wicket in the four Tests against India in the last Australian summer. Indeed in both India’s twin series victories down under, all of Australia’s wickets came from the same four bowlers.

Batting for as long as possible allowed India to exploit the inconsistency of Mitchell Starc – he averaged 37.4 across the two series, yielding 3.2 runs an over – and the paucity of threat from Australia’s fifth bowler. Few can play as Pujara do. But if Haseeb Hameed or Rory Burns can absorb many balls from Josh Hazlewood’s and Pat Cummins’s early spells, there will be no reason to bemoan their strike rates.

Dealing with Nathan Lyon

Australia is renowned as a graveyard for finger spinners, emphasising the excellence of Nathan Lyon in taking 399 Test wickets, including 200 at 33 apiece at home. But when India won in Australia a year ago, Lyon mustered only nine wickets at 55.1 apiece.

Pant’s contemptuous treatment of Lyon meant that he could not exert his normal control with the old ball. His calculated aggression set up India’s draw at Sydney – by making an Indian win a realistic prospect, he led Tim Paine to remove close catchers, thereby reducing the risk of losing wickets. His unbeaten 89 completed India’s heist at the Gabba.

Risbah Pant thrived when using his feet to disrupt Nathan Nyon's length during India's memorable Test series win last winter - SHUTTERSTOCK
Risbah Pant thrived when using his feet to disrupt Nathan Nyon's length during India's memorable Test series win last winter - SHUTTERSTOCK

Ben Stokes is England’s likeliest option to attack Lyon. While Stokes is a left-hander, he averages 52.3 against him in Tests. Both last winter and in the 2019 Ashes Test, it was suggested that Lyon’s length could be disrupted.

Pant and the rest of India’s batting line-up particularly thrived when using their feet to the spinner: when coming down the pitch in the 2020-21 series, India scored 163 off 177 balls while losing only two wickets. In response to India going down the pitch, Lyon too often dropped short.

Joe Root’s phenomenal pedigree playing spin will also be an asset to disrupt Lyon. Jonny Bairstow’s penchant for attacking off spin is also a reason for England’s preference for him over Ollie Pope to bat at number six.

A team effort with the ball

After India were bowled out for 36 at Adelaide last year, their selectors did a funny thing: they reacted to the humiliating collapse by rebalancing the side to select an extra bowler.

With Pant batting brilliantly after his recall, India were able to score enough runs over the last three Tests. And with a five-man bowling attack, they had enough threat to take 56 wickets over the last three Tests, including winning twice.

Thanks to Stokes, England can emulate India’s successful five-bowler strategy. This should allow them to follow India in using the five bowlers aggressively, and deploying them when they can be most effective.

As India found, a five-man attack allows a side to prevent their bowlers being fatigued and use them strategically. It also opens up a vacancy for England to select a spinner, allowing Jack Leach a berth in the side.

While only three of Australia’s top seven will be right-handers, Ravindra Jadeja, a left-arm spinner of not dissimilar style to Leach, took seven wickets at 15 apiece last year.

Ben Stokes' return allows a berth for Jack Leach
Ben Stokes' return allows a berth for Jack Leach

Even if Australia’s very best quicks – Cummins and Hazlewood – are bigger threats in Australian conditions, England have enviable depth in their pace bowling. This should liberate them to rotate their quick bowlers, selecting them where they should be most useful while keeping them fresh.

For instance, Chris Woakes could be a major asset in the two day-night Tests that are now likely; Mark Wood could exploit the pace at Sydney as Mohammed Siraj did for India.

The greatest lesson from India’s successes, perhaps, is that if England are to succeed down under, they will need not just a terrific team, but a terrific squad.

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