Ian Chappell: England need to sort their imbalance for Ashes glory
With Ben Stokes in the team, England has a realistic chance of retaining the Ashes.
With Ben Stokes in the team, England has a realistic chance of retaining the Ashes. If the fiercely competitive all-rounder is missing through suspension following a late night altercation in Bristol, then there's more chance of the Brexit decision being reversed than England clinging to the urn. That's the dilemma facing the England hierarchy. If Stokes is convicted they'll have little choice but to seal his fate and the ECB will then be taking a decision they know will almost certainly sentence their team to defeat. Nevertheless, Stokes is innocent until proven guilty so let's proceed with a breakdown of the two teams on the basis that he'll be in Australia, receiving endless taunts both on and off the field.
England captain Joe Root
It's not only Stokes' skill with bat, ball and in the field that makes a difference to England but also his competitive aura. His match-winning capabilities drag his teammates along with him and because he's not overawed by an opponent it helps to boost any England player who feels over-matched in Australia. He is a serious difference maker.
England's batting, particularly the top order has been an on-going problem for some time. This has come about partly through misguided selection, which has in turn led to a badly balanced batting order. A contributing factor to the jumbled order is Joe Root's reluctance to bat at three. Why he'd rather go in at two for very little rather than one for not many is mystifying but his reticence leads to an inferior player batting at three. This flaw is then exacerbated by batting Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali, two skilful batsmen, below players of lesser ability.
England could've got away with Root at four if opener Haseeb Hameed hadn't been injured, since Mark Stoneman could have adequately filled the number three spot. Now it looks like the trouble spot will be handled by James Vince.
Vince is a good-looking player but as I was eloquently advised as a youngster; "It's not what you look like, it's the number that goes next to your name on the scoreboard that matters." If Vince can turn aesthetics into accumulation, then England's line-up will be greatly enhanced.
Root should then be followed by Bairstow, Stokes and Ali, leaving room for an extra bowler or a specialist wicketkeeper, Ben Foakes. That's a potentially stronger and better balanced line-up than any used during the summer but its success is still dependant on producing good starts.
Aussies burdened too
Australia have similar problems with their batting in that they are heavily reliant on two players — David Warner and Steve Smith. However, the support line-up is more settled than England's, provided Usman Khawaja continues to deliver success at home from the number three spot.
The pace bowling on both sides is strong, but Australia possesses more speed. Wisely harnessed this is a great asset in Australia, as Mitchell Johnson amply displayed during England's last visit Down Under. If Australia's four leading proponents of pace, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and James Pattinson can remain fit and in-form for the duration of the series, then they will defeat England with or without Stokes.
The spin bowling advantage lies with Australia, as Nathan Lyon is a superior off-spin exponent to Ali but both will complement the pace attack rather than play a dominant role. England's other area of concern is their fielding. They spilt a lot of catches during their home summer and similar mistakes are more likely to be severely punished on Australia's batting friendly surfaces. Here again Stokes' absence would be a big setback, especially fielding at slip to Ali.
The upcoming Ashes series has the potential to be just what Test cricket desperately needs; a highly competitive and hard fought contest. However, it will be severely diminished if Stokes is absent, meaning that Australia could virtually wrap up the series before a ball is even bowled, following a blow delivered by one of their fiercest opponents.
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