16 November 2017

2017-18 Ashes Preview

So then, here we are on the eve of the most crucial Ashes series since the last one. England look in a bad place, but then again, the Australians aren't having it all their own way. And thanks to BT, it's even more expensive and inaccessible than usual, and their website is as clear as mud, so I can't even work out how much it would cost (no, I DON'T want to switch to BT Broadband!), but we're looking at around £85 for the two months. I never thought I'd be missing Sky...

England


Now, away from the coverage, on the field, what on earth is going to happen to England whilst missing the second name on their team sheet, Ben Stokes? I have maintained that Stokes is good enough for England to only need 3 seam bowlers and 1 spinner (although Ali may not be good enough to tie an end up, but we'll get to that later). I have also maintained that England should fly Stokes out now and deal with the recriminations and deportations later. Everyone seems to have forgotten that David Warner's assault of Joe Root in 2013 lead to him missing only two tests and a couple of ODIs. Stokes looks unlikely to play in the entire tour of Australia and New Zealand - that's 7 tests, 12 ODIs (including the two he missed against the West Indies), and 4 or 5 T20Is. Whatever happened to "innocent until proven guilty"? 

Rather than replace Stokes with another all-rounder, England think the bowling is more important so it looks likely he will be replaced by Craig Overton of Somerset. The injury scenario is ludicrous anyway, and the mere fact that Yorkshire's Liam Plunkett is at least 12th in the England seam bowler pecking order is a joke. You can argue about the order of the top 10 all you like, but the fact remains that James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Ben Stokes, Toby Roland-Jones, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood, Jake Ball, Craig Overton, Steven Finn, Tom Curran, and George Garton have all been preferred to Plunkett. That is a joke. Mind you, England's injury situation, invoking memories of 2002-03, is no better. Ignoring Stokes for a moment, our 4th, 6th, and 9th choice seam bowlers are all injured, as is #7, Ball, but unlike the others, he hasn't flown home. 

I haven't even mentioned the spinners or the batting yet, so let's get a move on. Let's start with the batting. England have still failed to learn the lessons of 2013-14, not least because there is no shortage of bad decisions having been made since then with relation to the batting. England still haven't solved the problem of who bats alongside Alastair Cook even though this problem has now existed for over five years since the retirement of Andrew Strauss. Nick Compton, Joe Root, Michael Carberry, Sam Robson, Jonathan Trott, Adam Lyth, Moeen Ali, Alex Hales, Ben Duckett, Haseeb Hameed, Keaton Jennings, and now Mark Stoneman have all had a go (prior to Strauss's retirement, Cook had also opened with Michael Vaughan, Kevin Pietersen, and (obviously) Strauss). Bizarre decisions were made in the aftermath of that tour, some of which England are having to still contend with. England's three leading run-scorers on that tour (Carberry, Pietersen, and Stokes) found themselves dropped - Stokes later made his way back, whilst Pietersen retired from English cricket this year. As for Carberry... it looks like he's unlikely to return, but you can never tell with England. As it is, England have opted for Stoneman on the tour with Cook, and Stoneman will have to do what none of the other openers did - not just hit one huge innings in the first couple of tests and then fail for the next few.

So who comes in at #3, an even more important position now that the openers are as stable as block of jelly? Joe Root, for the most part, held that role in 2013-14. Root had a miserable tour in 2013-14, his heavy bat proving just as much of an issue as his heavy feet. Now, as captain, he's put his ego ahead of the team's interests. Only last year Root hit 254 against Pakistan at #3, but now he refuses to bat there (in sheer contrast to my favourite England captain Vaughan, who batted up and down the order as captain, even batting at #4 to shoehorn in Marcus Trescothick, Strauss, and Cook). Even if Root refuses to bat there, England could do far worse than Moeen Ali, although they still can't work out what they want from him. It's clear that Ali is a batting all-rounder, and I retain my belief (for now) that he shouldn't be England's main spinner. He had one good series this summer - indeed, I was at The Oval for the hat trick - but one swallow doesn't make a summer. Only a good winter will finally convince me to him.

No, number three looks likely to be held by James Vince, and I just can't work out why. England's bowling selectors appear to be on a different page to the batting ones, as the batting ones just follow the County Championship statistics irrespective of any mitigating circumstances whatsoever. This is why Gary Ballance is constantly picked, because he scores county runs but can't get forward enough at test level. Vince, meanwhile, constantly wafts outside off stump and gets away with it in county cricket but was found out time and time again at test level. Bizarrely, in picking James Vince, England have picked a batsman who has a worse batting average - batting average - than Ashley Giles, the "King of Spain". Amazingly, Vince and Ballance are both on the tour.

I talked about England's wheel-of-fortune approach to the batting, but Dawid Malan is a bizarre exception. He did well in a T20I once and that was enough to convince Trevor Bayliss to encourage him for Test selection. Do I even have to explain how ridiculous that is? For starters, it's a great argument for Jason Roy's selection.

Jonny Bairstow and Ben Foakes are obvious choices for wicket keeper and not much needs to be said about them, other than the fact that had England picked Jos Buttler I would have been incensed considering he doesn't even play in the County Championship. At all.

No, what does need talking about is the second spinner. Mason Crane. Just... why? How? Consider the fact that he can't even get a game for Hampshire - Liam Dawson is keeping him out of the team - why is he above Liam Dawson in the England rankings? Dawson has been tried (and failed), so what on earth is going on? There are approximately 10 spin bowlers with a better claim than Mason Crane to that seat on the aeroplane, and only two of them are going (Ali, Root). Did Adil Rashid run over a selector or something?

All in all, England's seam bowling attack of Anderson, Broad, and Woakes (and possibly Overton if they pick another seamer) is their strength. Their weakness? Their shaky batting, particularly at #3 and #5.

Likely England XI for The Gabba: A Cook, M Stoneman, J Vince, J Root (c), D Malan, J Bairstow (wk), M Ali, C Woakes, C Overton, S Broad, J Anderson.
Other squad members: J Ball, G Ballance, M Crane, T Curran, B Foakes, G Garton.

Australia


By contrast, the Australians have had it fairly easy-going, but a number of questions still remain. There's really not a lot to talk about with Australia apart from the obvious question I'll come on to in a moment, but I'll start by just briefly covering the 9 dead certs to start at The Gabba (barring injury).

The "pocket rocket", David Warner, used 2013-14 to burst onto the scene and announce himself as a batsman here to stay. Along with Alastair Cook, he is one the best openers in the world and slides into my world XI. Matt Renshaw looks certain to start alongside him. Born in Middlesbrough, Renshaw's statistics indicate a player who starts well but doesn't score nearly as many 50s or 100s as one would expect with an average of 36.64 in 10 test matches - just the one century and three 50s. This series will make or break him.

With Steve Smith inked in at four, at number three will be the new and improved version of Usman Khawaja. Since the last Ashes series in 2015 (which he didn't play in) he has scored 5 test centuries and looks to be frightening. However, he was left out of the Australians' series against India (which ended 2-1 to India although, being India, the BCCI kicked up a fuss anyway). Additionally, in his only test since January, against Bangladesh in Dhaka, he was dismissed for 1. Twice. His Ashes legacy remains copping a howler from the third umpire at Old Trafford - this is an unbelievable opportunity to not just be "the bloke who was given out".

As for the bowlers, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, and Pat Cummins will provide pace (although not much variety). Starc can swing the ball and if he gets the pink new ball moving in Adelaide, he will have England at 5 down for not a lot by the time the lights come on. The pink ball tends to do a fair bit early on and then gets smacked around the park, so the first few overs of each innings in Adelaide will be crucial. Nathan Lyon is arguably the world's greatest spin bowler and, barring something extraordinary from Ali, Lyon is going to make him look very ordinary.

Now this is where things get a bit tricky. Who bats at 5, 6, and 7? And who keeps? Peter Handscomb looks likely to bat, but should he keep? And if he keeps, should he bat at 5 or 7? And if he bats at 5, does that mean you have the odd situation of a specialist batsman at 7? Well, whilst I would do things differently, the answers look to be the following: Handscomb 5, Glenn Maxwell 6, Matthew Wade 7; Wade; no; n/a; n/a. Wade's batting looks more messy than a wildebeest in a lion den, but somehow I get the feeling he will be retained at 7.

Glenn Maxwell will surely bat at #6, although I wonder if the Australians would prefer Surrey's Mitch Marsh in there considering he bowls seam rather than spin. Australian all-rounders seem to be batting all-rounders - I can't remember the last time Australia had a genuine all-rounder. Some other names have been floated around (Hilton Cartwright, Marcus Stoinis), but I can't look past Maxwell for #6. Mind you, I don't think we'll truly know who bats there until their team for The Gabba is announced.

Likely Australia XI for The Gabba: D Warner, M Renshaw, U Khawaja, S Smith (c), P Handscomb, G Maxwell, M Wade (wk), M Starc, P Cummins, J Hazlewood, N Lyon.

So who's going to win?

Australia. As can be seen from this chart below, the Australian batsmen hold a superior advantage in terms of their statistics compared to their English counterparts.


(N.B. for Craig Overton, the difference between Pat Cummins' first class and test average in percentage terms has been applied to Craig Overton's first class batting average to create a "predicted" batting average, as it were.)

Summing the averages of each team, the Australians, if they all hit their batting averages exactly, should score 365, compared to England's 330. As you can see from the chart, all of the 5 Australian top order batsmen have a superior batting average compared to their opposite numbers. England's weak points at 3 and 5 show up here. 

As for the bowling, Australia also hold a super advantage in the bowling averages of each department:


(N.B. Overton has been excluded.)

Lyon and Maxwell (combined) have a far better record than Ali, as do (just) the Australian seamers in relation to their English counterparts. Predicting the scores is a lot harder to do as we won't know in advance how the captains use their bowlers, but we can tell you that on these figures England would score somewhere between 253 and 462. As Maxwell's unlikely to bowl too much, expect this to be near enough to the England batting prediction of 330. Australia, meanwhile, on these figures, would score between 274 and 373, but as I say, take that with caution as we obviously don't know how well Craig Overton will do.

So, England have worse bowlers and worse batsmen. Start the car. I won't say 5-0 because you can never rule out raining out a test (although only one Ashes test in Australia this century has been a draw), I expect Australia to win to nil.

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