Ashes major talking points as Australia gear up for first taste of ‘Bazball’
One of the most hotly anticipated Ashes series of recent times is close at hand, with plenty of issues to debate on both sides of the divide.
Here, the PA news agency looks at some of the most pressing matters in the run-up to the Edgbaston opener next week.
How much of a loss is Leach?
While Somerset spinner Jack Leach is hardly one of the biggest stars in English cricket, he has performed a crucial role in the team’s dramatic upturn in form over the past year. Enjoying the unvarnished support of captain and coach for the first time, he has been an ever-present and assumed the role of tireless grafter. A 10-wicket match haul at Headingley last summer proved he could take a turn in the limelight too. Whoever replaces him will have to find their own way to play the part, but they will lack the 12-month bedding in period that England have invested in Leach.
All eyes of Stokes’ fitness
It is hard to over-estimate the magnetic, talismanic qualities Ben Stokes has brought to the England captaincy. Alongside a like-minded head coach in Brendon McCullum, he has re-energised the team and instilled them with a feeling of optimism and enjoyment. Will that still exist without him in place as ringmaster? England will hope they don’t find out, but his chronic left knee injury is a big problem. He has already had a cortisone injection this year and whether his body will allow him to perform to his best with the ball is an open question. Expect a few scares along the way, but Stokes is desperately hoping to see the job through.
Warner’s last ride
When it comes to opposition players England fans love to hate, few sit higher on the list than David Warner. His spiky, combative nature have long marked him out as an obvious target and his role in the sandpaper scandal only heightened the ill-feeling. Having announced his forthcoming retirement, 2023 will be his last tour behind enemy lines and his final Ashes. It seems a long shot to imagine he will bow out to standing ovations and he will be up for the challenge. His long rivalry with Stuart Broad is due to be an exciting sub-plot, after the Englishman routed the left-hander in 2019.
How will ‘Bazball’ bear up against the Australian attack?
Stokes’ England have resolutely refused to take a backward step since laying out their new ultra-aggressive philosophy at the start of last summer. After blitzing New Zealand with some stunning batting, they swatted away the doubters who said they would not be able to replicate it against India by reeling off a record chase at Edgbaston. Transplanted to unfamiliar climes in Pakistan, they simply went harder and faster. Now comes their latest – and arguably biggest – challenge yet. Australia have arguably the most formidable bowling attack in the world, with Pat Cummins leading a troop of elite seamers alongside the prolific spin of Nathan Lyon. England have promised they will not hold back, while Australia will back themselves to have too much. Whose skills will prove most compelling and whose nerve will last longest? It should be box office entertainment either way.
Can Crawley come good?
The England selectors have stuck hard and fast to their guns when it comes to Zak Crawley. After 34 Tests he averages just 28.26, while his first-class numbers are only marginally better. Supporters of the 25-year-old see a tone-setter and a sporadic match-winner – someone whose bare statistics do not fully reflect his ability to lay the platform for others and land early blows on opposition bowlers. Critics take a less charitable view, painting Crawley as a flighty performer who has all the shots but lacks the requisite judgement of when to deploy them. A home Ashes feels like proving ground for each theory. By the end of the series, England’s hunch will have been thoroughly examined and the answer could be a big factor in the final analysis.