Ashes 2019: What will the teams look like?
Though the ICC Cricket World Cup is entering its final week, the English summer is only getting started. While English fans will be hoping Eoin Morgan gets to lift the trophy on the 14th of July, Joe Root will be eyeing to get his hands on cricket's most celebrated trophy in the form of the Ashes urn. England will be looking to overturn the 4-0 drubbing they received 18 months ago as they host an Australian side that hasn't won a Test series on English shores since 2001.
The World Cup has provided some precursors prior to the upcoming series. The old foes have faced off twice, once in the warm-ups and once in the group phase. Australia may have prevailed on both occasions, but winning the semi-final will prove to be a boost for the winning team. While winning will give them a shot at the World Cup, it will also provide a one-up in terms of match-winning strategies and individual confidence.
One aspect that will determine which way the series will go is squad build-up. With pitches in England producing fewer and fewer drawn Tests, and not being the flat tracks many had assumed them to be prior to the World Cup, squad balance will be key as the contest between bat and ball will be even. Let's take a look at how both teams stack up.
If intent is anything to go by, then Australia have already shown a bit and more. Some of the members expected to be in the squad have already landed in England, while the rest will be joining after the World Cup. The 'A' team is also in England as they go about facing various county sides. To top it off, the women's team has taken an unassailable 2-0 lead in the ODI leg of the women's Ashes.
This series will see the return to red ball cricket of Steve Smith at No. 4 and David Warner at the top of the order. The case for Warner's opening partner will be presented by Marcus Harris, who had a strong showing against India and Joe Burns, recently cleared of a fatigue disorder that had hampered his playtime last year. Matt Renshaw, who had an excellent county season for Somerset last year, hasn't had a good run this time around for Kent. But his name may also be among the many that will come up for discussion.
Australia's middle order looked rather settled 24 hours ago, but the sudden injury cloud that now hangs over them has had the selectors reaching for action stations. Nonetheless, Usman Khawaja is slated in at 3, his hamstring condition being the only proviso. Shaun Marsh seemed to have finally made the No. 5 slot his own, but a fractured arm has put that on hold.
This has opened up opportunities for Mitchell Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, and Marnus Labuschagne. The younger Marsh's case has been strengthened due to Marcus Stoinis' aggravation of a side strain condition. Labuschange in particular is in with a good chance thanks to his prolific run for Glamorgan in this year's County Championship, becoming the first batsman to reach 1000 runs for the season across both divisions.
Tim Paine will be behind the stumps as skipper. But there are two names that are in contention for the reserve keeper role. Matthew Wade has had probably the most consistent run of form in his career so far, but had been completely ignored until his call up to the World Cup squad in place of Shaun Marsh, which means he might end up playing the titanic semifinal against England. Alex Carey is the other name looking to provide some competition to Paine. He has been excellent in this World Cup, notching up 3 fifties in the group stages.
Australia's pace department is the more menacing one of the two teams. Paine will be hoping a repeat of the 2017-18 series with Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood expected to crank up the pace. James Pattinson, already having a good season for Nottinghamshire in England, is likely to be in the playing XI. Nathan Lyon will oversee spinning duties, but will need support from Labuschagne or Maxwell. Ashton Agar is another contender, with his batting lending some solidity.
For all that England's fearsome batting has achieved in ODI cricket over the last 24 months and the World Cup, equally tough questions have been raised from the Test match perspective, none more so than at the top of the order. Rory Burns and Keaton Jennings played their part in the whitewash of Sri Lanka, but stumbled against the West Indies. Since neither of these teams possess bowlers of the quality that Australia has, it will be a tough ask for Jennings and Burns, albeit in home conditions.
Jason Roy's name has also come up as a possible reserve opener, along with Dominic Sibley of Warwickshire, who has been highly prolific since his move from Surrey. He is the leading run scorer in the County Championship first division with 922 runs, scoring 5 hundreds in as many matches, and recently cracked a masterful 244 against Yorkshire.
England's middle order is in good shape, with Root, along with Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow scoring through the World Cup. Sam Northeast and Sam Hain, consistent across formats over the years may get a look in for the middle order. Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali should complete the lower middle order, but Moeen's patchy form along with Adil Rashid and Jack Leach taking up spinning duties has led to his place in the side being questioned.
This might allow Sam Curran, India's wrecker-in-chief last year, to come into the side. He may face competition from Lewis Gregory, who is the leading English wicket taker in the county season, and has scored 345 runs from 11 innings. Gregory's fearsome hitting prowess, on display during the Royal London One Day Cup, have already seen him being talked about for a role in the limited overs setup.
Like Australia, England's bowling department is well stocked. James Anderson and Stuart Broad will reprise their roles as leaders of the attack. Stokes and Mark Wood will prove to be skiddy, quicker and bouncier options. Jamie Porter and Olly Stone may be considered, and have been part of previous English Test squads in the last 9 months. It will be interesting to see if Jofra Archer will be considered, seeing how well he has done in the World Cup.
While there may always be new names thrown into the mix, and with the troughs that both teams have gone through in the last 18 months or so, irrespective of the World Cup performance, an Ashes series might just prove to be the shot in the arm that changes the Test fortunes of these oldest of rivals, thus promising to be a riveting summer of cricket.