Cricket: England's fragile top order must cope without Stokes
By Neil Robinson
LONDON (Reuters) - England approach the first Ashes test in the surreal position of having a settled top order that has nevertheless been written off as "a complete shambles" and which few predict will withstand Australia's pace battery.
The batting remains England's chief area of concern, heavily dependent on captain Joe Root and leading run-scorer Alastair Cook and sure to miss the presence of the suspended Ben Stokes.
When England last won in Australia seven years ago, they did so with a seasoned top six of Cook, Andrew Strauss and Jonathan Trott followed by Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood.
Compare that to England's predicted line-up in Brisbane where Mark Stoneman, James Vince and Dawid Malan will walk out without a test century to their names. The only batting alternative, Gary Ballance, has a long record of failing to establish himself at test level.
Vince seems particularly fortunate to receive another England chance after an undistinguished seven-test record of 212 runs at an average of 19.
The 26-year-old failed to feature in last summer's seven tests and only averaged 33 in the County Championship. On tour he was dropped four times on his way to scoring 82 in England's first game and gave his wicket away to a rookie leg-spinner in their second.
That Vince now seems certain to fill the crucial No.3 spot in Brisbane tells its own story.
Malan, England's likely number five, has an equally modest test record of 189 runs at 23 from his five matches this year, although he twice reached sixty against West Indies.
Unlike Vince, who played grade cricket in Australia as a teenager, the 30-year-old Malan had never even been to Australia before arriving last month.
But his experience on hard South African pitches where the London-born left-hander grew up should help his adjustment and he did make a century in England's final warm-up game.
Stoneman has done even better by reaching fifty three times this tour and a notching hundred in the final warm-up match.
The 30-year-old Surrey batsman has experienced the sort of slow-burn career that sometimes erupts in runs and last summer, his 11th as a professional, he produced the second highest run tally in Division One behind Kumar Sangakkara.
Thirty years ago, an unproven England opener, Chris Broad, filled that role. He arrived to quizzical Australian looks only to score 487 runs in nine Ashes innings, including centuries in three consecutive matches.
England will be desperate to avoid a repeat of last summer's storyline which typically involved a collapse followed by stirring lower-order resistance, often orchestrated by Stokes.
But with the talented all-rounder remaining in England as inquiries continue into his involvement in a fracas outside a Bristol nightclub last summer, more is required from their main batsmen.
Whether they are able to step up will probably determine the outcome of the Ashes.
(Reporting by Neil Robinson, editing by Ed Osmond)