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Are England really there to win the Ashes?

Injuries, investigations and uncertainties have marred England's chances ever since they stepped foot on Australian soil a week ago.

SENIOR ANALYST
Feature 10 Nov 2017, 18:48 IST
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"We're not going to blast the Australians out," says Stuart Broad, weeks ahead of the first Test

England touring Australia has always been a scarier affair than the return tours, for whatever reasons there have been. Cue this: "We have to look at what we do best as a group. We're not going to blast the Australians out. We don't have a Brett Lee-type bowler who can bowl 95mph reverse-swinging yorkers. We're not going to blast Australia out like Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison did in 2005."

Stuart Broad says this; a realistic assessment, if one looks objectively, of his team's chances in the Ashes. "We have to do what we do. We have to adjust our lengths a bit - if you bowl that slightly fuller length, you get belted, as we found out at the WACA the other day - set slightly more defensive fields and bang out a length more often than not like Glenn McGrath used to. You have to bowl a heavy length here to be threatening," he adds.

It was interesting to note that he gave the example of a Brett Lee bowling well in England and how they didn't have someone like him. Perhaps it's still a taboo to mention Mitchell Johnson's name, even in interviews. Broad says England are not going to blast the Australians out, much in the way Johnson had blasted them out the last time they were here.

The piece-by-piece mental disintegration of England on their last Ashes tour to Australia has been chronicled well enough for their own supporters to be sceptic of their team's chances, irrespective of how good it looks on paper.

After all, Graeme Swann - arguably the best spinner they had since Ashley Giles' retirement - retired midway through the last tour, Kevin Pietersen - arguably, again, their best batsman in several decades - never played for England after the fifth Test in Sydney, and Jonathan Trott - who was, perhaps, a carbon copy of Mike Atherton in some ways - only last two more years after anxiety-related issues forced him to leave the tour midway.

And all of these players - Swann, Pietersen and Trott - had been pillars of England's last Ashes triumph before the Australia debacle, in 2013. The pillars of England's last Ashes triumph - at home in 2015 - now-captain Joe Root, former captain Alastair Cook, pacemen James Anderson and Stuart Broad are there with the side, but it is the rest of the set-up that has been jarred and jaded just at the wrong time - as if playing in Australia, where only four English captains have won an Ashes series in the last 50 years wasn't enough.

While the intentions behind Ben Stokes' alleged misdemeanour have been debated through the nights in London and elsewhere, one thing that's perfectly clear is that - owing to public backlash or loss to the ECB's own integrity - Stokes wouldn't be let loose anytime soon. The gap that he has left in their middle order, compounded by the uncertainty that looms over Moeen Ali's participation in the series, is yet to be stopgapped.

It can only be stopgapped because since the beginning of 2016 - hallmarked by the fastest 250 in Test cricket, which he scored against South Africa - Stokes has become, both literally and metaphorically, the firebrand cricketer - nauseous, in-your-ears, and yet brilliant on the field - that England seem to have developed a knack for, Andrew Flintoff and Ian Botham being case studies in this regard.

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The 41-year-old Paul Collingwood, who retired from Test cricket seven years ago, took the field for England as a substitute

But the Stokes saga transpired a good two months before the Ashes, towards the fag end of the English summer. It means that England had enough time - well, just enough, really - to prepare themselves mentally for a Stokes-less campaign. When they landed in Perth for their tour opener against Western Australia XI, all of it seemed to have been accepted and England had to make do with what they had at their disposal.

Unless, of course, what they had at their disposal was taken away, bit by bit, to an extent that a 41-year-old cricketer, who retired from the Test game seven years ago, had to borrow a kit from an uncapped player and fill-in as a substitute fielder. The sight of Paul Collingwood fielding in the team's second tour game against Cricket Australia XI, because Jake Ball suffered an ankle injury and could no longer take part, represented everything that has gone wrong for England since they stepped foot on Australian soil.

This after Steven Finn - who was included as Stokes' replacement - returned home to nurse a knee injury, and Ali was rested for the second straight tour match lest to aggravate the side strain that he endured sometime between landing in Perth and the beginning of the first tour match. Ali - England's most prolific spinner since the 2015 World Cup - is expected to play in the final tour game in Townsville and it would only be then that his availability for the Gabbatoir would be ascertained.

"599 days after handing the urn to Australia, Cook has his redemption." Nasser Hussain's words after Mark Wood had bowled Nathan Lyon in Nottingham to regain the Ashes in 2015 echoed the desperation in the England camp to regain the bragging rights after the humiliation suffered at the hands of Michael Clarke and company.

It is sad, hence, that the man who nailed the coffin on Australia - Wood - wouldn't be around this time, despite being the fastest bowler doing the rounds in the Test circuit. He wasn't fit enough to be considered a possible replacement for Finn, having suffered a bruised heel during the South Africa Tests this summer.

But all's not as gloomy as it seems for England. Mark Stoneman, the latest winner of the all-England musical chairs competition to ascertain a partner for Alastair Cook and scored a hat-trick of fifties, although Cook himself hasn't scored any. Dawid Malan and James Vince - who the Australian crowd would add to the group of 'unrecognizables' that they had assembled when England had fielded three debutants for the Sydney Test - have registered very recognizable half-centuries.

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In the absence of an express pace bowler, a lot would depend on how Anderson and Broad go about their jobs

James Anderson, an all-time great already, is doing what all-time greats do - pick wickets when required. His four-wicket hauls have been the hallmark of an otherwise depleted bowling performance. Although Chris Woakes' four wickets in the ongoing tour game would have given England some respite.

Broad believes that he has 'match-winning' spells left in him. He also recognizes David Warner as Australia's main man. However, he picked a solitary wicket while going at nearly five runs to the over in the first tour game. Add to that the fact that the Australian supporters know what he did that summer and you'd realize that things wouldn't be the same as they were in Nottingham when Australia were gone in sixty runs.

"I don't know if playing on egos is the right way to say it, but if you can cut off a few of their boundaries then you have more chance of them making a mistake. I don't want to sound as if this is a negative plan because, although it always looks great to have five slips and a gully, is that playing to our strengths on these pitches?" Broad questions.

So let's look at it. England are there with several of these players nursing injuries, their most prolific bat of all-time yet to make a fifty after four innings, their best all-rounder facing investigation back home and the heir apparent to the leader of the pace attack planning for defensive bowling. Legend has it that the troubles for visiting English teams begin well before the first Test. And for most teams, the first day at the Gabba has been the one where all the meltdown has begun.

Michael Vaughan concurs. "Brisbane is the most hostile venue in Australia,” Vaughan says. “The rest of the grounds you feel like you’re playing against eleven. In Brisbane it’s 40,000. It can completely dislodge a team and if the Aussies come out on fire and blow you away in Brisbane, it’s very difficult to come back," one of England's heroes of the 2002-03 campaign tells The Cricket Paper.

"It’s only a small thing but it matters a lot. At Brisbane you’re in this dungeon dressing room, you walk out and the heat hits you, and then the crowd is right on top of you. Somehow, someone’s got to sprinkle dust over the team, and make them believe it’s just a normal day’s play – 22 yards, red ball. Just one day.

"England have got to try to chill out, have their lunch before the start. But it is important they offer realism to the players. It can’t be ultra positive. It can’t be, ‘Oh, it’s great, it’s so enjoyable’ because it’s not. That’s not being real. You’re going there to potentially do something special. The Aussies haven’t lost there in 30-odd years. So realis-tically we’re not under any pressure," Vaughan adds.

If one believes Vaughan - and why shouldn't one, for England possess the urn - there's no pressure on the visitors. But the question is, are they really there to feel any of it?

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