(Photo: Getty Images)
By Alison Mitchell
England’s welcome upon touching down in Australia confirmed the rhetoric that the Aussie media will be pumping out between now and the start of the men’s Ashes series, as Joe Root’s team were variously described as “unrecognisable” and “nobodies” in the local and national papers.
One outlet declared: “Australia is by no means invincible, but compared to the likes of Vince, Stoneman and Malan, it’s a powerhouse.” England are, however, by no means such underdogs as the Australian Press will have everyone believe.
The absence of Ben Stokes has cast an unhappy shadow over preparations, of that there is no doubt, and Root will likely be asked to field questions about him even in absentia as the series goes on, but they are now prepared to be without him. That drama has been dealt with as far as the squad is concerned for the start of the Ashes.
If (and it is an enormous if) he is ultimately cleared to travel to Australia, disciplinary reasons aside, there is an argument to say that the media circus that would ensue would outweigh the benefit of having Stokes join the tour anyway. Would his mental state even be strong enough to allow him to perform at his best?
Even without Stokes and his talismanic position in the side, England supporters can afford to take a more positive outlook. In Alastair Cook and Joe Root they have undisputed world class batsmen. James Anderson and Stuart Broad are undisputed world class bowlers. Moeen Ali has shown he can be both an attacking spin bowler and counter attacking batsmen, and in Jonny Bairstow, England have a settled keeper, who isn’t far off from being one of the world’s best keeper/batsmen.
Contrast this with Australia, who don’t yet know who their keeper will be, they are a man down themselves with fast bowler James Pattinson unable to play a part in the series, and they have a huge question mark over their No.6 slot.
A popular pub – or commentary box – question has been to name all 12 openers to have batted alongside Cook since Andrew Strauss’ retirement in 2012. The Aussies, however, have fielded 13 different players at Nos 6 and 7 since 2015. England may not have Stokes, but Australia don’t have an all rounder like him, either.
It’s true, the Aussie public might wonder who Mark Stoneman, James Vince and Dawid Malan, are in the context of an Ashes arena, but the point is, Australia don’t hold all the cards just because Stokes is missing.
It wasn’t long ago, that another British team headed South as a beleaguered side, written off by many. When the Lions toured New Zealand in July, they arrived with odds stacked against them. They had been pummelled on the previous tour, failing to win a match under Clive Woodward. The squad was seemingly thrown together with gaping holes. On top, a man who was expected to have a huge influence on the series at No.8, Billy Vunipola, was unavailable (through injury). Sound familiar?
The Lions were taunted by the New Zealand media, and yet played stirring rugby, losing the first Test but coming back to win the second, then drawing a nail biting final match against a mighty All Blacks side who were World Champions and No.1 in the world. By the end, coach Warren Gatland, a Kiwi himself, who had been mocked up as a clown by the New Zealand Herald, was able to state he was “a happy clown this week” before attending his final Press conference sporting a clown’s red nose.
England could do worse than draw inspiration from how the Lions surpassed expectations. They were helped in no small part by their army of travelling fans who did their best to turn fortresses like Eden Park, the All Blacks’ spiritual home, into a cacophony of visiting support. England’s Barmy Army, with their witty songs, will have a significant role to play, and they usually rise to the occasion Down Under.
During the 2013/14 Ashes there were so many factors that contributed to the way the tour spiralled into oblivion. Jonathan Trott was struggling with anxiety and packed his bags early; Graeme Swann packed up his entire career; Kevin Pietersen’s relationship with team management was coming to an ugly head; and Steven Finn’s form went ‘walkabout’ as the Aussies might say, but in a disturbingly extreme way.
With the Stokes issue happening back in the UK, England should now be focusing on the task in hand.
Last weekend, England rugby head coach Eddie Jones, a big cricket fan and hard-nosed Aussie himself, was asked on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Sportsweek programme how England should be preparing to break down an opposition who traditionally pride themselves in exposing weaknesses by word, as much as by deed. “We’re taught to bully people,” admitted Jones.
“That’s how the Australian cricketers play. Bullying probably isn’t the right word, but the first thing they (England) have got to do is get on the front foot and take away the cockiness. They’ve got to identify who, in the team, they can go at. Find ways of physically and mentally getting at him.”
England will be better off imposing themselves by deed rather than word, though.
Words won’t count for much if Australia are 350-0 at the end of day one at the Gabba.
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