Pringle column: Amid the chaos of selection, England cling to positives

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By Derek Pringle

England are halfway through their pre-Ashes preparation in Australia, but what have we or they learned, other than that fast bowlers are more prone to injury than other types of player, a truism as old as the game itself?

One thing which has stood out, in the games played so far, is that James Anderson, England’s most experienced Ashes campaigner, has been more dangerous with the old ball than the new.

Convention has it that striking with the new ball is crucial to a team’s on-field progress in Australia, but so far it has been slim pickings for the hoary veteran during his opening salvos. Instead, he has taken wickets with the older ball and reverse-swing, a phenomenon that never used to be that reliable in Australia due to the nature of Kookaburra balls.

Unlike many brands, Kookaburras tend to have an extremely tough leather exterior which does not abrade as readily as other balls.  The pink Kookaburra, used in Adelaide, does have more protective lacquer on it to help preserve its colour – though why that should facilitate extra movement later on is not yet widely known.

England have probably learned too that Australian batsmen, as a rule, play wrist-spinners better than English ones. As a result, Hampshire’s Mason Crane, touted by some as England’s surprise weapon for the Ashes, has found wickets harder to come by than his Aussie counterparts. He has still taken some, five in the two games to date, but it has been harder work for him than his opponents.

It is one of cricket’s crazier conventions that a player’s stock often rises more when he is out of the team than in, but it is almost as barmy to pick Crane because he has bowled well at team-mates in the nets.

Still, if Moeen Ali remains unrecovered from his side injury, England should take a risk and play him. Of course, such a move would probably force England to play the extra batsman as well, which would mean just four bowlers and therefore more overs and pressure for the inexperienced Crane. But these things can be the making or breaking of players.

It would not, however, be the ideal way to kickstart England’s Ashes campaign and Joe Root will be urging his medical staff, as a priority, to get Moeen fit and bowling again.

The injuries to Steve Finn and Jake Ball, the first during training, the second during a bowling spell in the Adelaide match, reveal the seemingly mundane hazards faced by fast bowlers. The picture of Ball, on the ground clutching at his leg after turning his right ankle in delivery, does not reveal, clearly, the kind of spikes in his boots.

If he was wearing needle spikes, like sprinters used to do, then he was suitably prepared for the iron-hard cricket pitches in Australia, and this is just an unfortunate accident. If he was wearing the spikes he would use in England, which tend to have squared-off tips for softer surfaces found here, then he is not ably equipped and questions should be asked.

I remember turning up in Australia with ‘English’ spikes like that and being told to replace them with the sharp needle type by Bob Willis, the captain, who in turn had been told to do likewise on his first Ashes tour by John Snow. Hopefully, the old bush telegraph has passed the wisdom down to Ball. If not, he could well have skated on old studs as he jumped to bowl and lost his footing, a classic way for a fast bowler to roll an ankle. Hopefully, some intensive treatment will get him fit in time for the first Test. His high action and hit-the-pitch style of bowling, at around 86mph, is usually one that prospers in Australian conditions where extra bounce, rather than lateral movement, is more likely to skewer batsmen.

In 2010/11, England had both – Anderson nibbling it this way then that and Chris Tremlett, a 6ft 8ins giant, making life awkward at the other end with his trampoline bounce. Ball is not as tall, but he does get bounce, as did Stuart Broad before his wrist started falling over.

The other day Trevor Bayliss, the coach, said that eight or nine places in England’s team for the first Test were already settled, but he must have said it through gritted teeth given the way several batsmen have got starts then given it away. Big hundreds are needed to win Test matches in Australia, not flashy 50s and 60s.

Taking into account the need to let others have a bat in the two-day tour opener in Perth, Mark Stoneman, Dawid Malan and Root were all culpable in Adelaide, a four-day match, of not going on to bigger, match-clinching innings.  England’s bowling attack does not have the potency to blast out Australia’s batting more than once so the batsmen need to play their part through scoreboard pressure and the setting of big totals.

“If you get in, make them pay with a Daddy hundred,” was Graham Gooch’s catchphrase throughout this career as a player and coach, but it should be underlined three times and committed to memory by England’s batsmen in Australia.

One who has heard the mantra many times is Alastair Cook, though he was not able to get going in his first two innings on this tour, let alone cash in.

A player with 147 Test matches under his belt, Cook will not be unduly affected by a few failures though it is equally true that veterans like him still want to feel bat on ball.

Lastly, we have learnt that England’s middle-order, so often the team’s saviour in recent times, are not so effective without Ben Stokes.

True, Moeen has also been missing due to injury, but to make up for the yawning hole Stokes has left, each will have to increase their individual contributions by at least 30 per cent. It is a tough ask, but not impossible.

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