England head Down Under for their much anticipated first Ashes Test against Australia on 23 November without their talismanic all-rounder Ben Stokes. Stokes has not (yet) travelled with the rest of the squad due to the pending criminal proceedings against him following his recent arrest in Bristol on suspicion of causing actual bodily harm. This begs thequestion: can England perform without Stokes, such a crucial big-stage performer for England in recent years?
Confidence will certainly still be high in the England camp, with most bookmakers still installing them as favourites to win the series, on the back of their promising albeit unspectacular start to Joe Root’s tenure as captain. In their most recent series against the West Indies, a 2-1 win, England showed glimpses of what they are capable of.
However, their lack of ruthlessness leading to a surprise defeat at Headingley will be alarming for fans and players alike. England do possess a squad brimming with talent; with Root himself easily one of the top three players in world cricket on current form, Moeen Ali cementing himself as a fan-favourite following some swashbuckling displays this summer, and Jimmy Anderson still consistently delivering at the top level despite being in the twilight years of his career at 35. But Root’s men will have to show a great deal more spirit and determination if they are to lift the coveted urn in Australia for the first time since 2010/11.
The Stokes saga only adds to the intrigue in what is set to be a fierce battle off the pitch, one which is difficult to escape. The recent bad blood between the two sides (Australian opening batsman David Warner having infamously punched the now-England captain Joe Root in a Walkabout bar in 2013), suggests that we can expect plenty more fireworks, and some hotly contested Test Match Cricket to boot.
Australian fast bowler Mitchell Starc recently, in true Aussie style, claimed that the English batsmen will struggle to cope with the added pace and bounce of the Australian attack. It’s this kind of ‘sledging’ which really sets this series apart from any other in world cricket. David Warner, that man again, has recently come under criticism for likening the Ashes to war. Though this is an offensive overstatement, one cannot doubt how much victory means to these players.
England would be right to have a sense of trepidation heading into the series, with two 5-0 whitewashes still fresh in the memory, including Mitchell Johnson’s almost single-handed destruction of England’s batsmen last time out in 2013/14. The threat posed by Australia’s pace attack is plain to see, and the series will likely be decided on how well England’s batsmen adapt to the challenging conditions.
With these questions dominating the pre-series discussions, only one thing is certain: This series will not fail to entertain – it never does. It’s all to play for, and all eyes will be firmly fixed on the First Test at the Gabba, Brisbane, come November 23.