England’s weaknesses ahead of the Magellan Ashes are well known, namely the brittle nature of an ever-changing top-order batting line-up.
However, there will be enough match-winners in the touring party to cause Australia big problems in what could shape up to be a closely fought and fascinating series.
Here are five areas that Steve Smith and his players must address if they are to regain the urn once the next installment of cricket’s oldest rivalry resumes in Brisbane on November 23.
1. Do not allow Alastair Cook to settle into the series or he will hurt you
The former England captain is his country’s all-time leading runscorer for a reason – he is grindingly effective when he gets in the groove. England’s only away Ashes series win in the past 30 years was built on the foundation of Cook’s runs, with 766 coming in that summer of 2010-11. Back then, Australia allowed him to start the series well, with scores of 67 and 235 not out in Brisbane setting him on his way.
However, in his two other Ashes tours either side of that, the Essex batsman averages in the mid-twenties after starting slowly. It was no co-incidence England were whitewashed in both.
Smith and Australia’s bowlers need to get at Cook early when the series begins and not allow him to dictate terms as he did when he hit 243 at Edgbaston in the first innings of England’s most recent series against West Indies. If Cook is allowed to flourish he will grind the Australian pace attack down over time, which could prove telling across the series. Get him early and the rest of England’s top order is likely to unravel.
2. Beware the restorative powers of Joe Root’s batting
Before England’s series finale against West Indies at Lord’s, Root had at least one 50-plus score in 12 successive Tests. Almost all of those runs came after his team had suffered a top-order collapse. With Root, though, comes confidence. England bat deep and if their captain can get in, as he invariably does, it seems to re-invigorate the rest of the team. Indeed, so common have England’s top-order collapses been over recent years, it doesn’t really seem like a collapse or a difficult situation unless Root goes cheaply too. If you allow England’s captain to get a score on the board then the rest of a batting line-up that doesn’t really finish until Chris Woakes at No.9 can turn what was a crisis into a match-winning total. If you get Root cheaply it can be a game-changer. Make a habit of it over the series, then Australia will have one hand back on the urn.
3. Attempting to wind up Ben Stokes may prove counterproductive
That’s exactly what South Africa and West Indies found over recent weeks when trying to psyche out the fiery allrounder, who hit two Test centuries in an English summer for the first time and ended the most recent series with a career-best bowling haul of 6-22 at Lord’s.
It may be tempting to try and provoke Stokes given he is now just demerit point away from a being banned for a Test. However, if Stokes’ debut Test series against Australia back in 2013-14 told us anything it is that he is a player who thrives on confrontation. Wind him up at your peril.
4. Treat Moeen Ali’s spin bowling with respect
Australia had success adopting an aggressive mindset against Graeme Swann during the 2013-14 Ashes, when the England spinner was not only hit out of the attack but retired mid-series.
Those same tactics did not work during the 2015 series in England, when Moeen took crucial wickets in the first Test in Cardiff that did much to propel his side to victory. Steve Smith and Michael Clarke were both out trying to smash Moeen out of the attack and David Warner also fell foul of his off-spin during Australia’s second innings.
In all Warner fell to Moeen four times during a series that was dominated by seam bowlers. Adopting the same tactic in Australia this summer would be foolish, particularly as Moeen is now a much better bowler, as his 30 Test wickets at 21.30 this northern summer illustrate.
5. Don’t fixate on James Anderson and Stuart Broad – because England have other quicks who can cause damage
It would be tempting for Australia’s batsmen to think that the two bowlers who share 894 Test wickets between them will be England’s main bowling threat – and they’d be right. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be others in the touring party who can’t hurt them either. Chris Woakes, who will hope to be fully fit after an injury-plagued home summer, averages 24 with the ball over the past 18 months and could do very well in Australia. Toby Roland-Jones, a pitch-it-up bowler who tests batsmen’s patience, might also have a big part to play. Stokes, too, will be a threat. And we should not forget Mark Wood, the quickest bowler England possess and a man who could prosper on Australian pitches as long as he can stay fit.
2017-18 International Fixtures:
Magellan Ashes Series
First Test Gabba, November 23-27. Buy tickets
Second Test Adelaide Oval, December 2-6 (Day-Night). Buy tickets
Third Test WACA Ground, December 14-18. Buy tickets
Fourth Test MCG, December 26-30. Buy tickets
Fifth Test SCG, January 4-8 (Pink Test). Buy tickets
ODI Series v England
First ODI MCG, January 14. Buy tickets
Second ODI Gabba, January 19. Buy tickets
Third ODI SCG, January 21. Buy tickets
Fourth ODI Adelaide Oval, January 26. Buy tickets
Fifth ODI Perth TBC, January 28. Join the ACF
Prime Minister's XI
PM's XI v England Manuka Oval, February 2. Buy tickets
T20 trans-Tasman Tri-Series
First T20I Australia v NZ, SCG, February 3. Buy tickets
Second T20I – Australia v England, Blundstone Arena, February 7. Buy tickets
Third T20I – Australia v England, MCG, February 10. Buy tickets
Fourth T20I – NZ v England, Wellington, February 13
Fifth T20I – NZ v Australia, Eden Park, February 16
Sixth T20I – NZ v England, Seddon Park, February 18
Final – TBC, Eden Park, February 21