(Photo: Getty Images)
By Chris Stocks
In three months’ time England will be in Australia fine-tuning their preparations for the Ashes. But despite the morale-boosting 3-1 series win against South Africa there are still many questions that remain unanswered ahead of the biggest tour of them all.
Joe Root’s fledgling captaincy has got off to the perfect start and with three Tests against a poor West Indies team coming up it would be foolish to think England will be heading to Australia with anything other than another series win under their belts.
However, the team for the first Ashes Test in Brisbane on November 23 is by no means set in stone, with huge question marks over the composition of the top six and even the bowling attack.
The first of those problems remains the most serious, with issues over Alastair Cook’s opening partner and the No.3 and No.5 positions remaining.
Australians will be praying Keaton Jennings, the opener who averaged 15.87 against South Africa, will be part of the touring party.
Yet Jennings, Cook’s 11th partner at the top of the order in five years, now appears surplus to requirements after he was replaced in the squad by Mark Stoneman at last Thursday’s team announcement for the opening Test against the West Indies at Edgbaston.
England’s selectors are loyal but it seems Stoneman, a player they were thought to be lukewarm on despite a fine summer for Surrey, could no longer be ignored after Jennings’ string of recent failures.
However, Haseeb Hameed is the man England would love to pick for the Ashes, the youngster impressing on last winter’s tour of India and finding his form this week after a wretched summer with an unbeaten 77 during Lancashire’s County Championship match against Hampshire.
Expect both Hameed and Stoneman to be on the flight to Australia, with Jennings still in with an outside chance of being a reserve batsman if he can find form with Durham during the remainder of this season.
Tom Westley has had a mixed start to his Test career at No.3, with a promising debut at the Oval, where he scored 25 and 59, followed by a disappointing return in the final Test against South Africa at Old Trafford, making 38 runs in total.
The Essex batsman has been given the West Indies series to establish himself and it is likely he will take that opportunity.
How he will fare in the Ashes remains open to conjecture but the 28-year-old appears to have enough about him to do well and he is the least pressing of England’s concerns in the top six.
The same cannot be said of Dawid Malan, who, like Westley, made his debut at the Oval but has scored the grand total of 35 runs at 8.75 in his four innings so far.
So composed on his T20 debut against South Africa earlier this summer at Cardiff, where he scored 78, Malan is a player England like and he too has been given a chance to come good against the West Indies.
However, Alex Hales, dropped after failing as an opener last summer, has found a timely return to form with Nottinghamshire after choosing to drop down into the middle order, scoring a double hundred in the Championship this week. Hales is a live contender to come back at No.5 for the Ashes if Malan’s poor form continues. Indeed, he’d be my pick.
Hales would offer even more power in an explosive middle order that includes Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali, who despite the fact he has dropped down to No.8 still provided pyrotechnics with his unbeaten 75 in England’s second innings at Old Trafford.
While the batting line-up remains the biggest headache for the selectors, England’s bowling also gives them plenty to think about – but for all the right reasons.
There’s no doubt that James Anderson and Stuart Broad remain automatic choices to lead the attack. Despite turning 35 last week, Anderson’s participation in the Ashes, which had not been certain before this summer after a spate of injuries, is now nailed on after his 20 wickets at 14.10 against South Africa.
There will be questions over whether he can produce the goods on flat Australian pitches but a bowler with 487 Test wickets to his name and no shortage of skill or experience could be England’s most potent weapon against Australia. It’s no co-incidence that Anderson took 24 wickets at 26.06 during the victorious 2010-11 Ashes tour. That may have been seven years ago but, if anything, Anderson is an even better bowler now when fit.
Broad is another who knows how to succeed Down Under, the man who terrorised Australia during the 2009, 2013 and 2015 home series also performing brilliantly on the last Ashes tour, taking 21 wickets at 27.52, despite the humiliation of a 5-0 whitewash.
With Stokes fit, there’s one more place in England’s attack available, with Toby Roland-Jones doing rather well in his first two Tests.
The Middlesex seamer,10 Test wickets at 22.20 so far, will no doubt be on the plane to Australia.
Yet his place in the team is likely to be taken by the fit-again Chris Woakes, the Warwickshire man earning a
call-up for the Edgbaston Test after taking five wickets on his return from a side strain against Middlesex at Lord’s this week.
Woakes also gives England unbelievable depth in their batting line-up, the 28-year-old who has a Test average of 29.55 coming in at No.9.
Mark Wood is someone England would love to have available this winter, too, with his ability to bowl 90mph particularly useful on flat Australian pitches.
The Durham man needs to be 100 per cent fit, though, and of that there is no guarantee. Still, expect him to be on that flight, along with young Hampshire leg-spinner Mason Crane, who earned his first Test call-up for the series opener against the West Indies.