LONDON (AFP): Can England regain the Ashes playing their ultra-aggressive “Bazball” brand of cricket or will they come unstuck against battle-hardened Australia?
The answer will come over the coming weeks, starting with the first Test of a hotly anticipated five-match series at Edgbaston on Friday.
England have forced the rest of the world to sit up and take notice, with 11 wins in 13 Tests since captain Ben Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum joined forces last year.
But doubts persist as to whether their policy of all-out attack can work against arch-rivals Australia, who only last week hammered India by 209 runs at The Oval to win the World Test Championship final.
Steve Waugh, the last Australia captain to win an Ashes series in England, back in 2001, is not alone in questioning whether Stokes’s side have an alternative plan.
“Have they got a Plan B?” Waugh said to the Australian media. “They have shown they are good enough to carry this style of cricket off but the ultimate test will be against a world-class bowling attack, which Australia has got.”
England had won just one out of 17 Tests before newly appointed English cricket chief Rob Key brought McCullum and Stokes together to oversee a dynamic revamp of their long-format game dubbed “Bazball”, in reference to the nickname of former New Zealand captain McCullum.
And all-rounder Stokes is adamant he has no intention of altering his approach.
“Nothing is going to change because we’ve had unbelievable success with it,” the 32-year-old told the BBC.
“If we were to change anything from the last 12 months because we find ourselves in an Ashes series then anything from the last 12 months will have been completely pointless.”
– Strike rate –
England have scored at an eye-watering 4.85 runs an over in the past year.
And England great James Anderson, Test cricket’s most succesful paceman, said that had benefits for the bowlers as well.
“The (bowling) run-rate is irrelevant to Ben in particular,” explained Anderson.
“He’s like ‘I don’t care how many runs you go for, I want 20 wickets as quickly as possible’. You’re constantly thinking, as a bowler then, about ‘How am I taking my next wicket’?”
Of more immediate concern to England fans than Stokes’s philosophy is his fitness.
Stokes, a lively seamer, opted against bowling himself in England’s recent 10-wicket win over Ireland after struggling with a knee injury.
He has since declared himself fit to bowl and with Anderson and fellow paceman Ollie Robinson suffering niggling injuries, the hosts will hope he can make good on those words.
England will be without Jack Leach for the whole Ashes after the left-arm spinner was ruled out with a back problem.
Moeen Ali has been recalled in his absence and the off-spinner’s two-year Test retirement could end at his Edgbaston home ground, even though he averages an expensive 64.65 in Ashes cricket.
Ashes-holders Australia, by contrast, have a proven world-class off-spinner in Nathan Lyon, who is closing in on 500 Test wickets.
Captain Pat Cummins is in the fortunate position of deciding if either Mitchell Starc or Josh Hazlewood joins him in a fast-bowling attack likely to include Scott Boland.
Boland’s fine WTC final display — he took five wickets in the match — left him with 33 wickets in eight Tests at a miserly average of 14.57.
Second-ranked Australia drew the last Ashes series in England in 2019 2-2 and demolished the old enemy 4-0 on home turf in 2021/22.
But they have not won a series in England for 22 years, with many of their batsmen, the outstanding Steve Smith excepted, struggling to adapt to English conditions.
Australia have now gone 12 Test innings in England since enjoying a first-wicket stand of 20 or more, while under-pressure opener David Warner, 36, has now managed just one century in his past 34 Test innings against all opponents.
His battle with his nemesis, paceman Stuart Broad, will be just one of a number of fascinating subplots, with Tests at Lord’s, Headingley, Old Trafford and The Oval to follow the curtainraiser in Birmingham.
“An Ashes (in England) is bloody hard to win. It’s been 20-odd years so it’s not going to be easy,” said the 30-year-old Cummins. “If we win, that is legacy-defining stuff.”