The Ashes – Chris Waters: England captain Joe Root approaches his defining moment
SPORTS WRITERS often shy away from making predictions for fear of making themselves look silly.
As my byline picture has been doing a good job in that respect for the past 15 years, however, I don’t feel I’ve got much to lose by tipping England for victory in the Ashes series that starts on Thursday.
Tomorrow’s fish and chip paper, and all that – particularly if those pesky Australians contrive to confound my forecast.
In truth, there seems little to choose between the sides on paper, be that of the fish and chip or indeed the sand variety, and the series could well go either way; Australia, as current holders, would retain the urn if the five-Test series ends all-square.
This was always going to be a landmark summer for English cricket, of course, probably the last great summer before the 100 wrecking balls arriving next year, but let’s not depress ourselves with that thought now.
I just feel – and I could be completely wrong – that with the first part of the mission successfully accomplished, that of winning the World Cup and in such improbable, incredulous fashion, too, that it is all set up for Test captain Joe Root and his men to finish the job.
Why, if the overthrows that outlandishly deflected off the bat of Ben Stokes in the World Cup final against New Zealand didn’t suggest that the cricketing gods are smiling on England this year, then they are probably wondering themselves what clearer sign they could possibly give.
Although success in one format of the game by no means suggests success in another, this 2019 season just feels a little bit special, doesn’t it, a little bit different, something that we’ll look back on fondly in years to come, a la 2005.
It struck me a few weeks ago that this could be the summer not just of Eoin Morgan, the now World Cup-winning captain, but also that of Joe Root – the defining days, in fact, of the Yorkshireman’s career.
Root is 28 years old, somewhere at or around his peak, you would think, and primed to join the ranks of Ashes-winning captains: Vaughan, Illingworth, Hutton, the Honorable SF Jackson and so on.
On a personal level, it is a big series for him, one in which he will be keen – not least due to the presence of Steve Smith in the opposition ranks – to remind everyone why he is one of the world’s top-ranked batsmen, having only three times passed 48 in his last 22 Test innings dating back now almost a year.
Take out a couple of low-ish scores in the latter stages of the World Cup, and in the one-off Test against Ireland last week, and Root is actually having a darn fine season, kick-started by runs for Yorkshire at the start of the year in the County Championship and continuing through the vast majority of England’s white-ball assignments; in all cricket this summer, Root has scored 1,172 runs at an average of 61.68.
His reported decision to move back up to No 3 for the Tests, away from his favoured No 4, is the right one for the team and may just reboot his own form, too.
There is a danger, though, that the intensity and emotion of recent weeks has had a draining effect, which, coupled with the captaincy, will test him to the limit.
However, with England’s top-order their weakest suit, with Rory Burns, Jason Roy and Joe Denly having only a handful of caps between them, it makes sense for Root to take the extra responsibility of trying to counter Australia’s formidable pace attack.
Both sides’ strength lies in pace bowling, and it will probably come down to which sides bats the best given that wicket-taking options are profusely scattered.
A low-scoring series has consequently been mooted, something that the likes of Root, Smith and David Warner will be anxious to disprove.
There is no doubt that England’s top-order batting looks weaker than Australia’s, but no doubt either that England’s middle-to-lower order looks superior, containing the likes of Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes.
Smith and Warner will have much on their plate, and England are a formidable prospect on home soil, with home advantage counting for much.
Both sides possess a myriad of match-winners, but I prefer the look of England’s: Root, Bairstow, Stokes, Buttler, Anderson, Archer, and so on.
A strong series from Root would certainly go a long way to resolving England’s top-order concerns and would also have an energising effect on his captaincy; he could be the key to what lies ahead.
In my view, England have better options than Burns and Denly, but they are right to give Roy an extended run in the Test XI.
Selection is particularly straightforward when one is not in the least bit accountable for it, of course, firing off thoughts from behind a computer.
Above all, let us hope for a great series and one which, as a priority rather than an afterthought, is played in a great spirit; fiercely competitive, yes, but with the cricket to the fore as opposed to sledging or, heaven forfend, sandpaper.