ASHES PREVIEW: With or without Stokes, the battle will rage on

ASHES PREVIEW: With or without Stokes, the battle will rage on

The England cricket team has touched down in Australia for the 2017/18 Ashes series. One of sport’s fiercest rivalries has a lot to offer us before the first ball is even bowled.

If Australia’s women’s cricket team and the Kangaroos and Wallabies are anything to go by, English sport is in for a long, hot few months against the old enemy.

Firstly, to address the Ben Stokes situation. A very favourable account of Ben Stokes in defending two gay men from a couple of threatening individuals may just see the England vice-captain on a plane to Australia after all, something which would have been highly unlikely up until this latest twist in the story.

In reality, it was a colossal case of stupidity from Stokes no matter what the reason. He should have to cop whatever punishment he receives and sort himself out.  Stokes will know how much he has let everyone down who is associated with English cricket. Why he, alongside Alex Hales, was left to their own devices and partying until the wee hours of a Monday morning without a minder is beyond me.

Filling the Stokes void

From a cricketing perspective, Stokes’ absence is and may still be an absolute disaster to England’s chances of winning Down Under. Stokes was in terrific form and he would have relished the battles coming up with the bouncy pitches suiting his game perfectly.  One also has to consider the impact on Australian cricket, as Stokes is undoubtedly a major draw card for fans all across the country.

Also see: ASHES COUNTDOWN: Gabba killing field awaits England

Until the Stokes saga is sorted out one way or the other, it is difficult to know who will be poised to take over, with Chris Woakes a likely starter. Who fills the void is an entirely different scenario. The talented Moeen Ali can thrill and frustrate in equal measure. Realistically, Messrs. Root, Cook and Bairstow will have to make some serious runs to counter the loss of Stokes and give their bowlers a chance.

But the Ashes show goes on

There are a number of sumptuous battles to look forward to once battle does get underway at the Gabba in Brisbane at the end of November.

The fearsome pace battery of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazelwood looms as a real threat against England’s well publicized batting problems in the middle of the order.

James Vince and Dawid Malan will be hoping to confound the critics and adapt to the bouncier wickets in Australia. Familiar causes of hope for England will center around captain Joe Root and Alistair Cook because if they go cheaply then there is unlikely a Ben Stokes to biff them out of trouble.

The guile and experience of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad will be crucial, as they must winkle out David Warner (top image) early before he starts opening his shoulders.

Chinks in the armor

The problem for England is the ifs and maybes far outweigh the team’s strengths.

For Australia, they are not without their own concerns. The lineup is not settled, particularly with Matthew Wade at wicket-keeper and with the promising youngsters, Handscombe and Renshaw both an unknown quantity when facing Ashes pressure.

The likelihood of their full bowling attack staying fit for the duration of the series is small – James Pattinson is already out for the series with his tragically recurring back injury, and Starc and Cummins can be susceptible to extended spells on the physio table.

Battle of the skippers

What excites me is the clash between the two young captains, with Steve Smith and Joe Root going head-to-head. They are at the top of their respective games and both like to attack in their captaincy and batting, which augurs very well for positive cricket.

First blood

From an England viewpoint, they must come out of the Gabba with honours even at the least. Momentum and confidence would immeasurably lift the tourists for the rest of the series and may bring the best out of the newcomers who will face a baptism of fire when coming to terms with an Ashes Test match.

Bouncers and plenty of chitchat will follow the newbies and it will be a true test of character. That’s just on the pitch let alone the day-to-day scrutiny from an unforgiving Australian public who love to add in their opinions.

Who will take the Urn?

I feel Australia have the edge, particularly in the bowling department with the spinning fingers of Nathan Lyon having a key role to play in the series, backing up the lethal Aussie pace combo.

With ‘you-know-who’ most likely absent from England ranks the will need someone to step up and deliver in a spectacular way.

I expect David Warner to complete his journey as one of Australia’s greatest batsman given the form he is in and for Mitchell Starc to complete his transition from promising to world class. If they both fire, there will only be one winner.

From an English perspective, I believe Mark Stoneman can establish himself as a genuine test cricketer and just maybe Moeen Ali can take over from Ben Stokes as a hero that England will desperately need over the coming months.

And there is yet much to look forward to, as far as the Australia versus England rivalry goes, before the first ball of the men’s Ashes.

Women’s Ashes already on fire

The Australian women laid down an ominous marker by winning the first couple of one-day internationals of their multi-format Ashes clash. But England bounced back on Sunday winning the third, ahead of the Test and then T20s.

England’s rugby league courage

England’s rugby league team showed great courage in defeat to the Kangaroos and will be confident of turning the tables when the finals get underway in the World Cup.

Wallabies bouncing back

November 18 looms large in the calendar at Twickenham in the rugby union as a revitalized Wallabies team takes on the ever-improving England.

A hugely significant win against the All Blacks in Brisbane two weeks ago has truly put the Wallabies back in the front line of international rugby. They look fresh, hungry and confident – vital ingredients to have if they are to be victorious at Twickenham. Kurtley Beale has been one of the reasons why the Wallabies have recovered from the disastrous early season performances against Scotland and Italy. He and Israel Folau are working beautifully at present especially with Bernard Foley and Will Genia providing the kind of service, which they thrive on.

Sadly, European audiences will not be seeing Folau over the next six weeks, a real shame given his world-class status. The Wallabies’ backline typically get the headlines but the Australian forwards have stepped up over the last couple of months as well. This is thanks in part to the influence of forwards coach, Mario Ledesma, whose departure to the Jaguares for the 2018 Super Rugby season leaves a big hole to fill. As ever, the barbs between Eddie Jones and Michael Cheika will add an extra zest to proceedings.

Charlie Inglefield

Charlie Inglefield

Charlie Inglefield lives in Switzerland having made the move from Sydney in 2011. Despite the lack of Vegemite and NRL coverage in Geneva, Charlie is delighted to be living in Europe and has been writing travel and sports features for Australian Times over the last seven years.