The Ashes: Opening woes for both Australia and England

Joe Root (above) was promoted by England as an opener for the Ashes following Nick Compton’s failure © Getty Images

With just five days left for the Ashes to begin, Australia and England seemed to have decided what their respective opening pairs will be ahead of the first Test at Trent Bridge. After all the infractions and speculations we are all set to see cricket’s oldest rivalry take centre stage yet again. Shrikant Shankar analyses the situation with both the team’s opening positions.

Only a few days back Australia confirmed that Chris Rogers will open the batting against England in the first Ashes Test starting in Nottingham on July 10. Just over a week back it was also announced that Shane Watson will be promoted to the opening slot in the Australian batting order. New coach Darren Lehmann seems to have made his decisions and gone in with a more experienced — and to some extent an even older — set of batsmen. Some have said that this is definitely the right thing to do, but it shows a lack of clarity and vision. Australia’s backroom staff has changed significantly since they arrived in England for their three and-a-half-month long tour. The ideas and strategies they had come with has most certainly changed.
Ed Cowan and David Warner thought they would test themselves against England‘s brilliant pace attack in Australia’s first innings at Trent Bridge. Not the case anymore. Well everyone knows what happened with Warner and why he will most likely not open for the Aussies, it is not clear what exactly Cowan did wrong. All the former Australian cricketers, especially the ones that were part of Australia’s ‘Golden Generation’, have backed their side to come away with the little urn. It just seems like they are hoping that would be the case but it does not bring out the same tone of arrogance and dominance of yesteryear. Make no mistake; Australia would be facing the world’s second best fast bowling attack. South Africa are the best — without a shadow of a doubt — but that should not take away any gloss from England’s attack.
Australian openers will be facing some of the stiffest test they have ever faced so far. The moving ball is their bane. And in English conditions there is hardly anyone who could rival James Anderson in making the ball talk in the air. Australia’s legendary batting line-up was severely tested in the now famous 2005 Ashes by Andrew Flintoff and Simon Jones and their ability to reverse the ball. Again Anderson is the master at that. So Australia’s openers — some inexperienced and all alarmingly out of form — will have to deal with the situation. All great teams have had great openers or at least one great opener. Australia clearly don’t.
Good solid starts are important, but it does not seem like it would happen. The most important thing for Lehmann and the selectors is what they would do if this pair miserably fails in the opening Test and Australia go 1-0 down. Do they chop and change or give them another crack at Lord’s. What kind of signal would they be giving to the likes of Cowan, surely his confidence will not be at its peak during the first Test. Lehmann wants Australian aggression of old but it is certain these issues have not been completely solved and have been put under a paper-thin cover.
On the other side, England seem to have a more settled camp. But there are a few that are not very happy about certain decisions made regarding the team composition. Just a couple of days back Nick Compton believed he was not given “a fair crack of the whip” at the opening slot. After back-to-back centuries against New Zealand away, he managed only 39 runs in two Tests against the same opposition at home. England’s new batting sensation Joe Root has been promoted from the middle of the order to partner Alastair Cook. Root has cemented his spot in the starting eleven for England irrespective of the position.
Just before the ICC Champions Trophy 2013 started, captain Cook said it would be risky to have Root open the batting for England in such an important series. Compton, though, has responded positively with some good knocks in the warm-up games against Australia. It is important to note that his runs have come against the bowlers he would have been facing in the Ashes if he were in the team. Root opens for his county team Yorkshire, but has not had international experience at that position. Australia’s batting is weak, but their bowling is far more potent.
Irrespective of his involvement in Warner’s punch-gate, Australia would not let him have an easy time. And opening the innings would throw him right into the line of fire. When Andrew Strauss retired, the selectors brought in Compton to replace him. He is now 30 and Root is 22. There is a stark difference in the ages. If England want to look ahead for the future and want Root opening the innings, then this decision seems logical. But again if he under performs, will they keep shuffling him up and down.
Root’s strike-rate is modest at best in Test cricket. Very few have made it big when promoted from the middle order to open the innings. The ones who have made it have mostly been highly aggressive batsmen with exceptional strike-rates. Sanath Jayasuriya and Virender Sehwag are prime examples. With Cook also having a strike-rate which is similar, one can count on England not having quick starts.
There are issues in both sets of camps regarding the openers’ positions. England’s position seems to be relatively under control. Australia’s situation needs more solutions. One cannot expect to win a major tournament with so much on-field and off-field issues. The timing of these things has also not helped. It just seems England are already starting the series at 1-0 or at least half-0. Australia have a huge mountain to climb.

(Shrikant Shankar previously worked with Mobile ESPN, where he did audio commentary for many matches involving India, Indian Premier League and Champions League Twenty20. He has also written many articles involving other sports for You can follow him on Twitter @Shrikant_23)