Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK
Imagine for a minute that you are an England selector, which means any one of Ed Smith, James Taylor, Joe Root or Trevor Bayliss. You had, you thought, a powerful side but with a question mark - who should bat in the front three? The other bases were covered, spin bowler included. Moeen Ali has been, after all, the leading bowler in the world throughout the last year.
You have assembled a one-day team good enough to win the World Cup, and three days into the Ashes series, you are all over the Australians at Edgbaston - a fortress. Deep down you know your team should have finished them on the first afternoon, but it doesn't seem as if that miss will prove too important, and anyway, certainly not critical. It's more an annoyance actually, because if English cricket has a flaw, it is a lack of ruthlessness, which can, of course, come to haunt you. There is a hitch, however: he who is most ruthless, James Anderson, is out of the match after bowling just four overs. An annoying hitch, especially as it is Anderson's first game back from injury. Luckily the team have the Aussies on the metaphorical back foot, so that inquest is on hold and might even be avoided when - if, we had better say - England go on to win.
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The only rider to these assumptions is an opponent with the initials SS; letters that make the heart race. SS is ruthless all right, and sadistic. He plays off the literal back foot and if he bats like he did in the first innings, Joe's men will need to chase around 200 to win the match, which they should do, if not without alarm.
Then it goes pear-shaped. You watch Steve Smith dismember your Anderson-less attack to the tune of another 142 runs, while a recalled wicketkeeper who is not keeping wicket in the match makes a hundred too. The one who is keeping wicket declares the Australian total on 487 for 7 and you are asked to score 398 to win, which you come nowhere near to achieving. In fact, you are knocked over for 146 and lose by 35 fewer than SS scored in the match himself. Repeat: you lose. So that lack of ruthlessness was critical after all.
Further concern arrives with the confirmation that Anderson is out for at least two more Tests and that Olly Stone has joined him on the physio's table. Moeen, who had a bad match from pretty much any angle you look at it, is on the table of the mind. In short, he is a freewheeling cricketer who has lost his most precious asset - confidence. Jonny Bairstow is suddenly, inexplicably, a shadow of himself as a batsman and is keeping wicket with mixed success. Jos Buttler the same. Jason Roy is under fire for an ill-judged slog at Nathan Lyon. Four World Cuppers averaging well below par and the banker, the leading wicket-taker in England's history, in rehab. Oh, dear Lord, this was not the script.
So there you all are of a Friday afternoon in August, four wise men, chewing the fat of these problems.
Meanwhile, beneath Worcester Cathedral, the Australians are doing what they used to do in late May, dusting up the county team. Men with names such as Head, Harris and Hazelwood are running amok in the shire that once belonged to Graveney, D'Oliveira and Hick. Josh Hazelwood and Mitchell Starc were on the bench at Edgbaston and therefore whizzed the ball through at Worcester. One or both will probably play at Lord's. They are kings in the pack after all; aces on their day.
The one saving grace is that you have an ace up your own sleeve, Jofra Archer, and a sprightly young jack, Sam Curran, who have it in them to change the course of cricket matches at any level, even the one that begins on Wednesday at Lord's. You have to stick with Roy because that's the unwritten deal when you go with "potential" - a dangerous word. His partner, Rory Burns, has earned your trust by dint of his bravery and limpet-like hundred in Birmingham.
One of you, the captain, is batting a notch higher than he would ideally choose. Root is trying so hard, his rakish body could almost burst. He did well with the bat at Edgbaston without quite controlling the game as he can. A life has been devoted to this end, to leading his country in the Ashes. That has been both dream and realistic ambition since milk teeth.
But neither the dream nor the ambition factored in winning the World Cup for the first time a fortnight before the Ashes began. Even dreams don't do that. The whole World Cup thing was so monumental that it has taken the stuffing out of those who were a part of it.
The other day one of the Australian players said privately how hard it was to pick yourself up and go again after a demanding and successful campaign. He added that the intensity of both a World Cup and the Ashes, back to back, was too much and that without a breather, he couldn't imagine lifting himself to the required level session after session, day after day. He said it would have been easier for England in the Ashes had they lost at the semi-final stage of the World Cup. Which, of course, is exactly what happened to Australia.
His point about a successful campaign is an interesting one. Success puts a line under both physical and mental commitment. Eoin Morgan's team won four critical matches on the bounce, an incredible achievement, and surely finished at Lord's with their brains fried. When Michael Vaughan's team won back the Ashes so famously in 2005 after six gruelling weeks of battle, they were rubbish in Pakistan a short while later. More often than not, the glory of success is reflected and takes the form of emotional waves. Reflection takes time. More time than a fortnight.
The selectors, then, must be thanking their lucky stars for Archer and Curran. These are fresh players with fresh minds and were an easy selection. Stuart Broad has risen to the call; Chris Woakes is delighting in full fitness and unconditional responsibility; Ben Stokes is making up for lost time. The final bowler in this set of six is to be Jack Leach. That decision will have taken the longest in Friday's meeting. Australia have six, maybe seven, left-handers, against whom Moeen would usually be a considerable threat. Opinions from the spin-bowling coach, Saqlain Mushtaq, who works closely with him each morning, and Root, who throws him the ball during the day, must have concluded that Moeen's mind was a muddle and his method all at sea. Leach brings modest ability but honest attention to detail and a huge heart. His 92 against Ireland was a delight but Root will swap it for five or six wickets in the match this time round.
Much time will be spent working on each player's specific role, urging them to focus on their own contribution and to not waste energy elsewhere. Old and favourite coaches, close friends and long established mentors are sure to have been sought out and tapped, while some deep searching of the soul will have allowed for relevant self-appraisal. Buttler has spoken calmly over the weekend about the World Cup fallout and been careful to play it down. Bairstow has, doubtless, been reminded that his first duty is to the team. In the period that he has negotiated himself up and down the order and back into the gloves, he has made fewer runs in Test matches for England than during the years when he was forging a regular place in the team. For all his sensitivity, he is one for whom a reminder of this may be effective.
In the last hundred years only three England teams have come back from losing the first Test of an Ashes series to win it. All of them did so with wonderful fast bowling. In fact, with a few honourable exceptions - O'Reilly, Warne, Laker and Underwood to name four - the Ashes has been dominated by the quicks, and in the main, the quicker the better. Of all bowlers, Frank Tyson and Jeff Thomson are widely considered to have been the fastest of all.
Now England pin their hopes on Archer, whose nervous system should cope fine with the occasion. Archer is a feature figure in the world game and a colleague of Smith at Rajasthan Royals in the IPL. Thus, exciting as his first cap will feel, it will not overwhelm. There is something inspirational about his attitude to the challenges laid before him, as if he expects to cope. Legend already has it that he went to Morgan before England's defence of 15 in the Super Over and said something to the tune of "I'm bowling it, yes?"
He is a reminder of John Snow, whose lean frame, rhythmic approach and whiplash action zipped the ball from short of a length up and into batsmen's throats. Having forced them back he would pitch a little fuller and nip it into the pads. Snow's bowling caused problems for the Australians, who preferred to play off the back foot, notably Ian Chappell, who lists Snow as one of his two or three most difficult opponents. See where we are going here? Chappell's move back and across his stumps may not be as extreme as that made by Smith but they are not dissimilar. Archer is an ideal bowler for Smith and his presence brings hope and adds spice to the England team.
Curran must play instead of Joe Denly, whose tidy and elegant cricket is yet to stamp itself on a moment or session that defines the play. Stokes has all the game required to bat at four, and Buttler and Bairstow will slip in behind him. Then must come Curran, with his game awareness and pizzazz, followed by Woakes, whose good form deserves company. Throughout a Test match these two fine all-round cricketers will give more than the specialists out there who argue for their place. It is a coincidence that England presently have such an array of allrounders, and a happy one at that. Sensibly the selectors have seen this as a strength and selected them all - a decision that gives Root options and flair.
To win at Lord's would be monumental, but we have said that once already this summer and the monumental was achieved - just. Oh, how the nation would settle for "just" once more.
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