It’s been a belting start to the 2023 Men’s Ashes. Two outstanding Tests, a number of superb individual performances, and an almost overwhelming number of controversies and talking points, have all contributed to the most exciting start to an Ashes for a generation. It’s been joyous.
From an English perspective, that joy is tempered. Two defeats have left Ben Stokes’ side staring at a first home Ashes series defeat since 2001. The vibrant attacking cricket has continued, but the success of the last 12 months has dried up.
Before the Spirit of Cricket furore that has taken hold in the last 48 hours, the designated debate surrounded this attacking style of batting, and specifically whether England should have continued to play so freely on the afternoon of Day 3.
As Nathan Lyon left the field with a series-ending injury, Ollie Pope and Ben Duckett had a perfect opportunity to punish the Australian attack – rather than trying to grind the opposition down, they took their attacking approach, and it failed. Many identified this period of play, as well as the subsequent collapse on the morning of Day 4, as the pivotal passage where the Test match was lost.
There is some merit in this view. Had England adopted a conservative approach in that phase, they may have scored more. Given the improvement in their batting returns since they adopted this new style, you can easily argue the opposite. It is, in many ways, an impossible debate.
The focus on expressive strokeplay has also rather distracted from the main problem for England this series – and it’s not their batting. Barring moments of heightened drama (Stuart Broad’s two-in-two at Edgbaston leaps to mind), Stokes’ bowling attack has been far from threatening. Four substantial batting efforts from the visitors have highlighted a lack of variety in England’s attack, a failing which we are far more used to seeing in away Ashes series, not home ones. Their Expected Average – a CricViz measure of threat based on the balls bowled – is their worst for a home series since 2006.
Not to let England off the hook, but Australia haven’t been a cut above. Their xAverage has been better – 31 compared to England’s 33 – but that is still mediocre, and highly unusual for Test cricket in this country. The issue is not really the bowling – it’s the conditions.
Looking at both sides, there has been an average of 1.3° lateral movement – that’s swing and seam combined – across this series so far. That’s the lowest for any series in England since records of that nature began.
0.8° of swing, and 0.5° of seam. Without context, in isolation, those figures don’t tell us a huge amount, but the salient point is that they are almost identical to Australian Test conditions across the last five years. The cricket we are watching is Australian Test cricket. Rowdy Hollies crowds and MCC members aside, Australia will have felt right at home.
There are differences in conditions from Down Under, no question. Australian pitches tend to combine that relatively small amount of lateral movement with pace, and bounce, posing a different challenge to the batter and offering different assistance to the bowler.
That’s where the pitches at Edgbaston and Lord’s fell down. PitchViz – a CricViz model based on ball-tracking data which assesses conditions – suggests that the surfaces in this series have had less bounce than any in England since 2006. Similarly, the model suggests that these pitches have been slower than any on record.
When asked what conditions he wanted for the Ashes, Ben Stokes kept it simple: “fast, flat”. He may have got the latter, but he has unequivocally not been given the former. Last summer, the surfaces against South Africa were the fastest on record in this country – that was what Stokes wanted. Flat and fast brings England’s bowlers into the game, while giving the ultra-aggressive batting a platform. Flat and slow does not.
Gone are the days that sides cede home advantage by simply preparing “good cricket wickets”, i.e. those which bring all skillsets into the mix. It is the prerogative of the home side to prepare whatever conditions they want, period. The issue for England, and for Ben Stokes, is that they don’t seem to have got what they asked for.
As we move north to Headingley, we may see change. The need for results – if England are to recover in this series – will surely bring a livelier surface, and the cooler wetter weather is a change from the baking sun the UK’s been enjoying in recent weeks. In the last few years Leeds has been a venue which starts out helpful to bowlers before flattening out, leading to five consecutive bowl-first Test victories.
The equation for England is simple. An improved surface from a bowler perspective should help their bowlers more than it hurts their batters, even with the reshuffle following Pope’s injury. Drawing on a touch of England’s traditional Ashes advantage – a hooping, jagging Dukes ball – and marrying it with the modern stylings of BazBall may be the combo Stokes needs to get his side off the mark.