As India worked their way to an incredible 2-1 series win over Australia, England would have watched on with avid interest.
After their series with Sri Lanka wraps up, Joe Root’s side’s Test calendar this year is exclusively filled with contests against India and Australia.
And while they’ll take on India in nine Tests (four away, five at home), regaining the urn remains the key prize.
Cracks have certainly been exposed in the Australian set-up over the course of the India series – here are the ones England will look to widen when the Ashes commence.
Steve Smith isn’t infallible
Smith remains a haunting presence for England bowlers; 11 of his 27 Test hundreds have come in Ashes contests. And while he returned to form in the second half of the India series, he totalled just 10 runs in his first four innings of the series, struggling in particular against the guile of Ravichandran Ashwin. England will be pleased to know that Smith has it in him to have a lean trot – something that hadn’t been the case for quite some time – but what they still lack is a spinner with the record of Ashwin. What England could look to try and replicate, particularly with their battery of express quicks, is the example of New Zealand’s Neil Wagner, who was masterful with the short ball against Smith in the 2019/20 Australian summer.
Reliance on The Big Three
While David Warner’s lack of fitness was clear to see in the series, his outstanding record at home means he, Smith and Marnus Labuschagne remain the triumvirate upon which Australia’s batting returns hinge on. It’s elsewhere that Australia seem to be encountering difficulties.
A stable opening partner for Warner remains something to solve, with Joe Burns cast out after the second Test against India following a poor run of form that dated back to the start of the Shield season. Will Pucovski impressed on debut with a half-century before injury struck, and while Marcus Harris has shown glimpses of his ability in his 10-Test career, his average remains a below-par 23.77.
Elsewhere, Australia have struggled for runs at three down, with Travis Head losing his place after the second Test and Matthew Wade amassing a high score of 45 from his four innings in the series at No.5. Cameron Green had some bright moments in his first Test series, but just one half-century between Australia’s No.5s and sixes across four Tests is a poor return.
The pressure on Tim Paine
The game moves quickly. In Adelaide, Paine was the Player of the Match after an unbeaten 73 – he did have a quietly impressive series with the bat – but he dropped key chances at Sydney, where he engaged in verbals with Ashwin, and couldn’t lift his side to bowl out India on day five in the last two Tests. It seems unlikely that Paine will be relieved of his duties in the short-term, particularly when he has been backed stridently by Justin Langer, but the contrast with where Root currently stands is stark: the Englishman has led his side to four consecutive away Test wins and celebrated a double-century last week. If Paine remains Australia’s captain come the Ashes, there will likely be questions over whether he is the right man for the job.
In 2019, England pulled off their highest successful run-chase. In 2021, India pulled off their third-highest. On both occasions, Australia were on the receiving end, with Paine and his bowlers seemingly out of ideas on both occasions. The same was the case in Melbourne when India looked as if they might pull off a monumental chase before they settled for a battling draw. Perhaps scars have been left over from Headingley, perhaps it’s just the nature of modern Test cricket, where the skills of T20 cricket come in handy in mammoth chases. What England should possess – particularly after another impressive run-chase at Old Trafford last year against Pakistan – is the belief that batting in the fourth innings, even in an Australian cauldron, can still reap rewards.