Michael Atherton on the Ashes war of words, Australia’s pace attack, England’s batting line-up and Ben Stokes

Sky Sports pundit Michael Atherton previews the upcoming Ashes series in Australia.

From the war of words in the build-up to the series to Australia’s pace attack and England’s batting line-up, to how Joe Root’s side can win the series, Atherton gives his verdict ahead of the action getting underway in Brisbane on Thursday.

The former England captain also gives his views on England’s chance Down Under, the Ben Stokes saga and much more…

There’s been an awful lot of talk ahead of this series, most of it one-sided. England have been quite low key. Why do you think that is and can it be an advantage?

MICHAEL ATHERTON: “It’s a little bit down to national character. English people tend to a bit low key and we don’t go in for the hype but when you come to Australia, they want to ramp it up to the max. There’s also the feeling that there’s been something very deliberate about the last few days in the way Australia have been talking up the Ashes of four years ago. It’s not the last Ashes series that was played because England hold the Ashes, but the one they all want to talk about is Mitchell Johnson here four years ago. They want to try to recreate the atmosphere of that game and that series with the quick bowlers they have now.”

Alastair Cook is respectful of Australia's bowling attack but says the threat they pose is nothing out of the ordinary They are two very different sides from four years ago though…

MA: “They are very different teams and two different captains. I think England have four survivors from that Test match and Australia only three. Nathan Lyon is one of those survivors and he’s been really talking it up. Australia do have potential with their quick bowlers when you look at Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins in particular because they are two bowlers who will be nudging 90 miles an hour.

“They are two different attacks. Australia, who will only have four bowlers, will come in hard and hurl themselves into the fray, while England have the skill and control of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, who have over 800 Test wickets between them. It’s going to be a contrast of styles really and England’s batsmen will have to be on their mettle. There will definitely be some short stuff flying around.”

How can England win this series? Is it as simple as that if they can bat and get runs they are very much in it?

MA: “It’s a starting point for two reasons. One, you don’t get anywhere in Australia without big first innings runs because on days two and three the batting conditions tend to be nice.

“Secondly, the way the Australian side is constituted they only have four bowlers and two of them are guys who bowl in short bursts in Starc and Cummins. If you can take them into their third or fourth spells and a second day in the field, they are in uncharted territory.

“This is an attack that’s never played together before. Cummins has been around a long time but he’s never played in a Test match in Australia because of injury problems. England have to try to take them deep into the game and see how quick they are in their third or fourth spells.”

What do you think of England’s batting heading into the series? With Mark Stoneman, James Vince and Dawid Malan in the line-up, is it a weakness or is there talent there that can thrive?

MA: “There’s certainly some talent there that can thrive but it is a potential weakness for Australia to pick up on. I have been impressed with Stoneman, he’s played superbly in the warm-up games. He looks a very natural, flowing player, who wants to put bat to ball and he’s just starting to come out of himself.

You can see that in the hundred he scored in Townsville. He played there as he would play for Surrey albeit with a much weaker attack and a slower pitch than he will face at the Gabba. The challenge will be of a different magnitude once the series gets underway but he’s looked as good as any opener Alastair Cook has had as a partner since Andrew Strauss retired.

“Malan also got his first hundred the other day but Vince is the interesting one. He looks a classy, talented player and he so often gets really nice starts and you think today is going to be the day, but then he gets himself out on 20 or 30. It’s a big series for him because England have showed some faith in him on the back of some pretty modest returns in county cricket. I’m sure he’ll be looking to repay that faith.”

“Then there’s England’s traditional strength. The lower middle order is not quite as strong without Ben Stokes but it’s still strong with Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow and Chris Woakes. There are areas of weakness for sure. England would have wanted to come to Australia with those three positions of the opener, number three and number five settled and solid, but that’s not how it is.”

Let’s talk about the Stokes issue. Is he such a big player that his omission is the difference between winning and losing?

MA: “He’s a massive loss to England, there’s no question about it. He’s batting, in particular, is a big loss, especially after the way he batted in Perth four years ago for his maiden hundred. After Joe Root and Cook he’s as good a batsman as England have got. He then provides that balance with the fourth seamer and his catching is superb in the slips.

“More than that though, Stokes has a presence about him and you need players with presence and character in Australia. However, he’s not here and there’s no point in banging on about him when he’s not around. I would be very surprised if he gets here during the series, and I think England have moved on. I haven’t heard any chat from the team about Ben Stokes which is not to say it’s a kind of cruel absence but they’ve just recognised they’ve got to get on and do it without him.”

Ben Stokes gets in some batting practice in the nets as he waits to find out if he will be able to join his England team-mates in Australia for the Ashes. Regardless of the outcome with the police, do you think it’s good for English cricket if he doesn’t come to Australia?

MA: “As I said, I’d be surprised if he does. We don’t know what will happen until the police make their judgement but then the ECB have got their own disciplinary procedures. I’d be very surprised if there was now action taken from the disciplinary procedures. If he comes, then he comes but England have had the right attitude here which is to say to themselves we more or less think he’s not coming and if he does it’s a bonus.”

Australia Captain David Warner says Ben Stokes has made a mistake but he would love him to be part of the Ashes series What do you make of the way Trevor Bayliss has approached the tour so far?

MA: “England were offered three choices for their warm-up match – Hobart, Sydney or somewhere in Queensland – and he chose the latter. I think that’s probably the right decision although it’s been quite cool in Brisbane since we’ve arrived. Generally, it’s quite hot and steamy so you need to get acclimatised.

“I see Trevor Bayliss as a pretty cool cat. He’s not somebody who gets caught up in the hype and the motion of all this. He has been reminding England’s players that actually beneath the bluster and the bravado some of those Australian bowlers are nice guys. He knows them well because most of them are from New South Wales and he’s from New South Wales. He’s a good man to have around. England are far more relaxed this time than they were four years ago, whether that has any effect on the outcome remains to be seen.”

Finally, can England pull this one off?

MA: “History suggests it’s a once in a generation event for England to come to Australia and win. They only done it a handful of times since the second world war. On the balance of that you’d say they are second favourites. You then look at the firepower in Australia’s line-up and you would say England are second favourites again. That’s because pace is generally an advantage in Australia.

“However, that’s not to say England can’t win. There are areas of weakness in the Australian team and you don’t know how far or how long their pace attack will last in a hard five Test match series. We saw Dave Warner injure his neck on Tuesday so you can get freak injuries like that and the one Glenn McGrath picked up in 2005.

“There are so many unknowns out there. For me, Australia start favourites but I see weaknesses in both so I don’t see a massive gap between the two teams. I just think they are favourites on the basis they are playing at home and in home conditions, Australia are hard to beat.”

But not 5-0?

MA: “Let’s hope not. It will be a long summer if it is.”

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