England were demolished on their last two tours of Australia but, as evidenced by their three wins on the trot in Asia, they’re now building a side that can compete in this year’s Ashes. The last two series in Australia were bloodbaths as the hosts bullied England to the tune of 4-0 and 5-0. And the Aussies were only one wicket away from a 3-1 win last time around in the UK. England have improved significantly since that 2019 series, however. And the team they send to Australia this summer will be far stronger than the feeble unit that last toured here. England have rebounded with vigour from a horror 2019. In that year, they looked to be on a major decline as a Test side. They started 2019 by losing 2-1 against a weak West Indies side, who flogged them twice in that series – once by 10 wickets, the other time by 381 runs. Then minnows Ireland humiliated England on their hallowed ground, Lord’s, when they skittled the hosts for just 85. England followed that with an underwhelming Ashes performance, and then three consecutive losses in New Zealand and South Africa. Their batting, in particular, was a mess as they were dismissed for paltry totals of 67, 77, 85, 132 and 146 in the space of just seven Tests at one point. England entered 2020 as the number five Test team in the world. At the time, that ranking almost seemed generous. Ben Stokes=. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images) Skip forward 14 months, however, and they are now arguably the form Test team. Since the start of last year, England have lost just one of their past 12 Tests. That includes a remarkable five consecutive victories away from home – two comprehensive wins in South Africa, a 2-0 series win in Sri Lanka, and this week’s incredible triumph in India. Context is key to understanding the full significance of that run of form overseas. Prior to those five victories in a row, England had won just four of their previous 22 away Tests. At that point, England stood as the weakest touring team out of the major Test sides, including Australia, India, South Africa and New Zealand. Now they’re quickly building a reputation as arguably the most adaptable team in this format. England have a chance to cement that status over the next 11 months, with three more massive Tests in India about to unfold, followed by what shapes as the most anticipated Ashes down under since 2010. Mind you, England haven’t suddenly morphed into a complete Test team. Their top three remains vulnerable and, in terms of fast bowling, they’re still heavily reliant on old timers Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, who will be 39 and 35 years old, respectively, in the Ashes. What England are doing is building a support cast around their stars of Anderson, Broad, Joe Root and Ben Stokes. Previously, if most of those four didn’t fire, England were shot. Since the start of 2020, though, they’ve got some key contributions from the likes of opening batsman Dom Sibley, middle order dynamo Ollie Pope, improving keeper-batsman Jos Buttler, and spinners Jack Leach and Dom Bess. Yes, Broad and Anderson have still been by a long way England’s best fast bowlers since the start of last year. That veteran pair have taken 75 wickets at 15, compared to 60 wickets at 30 for all of England’s other quicks. Chris Woakes remains a liability away from home, Mark Wood is still as fragile as porcelain, and Jofra Archer has laboured since the 2019 Ashes, averaging 42 with the ball. Sam Curran, meanwhile, has taken just 12 wickets in seven Tests in that time and is highly unlikely to pose a threat in Australia bowling at 130kmh with a Kookaburra ball that doesn’t swing. But if both Broad and Anderson are fit for the Ashes, and either Archer or Wood find their groove on the hard Aussie pitches, England will have a solid pace unit complemented by either Leach or Bess. That spin pair have been crucial in England’s three consecutive wins in Asia this year. They are a massive upgrade from the combination of Moeen Ali and Mason Crane, who together averaged an unbelievable 128 with the ball in the last Ashes in Australia. The biggest gains England have made, however, have been with the blade. Sibley may be awful to watch, due to his heinous technique, but he sticks to the crease like a barnacle. The 25-year-old opener has faced a whopping 103 balls per dismissal so far in his Test career. Doubts persist over the future of his opening partner Rory Burns, who after 40 Test innings is averaging just 31. Then there’s regular number three Zak Crawley who’s had a truly odd Test career to date. Crawley last year belted 264 at home against the same ordinary Pakistan attack the Aussie batsmen monstered just months earlier. Otherwise he has flopped at Test level, averaging 23 from his other 15 innings. It is in the middle order that England are beginning to look gorilla strong. At four and five, Root and Stokes are in career-best form. Behind them at six, Pope is the best young England batsman to emerge since Root debuted eight years ago. A country cricket prodigy, with a first-class average of 54, the 23-year-old Pope is assured against spin, fluent against pace and bats with a calm and confidence that belies his youth. Then, at seven, Buttler seems to have finally found his place in Tests. One of the world’s supreme white ball players, Buttler long underperformed in red ball cricket. But he’s made 682 runs at 40 since the start of last year and has been adjusting the rhythm of his batting to suit match situations better than ever. In thumping India in Chennai this week, England sent a resounding message to their oldest foes. This year’s Ashes is set to be a proper contest.
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