Chris Stocks is a freelance cricket writer based in London. He is a regular contributor to the Guardian, Daily Mail, Independent and London Evening Standard.
England are missing Ben Stokes on this Ashes tour. While that may seem an obvious statement, it was one that was underlined in bold italics when they suffered a horror collapse against an inexperienced Cricket Australia XI on day three at the Adelaide Oval.
The tourists were going along nicely on 2-93, a lead of 153, when Joe Root came to the crease. But the captain’s dismissal sparked an implosion that saw England lose 7-45, including the loss of 3-4 in seven balls, as they were eventually dismissed for 207.
That left the CA XI chasing 268 to win and despite a devastating spell of new-ball bowling from the English seamers under the Adelaide lights that reduced their opponents to 7-25 and leaves them needing just three wickets to win on the final day, the earlier collapse cannot be glossed over.
James Anderson, who has been named Root’s deputy for the Ashes in the continued absence of Stokes, admitted as much at the close of play, saying of his side’s batting implosion: “It’s not ideal, is it.
“Hopefully we’re getting it out of the way before the Test series starts but that’s something we’ve got to look at and probably have a chat about after the game.
“Why it happened and what we could have done differently to stop it happening. And stop it happening again. Yeah, it’s not ideal.”
Such dramatic collapses have become something of a theme for England over the past 18 months, with their fragile top-order exposed time and again.
However, complete humiliation has been averted on numerous occasions thanks to the counter-attacking presence of Stokes at No6 in the order.
Without the star allrounder, still back at home as police continue to investigate his late-night stoush in Bristol while on international duty in September, England’s middle order looks brittle.
Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazelwood and Pat Cummins, all waiting to be unleashed in the opening Ashes Test at the Gabba a week on Thursday, will be licking their lips when they watch the footage of Gurinder Sandhu and Simon Milenko ripping through the tourists.
Australia coach Darren Lehmann was lucky enough to be watching live at the Adelaide Oval. Nobody would blame him if he cracked a smile.
Both Sandhu and Milenko might be decent enough bowlers but neither are Test standard. Yet all they had to do was pitch the ball up and produce a touch of movement with the pink Kookaburra and England’s batsmen were having kittens.
That’s what Viv Richards this week claimed the touring party were without Stokes – a player who galvanises the squad and has the requisite ‘mongrel’ to go toe-to-toe with the Australians.
If Stokes had been here to inject some steel into the middle order alongside Jonny Bairstow, who looked in decent touch in scoring his first half-century of this tour, then England probably would have not had to rely on their bowlers bailing them out.
Stokes and Bairstow love batting together – witness their 399-run partnership in Cape Town in January 2016 after England had slipped to 5-223 in their first innings. They also put on a 127-run stand against Bangladesh in Chittagong last October to rescue their team once again and set up a match-winning position.
There are numerous other occasions when the pair have done likewise, including in one-day cricket.
Stokes, though, is the driver and his batting, which has gone up a notch this year after he struck two Test centuries in the same northern summer for the first time, is vital to this England team.
Shaky would be generous for what we saw on day three in Adelaide.
It’s an adjective that has been used for many other England batting performances in recent years.
The tourists at least appear to have found a reliable opening partner for Alastair Cook at the 12th attempt – yes, 11 others have failed since Andrew Strauss’ retirement in 2012 – with Mark Stoneman hitting his third half-century in as many innings on this tour.
The only problem is that Cook looks out of touch, his tortured innings of 32 from 85 balls following his first-innings 15 and two-ball duck in the opening tour match in Perth last weekend.
Cook is the only member of the likely Ashes top six yet to score a half-century so far on this tour.
But James Vince, Root and Dawid Malan all had innings to forget as numbers three, four and five in the order contributed just 35 second-innings runs.
But regardless of the runs of Vince and Malan, England know they are extremely vulnerable when neither Cook nor Root get runs. With no Stokes as well that is even more the case.
That means England need their two most experienced batsmen to stand up when the Ashes begin. Otherwise things could get very ugly very quickly for the tourists.
CA XI squad: Jake Carder (WA), Jackson Coleman (Vic), Michael Cormack (SA), Daniel Fallins (NSW), Ryan Gibson (NSW), Nick Larkin (NSW), Simon Milenko (Tas), Tim Paine (c, Tas), Will Pucovski (Vic), Gurinder Sandhu (NSW), Jason Sangha (NSW), Matthew Short (Vic).
England Test squad: Joe Root (c), Moeen Ali, James Anderson, Jonny Bairstow, Jake Ball, Gary Ballance, Stuart Broad, Alastair Cook, Mason Crane, Tom Curran, Ben Foakes, Dawid Malan, Craig Overton, Ben Stokes, Mark Stoneman, James Vince, Chris Woakes.
2017-18 International Fixtures
Magellan Ashes Series
First Test Gabba, November 23-27. Buy tickets
Second Test Adelaide Oval, December 2-6 (Day-Night). Buy tickets
Third Test WACA Ground, December 14-18. Buy tickets
Fourth Test MCG, December 26-30. Buy tickets
Fifth Test SCG, January 4-8 (Pink Test). Buy tickets
ODI Series v England
First ODI MCG, January 14. Buy tickets
Second ODI Gabba, January 19. Buy tickets
Third ODI SCG, January 21. Buy tickets
Fourth ODI Adelaide Oval, January 26. Buy tickets
Fifth ODI Perth TBC, January 28. Join the ACF
Prime Minister's XI
PM's XI v England Manuka Oval, February 2. Buy tickets
T20 trans-Tasman Tri-Series
First T20I Australia v NZ, SCG, February 3. Buy tickets
Second T20I – Australia v England, Blundstone Arena, February 7. Buy tickets
Third T20I – Australia v England, MCG, February 10. Buy tickets
Fourth T20I – NZ v England, Wellington, February 14
Fifth T20I – NZ v Australia, Eden Park, February 16
Sixth T20I – NZ v England, Seddon Park, February 18
Final – TBC, Eden Park, February 21