England could head into the Gabba Test with their famous new-ball pairing of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad kept on ice after naming a match-day squad also featuring Ollie Pope in the final batting spot ahead of Jonny Bairstow.
After earlier confirmation that Anderson is now being primed for the second Test in Adelaide, Joe Root’s tourists whittled down their options to a 12-man group which does include Broad, but with a final decision still to be made over playing spinner Jack Leach or opting for a five-strong seam attack.
A green-tinged pitch and a possible rain-interrupted game has had England pondering the latter, which would see Chris Woakes at No 8 before a combination of Ollie Robinson, Mark Wood and Broad. With Ben Stokes the all-rounder but making a comeback from a four-month break – and a lack of warm-up overs a concern for all seamers – this would share the load too.
But even with Wood’s extra pace offering a point of difference and the chance to return fire against Australia’s lower order, it would mean the hosts still facing a diet of right-arm seam and Joe Root’s (admittedly useful) part-time off-breaks.
Leach is the specialist alternative here but the slow left-armer was ignored all summer due to the absence of Stokes. His four Ashes Tests in 2019, however, returned 12 wickets at an average of 25, and if picked it may be that Broad is forced to wait to win his 150th Test cap given Robinson’s rise in 2021.
This scenario would make it the first Test in five years (Dhaka 2016) that England have had neither Anderson nor Broad in their bowling attack, the pair having taken the field together 124 times since their decorated partnership first came together in Wellington back in 2008.
Anderson was officially ruled out of the Ashes opener on Tuesday morning but with a team spokesperson insisting the 39-year-old was not injured, merely being readied for the potential swinging conditions of the pink ball Test in Adelaide.
England’s record wicket-taker is essentially behind the other seamers in terms of physical preparation, with a calf niggle at the start of the trip delaying his bowling work for two weeks. This week he has been reportedly bowling at full pelt in the Gabba nets this week but, with memories of his 2019 home Ashes ruined by a calf tear after just four overs, caution has still prevailed.
Root has spoken of doing things differently to previous failed Ashes tours and, though cagey over his final XI, an all-pace attack that retains Broad would still qualify as such. It was also the approach which helped England to a comeback 2020 series win over South Africa in Johannesburg, where the less helpful Kookaburra ball is similarly used.
One certainty is that Bairstow is dropped. The Yorkshireman began the tour as favourite to take the No 6 berth – he was due to play September’s abandoned Old Trafford Test against India ahead of Pope – but two failures in his solitary warm-up match after a late arrival from the T20 World Cup have changed the thinking.
Pope in fact top-scored for England in their last Test match with a defiant 81 during the 157-run defeat to India at the Oval. Nine years younger than Bairstow and with a first-class average of 53, the Surrey man is viewed as the coming man in English cricket even if one yet to fully transfer his clear talents to the top level.
The right-hander’s 20 Test caps to date have featured just one century to date but this did come overseas to set up victory, an unbeaten 135 in Port Elizabeth in early 2020 against a South African attack that featured Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje.
England 12-man squad for the first Ashes Test: Joe Root (c), Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler (wkt), Haseeb Hameed, Jack Leach, Dawid Malan, Ollie Pope, Ollie Robinson, Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood.