And so, while he has no doubts about the enduring class of Stuart Broad and James Anderson, who will be undertaking their fourth and fifth Ashes tours respectively, and believes that Ollie Robinson is another automatic pick in the seam department after an impressive debut summer, Prior knows that England cannot rely solely on Joe Root as a source of consistent runs, even though he’s in the midst of a world-beating run of form.
The honourable exception is Root, who has amassed 1455 runs at 66.13 in 2021 so far, including six of the seven centuries scored by England batters since last summer’s home series against Pakistan.
“We all hope Joe is going to score a massive amount runs, he’s one of the best players in the world, if not the best at the moment,” Prior said. “But we also can’t just lump the whole pressure on one guy. The top five, six batters need to score consistently the bulk of the runs.
“In 2010-11, it was very clear what our batsmen had to do. [Andrew] Strauss, [Alastair] Cook and [Jonathan] Trott in that top three had to lay a foundation. If they didn’t score quickly, they had to bat time and get a get a real solid foundation for KP, Bell and Collingwood to come in and take the attack to tired bowlers, bowling with an older ball. It’s really that simple.”
Nevertheless, Prior acknowledges that the advent of T20 cricket has changed perceptions about international batting, with few players able or willing to “Geoffrey Boycott it and bat all day”. And to that end, he believes that the proven ability of England’s bowlers to bang out a consistent line and length could prove vital in a war of attrition – especially now that England will not be able to turn to the express pace of Jofra Archer to lead the attack.
“Making sure that you’re very clear on your own plans is crucial,” Prior said. “If you’re bowling on pretty flat wickets, which they are in Australia, and the ball’s not moving, through swing, reverse or spin, then you have to take wickets by building pressure, that’s your only other option.
“Everyone will talk about Jimmy Anderson’s ability to swing the ball and he’s the best in the world at doing that, but the other thing that Anderson does is go at two an over. When the ball isn’t swinging, he doesn’t go for runs, and that builds pressure.
“Robinson has shown he is able to take wickets at the top level, and he will fit in to that game-plan of going for no runs, building pressure, consistently hitting the top of off, consistently challenging a batsman’s defence”
“People expect runs to be scored quickly, and even in Test matches now, you’re looking at run rates of 3.5 an over as normal. So building pressure is a skill in itself, and one that people underestimate. It’s not just about hanging the ball wide, it’s about being able to stay very tight on your line and length, and execute your skill ball after ball after ball, without getting bored.”
“It’s certainly what we did in 2010 11,” Prior said. “In Australia, the ball doesn’t swing all over the place, and you need to find different ways. Also, if you lose the toss on a flat one and end up bowling first, it’s a tactic that can arm you when things aren’t going so well.
“There’s nothing about touring Australia that James Anderson and Stuart Broad don’t know. They’re invaluable in that dressing room to pass on to a younger bowlers like Ollie Robinson, who has been fantastically impressive since coming into the international arena.
“I think there’s always a question mark when someone doesn’t have the express pace of Mark Wood or Jofra Archer. But Robinson has shown he is able to execute his skill and take wickets at the top level, and he will fit in to that game-plan of going for no runs, building pressure, consistently hitting the top of off stump, consistently challenging a batsman’s defence.
“So those three, I have no worry about, but as we know, a bowling line-up has to bowl in partnerships, it has to be the full group, so whoever that fourth seamer is, it’s going to be crucial that they are able to maintain pressure as well, and not undo it all by going at four an over.”
That was the complication that England encountered in 2010-11, when they chose to drop Steven Finn because of his leaky economy-rate, despite him being the leading wicket-taker in the series after three Tests. He had also been the fastest bowler available to England in those opening Tests, which may mean that England will need to be cautious about how they deploy Wood, their one remaining 90mph seamer, in the coming campaign.
Prior, however, knows from his own bitter experience in 2013-14 that an out-and-out quick in Australia is a phenomenal weapon to have, and believes that Wood’s ebullient personality could have an equally crucial role off the field as the squad copes with the unusual circumstances of a post-Covid Ashes campaign.
“I wouldn’t suggest that Mark Wood is a liability, quite the opposite actually. He brings so much more to the dressing room, with regards to his character. He is the kind of guy you want in Australia, because he will step up.
“It’s going to be partisan crowds down there,” Prior added. “There won’t be the Barmy Army, the players are going to have to stand up and tolerate what’s going to come their way, and Mark Wood is definitely one of those guys.
“But the captain and coach are going to have to be really clear on how they use him,” he added. “In that series that we all try and forget [2013-14], Mitchell Johnson rarely bowled more than three overs in any one spell. He could have taken six wickets in those three overs, but he would come off, and it would be back to Ryan Harris, back to Nathan Lyon, back to Peter Siddle. It was very, very clear what their plan was.
“I think that’s something we haven’t always got right with our extreme pace bowlers. They haven’t been encouraged to bowl at 100 miles an hour, and they haven’t gone at two and a half an over either.
“Winning away from home is difficult. Winning away from home in the Ashes during Covid is even more difficult. I never had that experience, thank goodness, because I would have gone absolutely crazy tied up in hotel. But it can’t be used as an excuse because it’s the world we live in now. When you get on an aeroplane, to represent England in an Ashes series, you have to find a way. You can’t just turn up and throw in the towel.”
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket
(With Inputs from ESPN)
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