The Ashes keys to series: Ben Stokes’ fitness and Ollie Pope versus Marnus Labuschagne in battle of No 3s | Cricket News

Former England batter and Sky Sports expert Mark Butcher picks out his key battles that will determine The Ashes; watch the first Test at Edgbaston live on Sky Sports from Friday (9.30am on air, first ball at 11am)

By Mark Butcher, Cricket Columnist

This summer’s Ashes is one of the most eagerly anticipated of all time and is sure to be fiercely competitive through all five Tests – but what are the key battles which could ultimately determine the outcome? Former England batter and Sky Sports expert Mark Butcher takes a look…

England must get Smith and Labuschagne in early

Australia’s main strength with the bat is Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne. That axis.

England’s new-ball bowlers you’d imagine will be James Anderson and Ollie Robinson – as their two top picks – and their ability to get through the Australian openers quickly, to get Smith and Labuschagne in against a new Dukes that is ball moving around, is going to be absolutely crucial.

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Tactically, Ben Stokes is always looking to take wickets as opposed to contain the opposition. And that’s a good way to go, because Smith and Labuschagne have got endless amounts of patience.

You’re not going to bore them into making errors. They just love batting and will stay there for as long as it takes.

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England must be that little bit more attacking, push the ball up there, try to entice the drive, and attack the stumps.

Pope vs Labuschagne in battle of No 3s

The top orders are going to be tested, absolutely no doubt about it. There is so much quality in both bowling attacks.

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The same applies with England as it does Australia. Their engine room comes with the middle order and Joe Root at four through to Jonny Bairstow at seven. They’re very dangerous.

So England’s top three – Zak Crawley, Ben Duckett and Ollie Pope – are going to be very important, because if you allow the likes of Pat Cummins and co to get their teeth into you early, then you’ve got big problems.

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Crawley, funnily enough, some of his better innings have been ones where he has been a bit more defensive. Duckett looks in terrific form, but it’s a first Ashes series for him and so you have no idea how the extra pace and bounce of Australia’s world-class bowling attack will go with him.

It may well be a battle of the number threes, whichever out of Pope and Labuschagne might go a long way to deciding who comes back with the urn.

Can spin tame Australia’s left-handers?

Australia’s left-handers – and they look set to have as many as five of them in their line up – and how England’s spinner fares against them will be key.

Jack Leach’s record to left handers is not particularly good. With him out for the series, Moeen Ali is now going to have to play an enormously important part in England’s bowling attack, in terms of being able to rest and rotate whichever fast bowlers end up on the park for each Test.

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The pitches are going to be pretty flat, and the weather is supposed to be pretty good, so you’d imagine England will need to get through a lot of overs from their spinner, so that they can put into practice that plan of rotating the quicks – giving them short bursts, using the short ball effectively.

Moeen against Australia’s left-handers is going to be pivotal. If he can step up, then England are in great shape. If they smash him out of the attack, then they’ve got a big problem.

Stokes fitness key; could he open?

England will be aggressive under Stokes. There’s no question about that; they won’t go into their shell.

The captain’s fitness is going to be utterly crucial. That said, there is nothing that is going to keep him from playing in this series, even if his leg was falling off.

England bowler Stuart Broad is backing Ben Stokes to be fit to bowl in the opening Ashes Test against Australia at Edgbaston.

If Stokes can’t play a full part as a bowler, then England have a bit of a problem on their hands. They might have to look at a different role him.

They might have to change tack completely and have him play as a specialist batter – maybe even at the top of the order, in expense of Crawley or whoever.

It sounds like a bonkers idea, because he doesn’t open the batting, but it maybe isn’t that mad. Under Stokes, this is a team that wants to score at six runs an over in Test cricket – that’s barking!

Stokes, with a good a technique as he has, it maybe isn’t as stupid as it sounds.

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It’s going to be very, very entertaining – a great advertisement for Test match cricket. I’m so looking forward to it.

As for who wins? I can’t see any draws… it will be 3-2, either way.

Watch The Ashes live on Sky Sports Cricket from Friday. Coverage from Edgbaston begins at 9.30am ahead of the first ball at 11am. You can also follow in-play clips and text commentary across Sky Sports’ digital platforms.

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