When I was on the Ashes tour in 1998-99 we had three four-day games against state opposition before the Test series started, tough games against sides packed with big-name players where you had to be absolutely at your best. When I went back to Australia as batting coach four years ago there were three four-day games but against weaker opposition and on pitches that tended to be slow.
This time England’s players have had two full days’ play, against their own second-string side, and it is not the best preparation for what they are about to walk into. A noisy crowd at the Gabba, Pat Cummins bowling a bit of nose and toes, a few words flying around – it is the ultimate test and, while it is not easy to recreate that sort of pressure, it doesn’t hurt to try.
I remember having a chat with Trevor Bayliss and Paul Farbrace in 2017 about how the players had to prepare themselves for what was coming, the storm of Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc. And not just the top order – we found out in the first Test at Brisbane what Australia had planned for our lower order and it was very, very nasty: leg-side theory, coming round the wicket with lots of short balls.
So we scheduled practice using a special yellow ball that behaves like a red ball but is not as hard, which allowed me to ramp up the pace. The training was deliberately very challenging and sometimes players did get hit.
As a coach you walk a delicate line between trying to upskill players but also wanting to build their confidence. This was designed to be challenging but by training hard and coming through it – and by learning to think clearly and control their emotions – the confidence eventually came.
Last week Ollie Pope told me England had been doing a lot of work in the indoor nets and they had again been using these yellow balls.
The delicate thing is trying to coax the middle and lower order to do this work, knowing full well they will probably cop it. Player buy-in is important. Four years ago some of the bowlers seemed to feel they had to give it a go for five or 10 minutes rather than they wanted to embrace it, but I remember Craig Overton in particular understood the importance of it and we saw the result with his bravery on debut in Adelaide, when he scored an unbeaten 41.
I became a big fan of his as a result and, though he’s perhaps not kicked on as I had hoped, that kind of character and heart in the face of great hostility could come in handy again. I thought we were reasonably well prepared four years ago but after losing the first game at the Gabba we found it hard to come back and Australia went on to win the series 4-0. When I look at the balance of the two sides now I don’t think much has changed. Australia’s bowling attack is virtually the same and they showed then, and have since, the ability to penetrate on hard surfaces, which we found very difficult.
England’s bowlers will need to come together quickly and, given I don’t see any individual taking 30 wickets, they will have to hunt as a pack, backing each other up. But if England are to do well, they need a few key players to excel. Ben Stokes will of course be one and Mark Wood’s pace could be the X-factor the attack really needs, but I will be focusing on two batters I enjoyed watching this year.
I saw Haseeb Hameed in the nets during the lunch break when New Zealand played at Lord’s and he was hugely impressive. I was batting coach when he played in India in 2016 but he was hitting the ball a lot harder than I remembered and he has very good orthodox basics. He has to be strong enough to go out and play his game. If he occupies the crease for long periods and forges a good opening partnership with Rory Burns, it will help hugely.
Then there’s Pope; I saw him bat at the Oval against India, when he scored an excellent 81, and I can’t speak highly enough of how well he played against an outstanding attack. It was very convincing and I was really disappointed to hear he was going to be dropped for the next game at Old Trafford had it gone ahead. I thought that was a huge mistake. He has an all-round game against pace and spin and is someone England need to have faith in. He has played successfully in Australian club cricket, is comfortable there and, if selected, could truly establish himself during the series.
Another big memory from 2017 is an interview Nathan Lyon gave in the buildup where he spoke about finishing careers. You could argue it was just part of the hype, something Australia aren’t afraid of throwing into the mixto spice things up, but it certainly irked me and some of the England players. It felt a pretty crass thing to say and I hope this England side remember it, just in case they need a little extra motivation.