Ashes: Is this one of England's 'weakest squads' ever?

When it comes to an Ashes summer, outlandish claims about the strength of the Australian and English squads is almost a ritual within itself.

The British press labelled Allan Border's 1989 touring squad as the worst ever. That quickly changed after Australia stormed to a series opening win at Headingley. England's 1970-71 and 1994-95 incarnations were dubbed "Dad's Army" because of the seniority of players, while Australia's 2013 touring squad was considered no better than Australia's makeshift "Lambs to the Slaughter" squad of 1978-79, according to Rodney Hogg.

And on it goes. Ahead of England's arrival into Perth on Sunday for the latest stoush for cricket's most famous prize, veteran England cricket commentator Jonathan Agnew has declared Joe Root's team "one of the weakest squads I've seen".

When England's squad was confirmed last month, Kevin Pietersen couldn't resist this barb: "Before bed, I have a comment on England's Ashes squad - It's horrendous! They may as well not go!"

Whether that sledge was aimed at the squad, or more at director of cricket Andrew Strauss, who Pietersen fell out with years when playing together, was unclear. But it's an untimely, even unfortunate, vote of confidence for Root, who will carry much responsibility this summer.

Indeed, outside of a handful of prominent names - particularly Alastair Cook, Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad, Jonny Bairstow and Root - this squad could be dubbed the "great unknowns".

Allrounder Ben Stokes, of course, would also have been a notable name. He is England's best player, the "engine" as Michael Vaughan has said, but will remain at home - at least for the time being - after his involvement in a late-night brawl.

Cook, the former skipper and his country's leading Test run scorer, will have a pivotal role to play at the top of the order. He had a modest home campaign this year against South Africa but rebounded against the West Indies. Whether he can still handle the pace and bounce of Australian decks could shape the series. He did that with an astonishing 766 runs at 127.66 in 2010-11 but limped home with only 246 at 24.6 four years ago in a 5-0 series thumping.

He will likely have Surrey's Mark Stoneman by his side in Brisbane, who is regarded as a strong back-foot player. Aged 30, he made his Test debut against the West Indies in August, having been the only player to have scored 1000 runs in each of the last five seasons in County cricket's top grade.

Such has been the merry-go-round at the top of the order that Cook has had a dozen partners in the past five years. It's understood England believe Stoneman is a tough character who can handle the Ashes pressure on the field and the media spotlight off it.

James Vince is expected to fill the No.3 spot but had a modest county season and averages only 19.27 in seven Tests. He has yet to pass 50. While he is regarded as elegant in style, that's going to mean little when Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins turn up the voltage on a hard Gabba deck.

Vince has declared his game is more suited to Australian conditions than at home where movement off the seam with the Dukes cricket balls is more prevalent.

"The wickets are a bit truer and the Kookaburra ball does not do so much or for so long. It is a different test but when I have played in those conditions I have enjoyed batting," he said.

Root, for all of his success in recent years, does not have happy memories of Australia, for he was dropped for the Sydney Test four years ago after rugged series (192 runs at 27.42).

He has since become one of the world's premier batsmen, averaging 53.76 with 13 tons, including centuries at Cardiff and Nottingham when the nations last met. But will the scars of his last trip here remain?

Vaughan, the former Ashes-winning England captain, has already declared Root could have a potential weakness on the quick local pitches playing the back-foot square drive early in his innings, an issue he had against the West Indies through the northern summer.

Root, for his part, insists he has nothing to fear. He knows he will be under a fierce spotlight but it's been one he has enjoyed since replacing Cook in February.

"We shouldn't be afraid of going over there and, if we perform at our best, doing something really special," he said.

That's a big if. Dawid Malan, a hard-hitting left-hander who has played five Tests, and Gary Ballance are vying to be named at No.5.

Ballance, who grew up on a tobacco farm in Harare, has averaged 37.45 in 23 Tests but only 19 in his past 12. He made his Test debut four years ago, making 18 and seven in Sydney, when the tourists were a mess and factional warfare had erupted. He played in the opening two Tests at home to Australia two years ago and twice fell to Hazlewood.

An ace for England could be Jonny Bairstow, the wicketkeeper-batsman averaging 39.77 with three centuries in 45 Tests. Where Australia still cannot determine who should be its wicketkeeper, with incumbent Matthew Wade and Peter Nevill the leading candidates, former England captain Graham Gooch has said Bairstow should be "feared", while former England coach David Lloyd believes he is "twice as good as anything" Australia has.

Uncapped Hampshire leg-spinner Mason Crane has been labelled an Ashes wildcard but is more likely to be Moeen Ali's back-up.

Crane, 20, came to Sydney last summer to work on his craft but finished as the toast of first-grade. He took 45 wickets in 11 matches for Gordon, working closely with former Test leggie Stuart MacGill. He also became the first spin bowler in almost a decade to claim the Bill O'Reilly Medal as the competition's best player, and even earned a call-up into for NSW, taking five wickets against South Australia at the SCG.

The absence of Mark Wood from the attack will hurt, leaving Nottinghamshire's Jake Ball, Somerset's Craig Overton and the recalled Steven Finn to help frontline stars Anderson, Broad and Chris Woakes.

Former Australian captain Mark Taylor said the batting line-ups of both nations remained an issue, for Australia have concerns at No.6 and No.7.

"Both sides are similar in that regard. There is no doubt Australia will feel they can get into that England batting. Obviously, Cook is going to be a key at the top of the order for them," he said.

"They probably have a few more questions to answer in their middle order than Australia have. They have got Cook and Root and penned in but, obviously, with the problems they have with Ben Stokes as well, they have got probably two, three, five and six not really nailed down. That's where they have got problems.

"The advantage they have got is their tail looks very good, with people like Moeen Ali, Bairstow, even Stuart Broad - they are making good runs down the order. They have got some questions to answer in that middle order. That's where Australia will feel they are real show."

With what appears to be a shaky batting line-up, the pressure will rise on veteran new-ball tandem Anderson and Broad to make early incisions, in particular curbing David Warner.

The Australian vice-captain passed 50 five times when the nations last met but couldn't deliver a knock-out blow.

Anderson is England's greatest wicket-taker and celebrated his 500th scalp last month. While he sits sixth on Test cricket's all-time leading wicket-taking list, he had only 14 wickets at 43.9 in five Tests here four years ago. At 35, there are concerns this may be a trip which breaks the Lancashire swing king.

The pugnacious Broad, who famously led the decimation of Australia at Nottingham in 2015, has no doubt his partner has the variety required to succeed on the differing Australian decks.

"The last couple of years he's averaging 14 or 15 with the ball in England, so we know how dangerous he is when the ball's moving around like that," Broad said.

"But when we go to Australia, the wobble seam he bowls is a great weapon to have in Australia - take [Australia's] Stuart Clark as an example."

England will have former New Zealand spearhead Shane Bond as a bowling consultant through the opening two Tests.

Broad recently celebrated a milestone of his own, passing Sir Ian Botham into second spot on England's wicket-taking list. He knows what awaits, on and off the field, having been mercilessly heckled by the Gabba crowd on his last visit after he had been singled out for not walking for an edge at Trent Bridge during the preceding Ashes series.

Let the games begin.

ENGLAND SQUAD

Joe Root (captain, Yorkshire)

Age: 26

Tests: 60

Batting: 5323 runs at 53.76 (13 centuries)

Bowling: 15 wickets at 49.26

England's best player but unproven in Australia after being dropped here four years ago.

Moeen Ali (Worcestershire)

Age: 30

Tests: 44

Batting: 2288 runs at 34.66 (5 centuries)

Bowling: 128 wickets at 37.32

Key role to play with bat and his off-spin. Likely to be targeted by Australian batsman.

James Anderson (Lancashire)

Age: 35

Tests: 129

Batting: 1120 runs at 10.18

Bowling: 506 wickets at 27.39

England's greatest fast bowler but he struggled here last time. There are fears this could be one tour too many.

Jonny Bairstow (wk, Yorkshire)

Age: 28

Tests: 45

Batting: 2824 runs at 39.77 (3 centuries)

Bowling: -

Aggressive gloveman who can turn a match with his power hitting.

Jake Ball (Nottinghamshire)

Age: 26

Tests: 3

Batting: 52 runs at 8.66

Bowling: 2 wickets at 114

The right-arm quick has not played a Test since the losing India tour of 2016.

Gary Ballance (Yorkshire)

Age: 27

Tests: 23

Batting: 1498 runs at 37.45 (4 centuries)

Bowling: 0 wickets

The left-hander is fighting for the No.5 spot. Has struggled in recent times.

Stuart Broad (Nottinghamshire)

Age: 31

Tests: 109

Batting: 2820 runs at 21.04 (one century)

Bowling: 388 wickets at 28.81

The pace ace and hero of Nottingham will hope to erase the memories of four years ago.

Alastair Cook (Essex)

Age: 32

Tests: 147

Batting: 11,629 runs at 46.33 (31 centuries)

Bowling: One wicket

England's most experienced player will need to provide steady runs at the top of the order.

Mason Crane (Hampshire)

Age: 20

Tests: -

Batting: 27 first-class matches - 228 runs at 10.36

Bowling: 70 wickets at 42.97

Inspired as a junior by Shane Warne, the leg-spinner starred in Sydney grade cricket last summer. Could be an x-factor.

Ben Foakes (wk, Surrey)

Age: 24

Tests: -

Batting: 77 first-class matches - 3892 runs at 41.8.

Bowling:

Promising gloveman who knows how to hit the ball. Will be Bairstow's understudy.

Dawid Malan (Middlesex)

Age: 30

Tests: 5

Batting: 189 runs at 23.62 (0 centuries)

Bowling: 0 wickets

The hard-hitting left-hander, born in England but grew up in South Africa, is battling Ballance for the No.5 slot.

Craig Overton (Somerset)

Age: 23

Tests: -

Batting: 60 first class matches - 1645 runs at 22.84.

Bowling: 189 wickets at 26.13

Has a reputation as being a hot head and sought treatment from a psychotherapist. There are hopes he can become an allrounder.

Mark Stoneman (Surrey)

Age: 30

Tests: 3

Batting: 120 runs at 30 (0 centuries)

Bowling: -

England desperately need the left-hander to provide support for Cook at the top of the order. Has been mentored by former Tasmanian batsman Michael di Venuto.

James Vince (Hampshire)

Age: 26

Tests: 7

Batting: 212 runs at 19.27 (0 centuries)

Bowling: 0 wickets

Regarded as a calm, stylish batsman, the right-hander has been pencilled in to fill the No.3 slot but his record suggests he will face a torrid time.

Chris Woakes (Warwickshire)

Age: 28

Tests: 18

Batting: 675 runs at 32.14 (0 centuries)

Bowling: 50 wickets at 30.6

Has turned his career around. Played only the one Test at home this summer because of injury but will back up Broad and Anderson.

Steven Finn

Age: 28

Tests: 36

Batting: 279 runs at 11.16

Bowling: 125 wickets at 30.4

The lanky fast bowler was drafted into the squad when Ben Stokes was cut but his selection has been questioned by Sir Ian Botham.

* Ben Stokes (Durham)

Age: 26

Tests: 39

Batting: 2429 runs at 35.72 (six centuries)

Bowling: 95 wickets at 33.93

Was initially selected in squad but will not make the flight over because of his involvement in a late-night brawl. Could yet join the touring party depending on the police investigation into his alleged involvement in a late-night brawl.

ENGLAND'S TOUR MATCHES

Nov 4-5: v Western Australia XI, WACA Ground

Nov 8-11: v Cricket Australia XI, Adelaide Oval (day-night)

Nov 15-18: v CA XI, Tony Ireland Stadium, Townsville

TEST SERIES

First Test: Gabba, November 23-27.

Second Test: Adelaide Oval, December 2-6 (Day-Night).

Third Test: WACA Ground, December 14-18.

Fourth Test: MCG, December 26-30.

Fifth Test: SCG, January 4-8 (Pink Test).

This story Ashes: Is this one of England's 'weakest squads' ever? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.