The old rivals resume their battle on Thursday, as England play host to Australia in the latest installment of one of the sport’s greatest occasions.
It is fitting that the brand new World Test Championship will bowl off with these two traditional rivals, as these were the first two cricket powers in the world. In terms of head to head, Australia just edge the storied contest, having won 33 Ashes series to England’s 32, with five being drawn over the course of 70 clashes. However, interestingly, the men from down under hold a sizable advantage in actual Tests played, having won 134 to the English’s 106 triumphs, with 90 draws.
This is a sporting rivalry that has being going on since 1877, with plenty of thrills, controversy & legendary performances.
For simplicity, I will go through the keys to the contest:
1. England need to re-focus on the longer format.
Following on from their emotionally draining World Cup final win, the hosts will need to change their thinking & tactics and they don’t have much time to do it. There will be a turn around of a mere 18 days between that historic win at Lord’s and the first Test at Edgbaston. Off-course there will be some changes to the playing staff, but many of those same players who helped the country win their first ever ODI WC, will be involved, with as many as eight players likely to start the opening contest. It is not just physically, but emotionally demanding, meaning coaching staff, including the physiologist, will have a vital role to play.
They need to keep them focused, concentrated and motivated to face the task at hand.
2. Does Mitchell Starc start for Australia?
It seems unthinkable that the left arm speedster’s place will even be up for debate, but that is the strength of this current Aussie attack. Pat Cummins is a lock to play as the best fast bowler in the world, while the away side’s coach, Justin Langer, confirmed that James Pattinson will definitely start added to the spin of Nathan Lyon. That means that Starc, Peter Siddle and Josh Hazelwood are all battling for that last spot in the bowling attack. Conventional wisdom will suggest that Starc might just sneak that last spot, given his record and the fact that he can also add something with the bat as well, but nothing can be ruled out at this point.
That’s what makes this series so intriguing as well.
3. England’s top order is vulnerable.
The Three Lions top three batsmen have struggled in recent times, no matter who has been used and that stability that former captain Alastair Cook provided for well over a decade has left them sorely lacking in good batting starts.Rory Burns Jason Roy and Joe Denly will be tasked to writing that wrong, however, only the debutant Roy passed 50 in the match against Ireland last week, that they had to fight back mightily to win. As mentioned above, the Aussie attack is one of the best in the world, and England’s top order need to do their level best, to at least see off the new ball and not let their middle-order be constantly exposed, as that can get ugly for the hosts.
Now is the time to stand up and be counted.
4. How do Australia’s banned trio perform?
Since the controversy dubbed “Sandpapergate” occurred, the main protagonists, then captain Steve Smith, his second in command David Warner and middle-order batsman, Cameron Bancroft have been vilified from pillar to post. Since then, and following their subsequent bans, the first two have returned to play at the World Cup, while the latter, has interestingly played with English county side Durham, as captain, no less. They will inevitably get jeered during the series, so how all three, both individually and collectively, deal with the abuse will have a major outcome on the result. To be fair, both Smith and Warner handled it during the World Cup quite well, as Warner ended up as the second top scorer, while Smith showed up as well throughout the competition.
Their return is an added spice to proceedings.
5. Can James Anderson and Stuart Broad lead the bowling yet again for England?
The two England greats have carried their nation’s attack for a decade now and everyone connected with the team will be asking them for another one of those series-defining performances. However, with Anderson just turning 37 and Broad at 33, they will need to be managed carefully by skipper Joe Root, to ensure they are at their maximum capabilities for the duration of the six weeks. Anderson, in particular, is a concern as he has been battling a calf injury in the last few weeks and missed the Ireland Test because of it, while Broad has been bowling in top form for Nottinghamshire. They will, however, need their supporting cast of Chris Woakes, new boy Jofra Archer, all-rounders Moen Ali & Ben Stokes etc…to do their part if they are to get 20 wickets each match.
Bowling could very well outdo the batting this series.
6. Australia’s number six position and the all-rounder.
Like their bowling line-up, it seems the Aussies are still searching for that final piece to complete the set. It’s likely the top five will be Warner, Marcus Harris, Usman Khawaja, Smith and Travis Head. Who fills that the last place is the cause of much debate in and around cricket circles. Do they go for wicketkeeper-batsman like Matthew Wade? Do they drop down Joe Burns into that slot or do they stick with the current holder of the position Kurtis Patterson? Or do they go back to the tried and so far unsuccessful all-rounder bit of either Mitchell Marsh or Marcus Stonis. Maybe they will surprise us all and throw in Victoria’s 21-year old Will Pucovski into the heat of an Ashes battle?
That link between the top half and lower half batting will keep us guessing until the team is announced.
As the 1st of August approaches and the final touches are put in place at Birmingham, the excitement for another Ashes series is reaching fever pitch.
Hopefully, we are in for another legendary series.
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