AFTER trash-talk that would make a boxer blush, the phoney war stops and the real one starts when the Ashes begins in Brisbane tonight.
Amid claims that they can “end the careers” of the England players, and that Ben Stokes has “let his country down”, Australia have not been shy of unleashing a few verbal bouncers before the real ones they will produce at the Gabba.
England have hardly been innocent lambs themselves, with no love lost between the sides, but the cricket cannot come soon enough for those dulled by the predictably brainless build-up.
The only talk that matters, of course, is who is going to win the Ashes and, on that key question, opinion is split.
From a repeat of the 5-0 whitewash inflicted by Australia four years ago, to a reprise of England’s 3-1 triumph on the previous tour, the prognostications have been wide-ranging.
Press yours truly for a prediction and, after much deliberation, I would have to go for a 2-2 draw, which would see Joe Root’s England retain the urn.
Such simplistic observations are, however, perhaps too simplistic and take no account of the fact that conditions should benefit England more in the day/night second Test in Adelaide, where more grass will be on the surface to protect the pink Kookaburra.Chris Waters
The fact that England are the current holders is the equivalent of having an away goal in football, but even Nostradamus, Mother Shipton and Mystic Meg might have their work cut out forecasting this series, for it could genuinely go either way.
For me, it all boils down to these key issues:
Can Australia’s much-vaunted – and oft-injured – pace attack stay fit? If it does, then its fearsome components of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood could be too strong in home conditions.
Can England’s batting withstand Australia’s bowlers whoever they are, with the jury still out on Mark Stoneman, James Vince and Dawid Malan in a top-five led by the world-class Root and Alastair Cook? Stoneman did well in the warm-ups, though, enough to suggest he could have an impact.
Can Jonny Bairstow deliver that killer series with the bat that he is threatening, a task made more difficult for the Yorkshireman, however, if he stays at No 7, amid suggestions that Moeen Ali could be promoted from No 8 to fill the void left by Stokes at No 6? Personally, I think that Bairstow should bat as high as possible, although Brad Haddin had a major impact from No 7 for Australia in the last Ashes Down Under, a blueprint that England may be tempted to follow.
Can England cope without Stokes, who may or may not join the tour at a later date, pending the outcome of investigations into the brouhaha in Bristol? There would be pros and cons to Stokes joining the party; the effect could even be unsettling if England start well, although some might consider the white knight possibilities irresistible.
Can England’s bowling take advantage of Australia’s own batting frailty, with such as Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh, Tim Paine and even Peter Handscomb perhaps not names to strike fear into the hearts of a touring team? To that effect, much will depend on the old warhorses James Anderson and Stuart Broad, 66 years and 894 Test wickets between them as they near the end of their stellar careers. If Anderson and Broad deliver, England’s chances are vastly improved; if not, then Father Time may be dusting off his scythe and hourglass in respect of these two magnificent bowlers, and the pressure on an inexperienced batting line-up will be all the more.
Can Australia’s two universally recognised world-class batsmen, Steve Smith and David Warner, out-score their English equivalents of Root and Cook? On flat pitches offering little or no lateral movement, Smith and Warner could be difficult to dislodge with England having neither express pace nor a world-class spinner, although Moeen is making positive strides in the latter respect.
Can England’s lower-order out-score that of Australia, a potentially vital area given the respective top-order frailties? Chris Woakes could help to give England the edge in this regard, although Australia wicketkeeper Paine will hope to take a leaf out of Haddin’s book, while Starc is no slouch at No 8.
Can Australia, whose selections of Paine and Marsh in particular were vilified, cope without a recognised fifth bowler? By choosing a specialist batsman in Marsh at No 6, instead of an all-rounder such as Glenn Maxwell, it places extra onus on the pace attack to stay fit and firing. As such, England could be tempted to try to get after off-spinner Nathan Lyon – even more so after this normally mild-mannered individual led the pre-series sledging – in an effort to tire out Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood. On the other hand, such a move could play directly into Lyon and Australia’s hands.
And, finally, can any of the lesser, unheralded names in the English and Australian teams make a name for themselves, which could be all it takes to swing the pendulum? No one would pretend that this is a vintage Ashes match-up, with only a smattering of genuinely great players on show, but the stage is set for a Stoneman, a Vince or a Malan for England, or a Bancroft, a Khawaja or a Paine for Australia, to grab the series by the scruff of the neck.
Inevitably, much has been made of Australia’s remarkable record in Brisbane, where they have not lost a Test since 1988, and where England have only twice prevailed since the Second World War.
Lose at the Gabba, the theory goes, and you might as well kiss the urn goodbye.
Such simplistic observations are, however, perhaps too simplistic and take no account of the fact that conditions should benefit England more in the day/night second Test in Adelaide, where more grass will be on the surface to protect the pink Kookaburra.
Should England lose in Brisbane and also go down in Adelaide, history tells you that their task pretty much becomes impossible.
Should they lose in Brisbane and win in Adelaide, however, the series would be set up perfectly for the last three games in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney, so defeat at the Gabba need not be as fatal as some might suggest.
England, of course, are confident that they can set the tone by winning in Brisbane, where they have not triumphed since 1986.
Ian Botham inspired England with a hundred on that occasion, as Mike Gatting’s “can’t bat, can’t bowl, can’t field” tourists upset the applecart en route to a series win, and what England would have given for Stokes, the modern-day Botham, in the next few days.
With or without Stokes, who may or may not feature at some point yet to be determined, the stage is set for an intriguing series, one in which the excitement levels could actually live up to the preposterous hype – if that is conceivable.
However, to paraphrase the late, great Fred Trueman, “Anyone foolish enough to predict the outcome of this series is a fool”, this writer included.