Yes, it’s back! The timing for mind-games and trash talk is over (did it begin? ED) as England and Australia prepare to do battle for the 347th occasion because eternal struggle, one which has up to now spanned 141 decades, 71 series, 15 places and also two hemispheres.
Alright, I admit it… it feels a little bit odd, a bit shortly. At least there’s been that fever-dream of an Ireland Test to help English cricket with the transition from World Cup euphoria to under-starters-orders anxiety, but this Ashes turnaround was more sudden than those interested home-and-away rubbers in 2013-14 (and most of us know how that worked out to the side that was celebrating at the halfway mark…)
And yet… with the best respect to an Ireland team that serviced England’s World Cup hangover like a 5am knee-drop from a Christmas-morning toddler, the competition in prospect at Edgbaston is the most viscerally real of bargains. If it doesn’t yet feel like the Ashes are on us once more, then the mere sight of those Baggy Green caps, then moving into a huddle after the throw has been lost and won tomorrow , will provide all the primordial triggers necessary to snap competitors and onlookers alike to the here and now.
Yes, this time it is really time to leave the World Cup supporting… Stokes’ heroics, Roy’s shy, Buttler’s grab-and-smash, these cavorting, ecstatic scenes of live-history-in-the-making at the most magnificent and hard-to-impress of places. England attempted to leave it all behind last week, however, failed quite miserably (in spite of Ireland’s humbling last day). But this time, the return into a monogamous stomping floor should ease that bid for a new start.
The Edgbaston variable cannot be discounted as England find a flying start to this campaign, hard though Australia’s captain, Tim Paine, tried to play it down on the eve of this game. Using its feral, fancy-dress-clad audiences bearing down on the activity from all corners, it is becoming as intimidating to England’s opponents as the Gabba has been to Australia’s. There’ll be nerves, undoubtedly, but not the anxiety about the lesser-known, as was the case at two of England’s past three Ashes openers, when Cardiff has been handed the honours for 2009 and 2015, and nearly caused the home side to fluff their lines twice.
However there is, clearly, an added frisson to this contest, and it’s one that will not be missing on the sandpaper-armed patrons of Edgbaston’s Hollies Stand.
The fall-out from Australia’s ball-tampering saga may be old hat in some quarters – and the abuse from the crowds certainly seemed to be water off a duck’s back to David Warner throughout the World Cup. However, a five-day Test match drills far deeper into a team’s mind than a 50-over fling – witness the Barmy Army’s persecution of Mitchell Johnson in the 2010-11 series – and as Paine was at pains to mentionthe Cape Town scandal exposed more than just the actions of Australia’s errant three.
It went right to the heart of Australia’s win-at-all-costs civilization – the exact same culture that sought to rub England’s noses in it at the end of the 2017-18 Ashes with that four-fingers-and-clenched fist”4-0″ podium at Sydney. Under Paine, the squad has gone out of its way to portray a new and fitter picture, although Ben Stokes, for one, isn’t convinced that will endure for long after the going gets rough from the warmth of an Ashes battle. “It’s weird, Aussies looking for wonderful for you,” he explained.
Nonetheless, it’s still possible to kill with kindness, to be grinning assassins. And with David Warner and Steve Smith match and firing after remarkable functions in Australia’s run to the World Cup semi-finals, and Usman Khawaja back at No.3 after injury, their top order is unquestionably more settled than England’s, who look set once more to rely on their prosperity of middle-order allrounders to offset their ceaseless instability.
Australia’s bowling attack, also, has a feeling of menace seldom seen on these shores in the last few decades. Contrary to India this time this past year, they haven’t passed up the importance of acclimatisation at the start of an England Test series.
If they can survive the Edgbaston acid test, this show is set up for a classic. Though, in one final hark back to those halcyon days in sky blue earlier this month, this Edgbaston variable has hit Australia where it strikes this summer, with their eight-wicket drubbing from the World Cup semi-final, a result so strong the scoreboard was showing Root and Eoin Morgan’s not-out innings while Australia were heating up before in the week.
Australian teams of yesteryear seldom struggled to get up for the Ashes and the World Cup in fast succession – they won equally in a canter in 1999, 2003 and 2007. England, in contrast, have tended to find the attainment of glory as a excuse to let standards slide (see 2005 and 2011 for cases ). But if any place will persuade them to harness the thrill of a brand new endeavour but savour the glories here and a five-day Edgbaston Ashes party may be just the tonic.
England WWLLW (past five completed games, latest first)
In the spotlight
It’s all on you, skipper. Joe Root has experienced a relatively quiet time in his past three England innings – at Lord’s, and not one of them performing much to pull his sides out of a top-order funk. But as the captain of a home Ashes series, also knowing full well that his own scalp will be prized more highly than any other in England’s positions, Root bitten the bullet and then pushed himself up into that troublesome three. A simple 3-4 swap with Joe Denly does little to tackle concerns about the openers from the moving ball, whereas a promotion for Denly may have allowed Jason Roy a little more of a chance to bed in at 3 without sacrificing Root’s recognized strength .
His senior team-mates have heard it throughout the World Cup, however also for Cameron Bancroft – revived to the peak of the sequence after quietly going about his firm for Durham in the County Championship – his re-emergence into the glare of the global spotlight promises to become even more intense than that of Smith and Warner. He was, after all, the guy captured yellow-handed with sandpaper down his underpants in Cape Town, but added to that is the fall-out from this bizarre Johnny Bairstow head-butting narrative in the last Ashes, the form of stitch-up which England’s players (and fans ) are unlikely to forget in a hurry. However, more importantly, naturally, Bancroft has the enviable honor of placing Australia’s agenda against Anderson and Broad, armed with all the new ball. He might have once feared his career was over for good. Now he has one hell of a point for another coming.
The top-three whirligig aside, the story of England’s selection is that the identity of the seam attack. James Anderson was passed fit after his calf tear four months ago, so slots into the XI ahead of Olly Stone, with Chris Woakes place to play only his second Test at Edgbaston – a venue where he boasts Tim Murtagh-at-Lord’s-esque figures. Moeen Ali, another Birmingham native, will perform as the solitary spinner – no area for Lord’s batting hero Jack Leach this time – while England’s middle order welcomes back the power bunch, Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes. Sam Curran, whose runs against Ireland were also vital in tipping the balance because crazy contest, reverts to bench-warming once more.
England: 1 Jason Roy, two Rory Burns, 3 Joe Root (capt), 4 Joe Denly, 5 Jos Buttler, 6 Ben Stokes, 7 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 8 Moeen Ali, 9 Chris Woakes, 10 Stuart Broad, 11 James Anderson
Extraordinary as it might appear to anyone who watched him in amazement during the World Cup, Mitchell Starc seems destined to be overlooked as Australia face up to the flip-side of using such a wealth of fast-bowling options – the inevitability that someone will be bitterly disappointed. James Pattinson is guaranteed his first Ashes outing since 2013 after hugely impressive displays for Nottinghamshire and in Australia warm-ups, as well as Pat Cummins also inked in, the final seam berth will probably be between Josh Hazlewood and the classic Peter Siddle, yet another whose county shape for Essex has encouraged the selectors he will nail an English span from the get-go. From the batting bets, Bancroft’s 93 not out in that frenzied warm-up in the Ageas Bowl should earn him a shot at post-sandpaper redemption, while Khawaja is back after recovering from a hamstring strain. Travis Head is the incumbent at No.5, though Mitchell Marsh may nevertheless feature to provide a fourth-seamer option.
Australia (potential ): 1 David Warner, two Cameron Bancroft, 3 Usman Khawaja, 4 Steve Smith, 5 Travis Head/Mitchell Marsh, 6 Matthew Wade, 7 Tim Paine (capt & wk), 8 Pat Cummins, 9 James Pattinson, 10 Nathan Lyon, 11 Peter Siddle/Josh Hazlewood.
Pitch and conditions
A belter of a pitch is generally at chance at Edgbaston, although the heavy rain that forced the players to train indoors on Tuesday may nevertheless be a element in the final preparation. Either way, it currently appears brown and true – not one of those unnerving live grass that proved such a factor at Lord’s. England, it appears, are putting their faith in their distinctive batch of thick-seamed, heavy-lacquered Dukes balls, rather than the surfaces.
Edgbaston is sold out to the first three days, using a few hundred tickets available for day four. The weather forecast isn’t great, but it should at least be pretty dry (if cool) for the first two days.