The first ever England/Australia Test Series took place in 1876/77 but it didn’t become ‘The Ashes’ until five years later. England were not in the habit of losing back then. Not a single match let alone a series, but in 1882 when the Australians triumphed in one-off test the English press reacted with horror. A mock obituary mourning the death of English cricket was published in the Sporting Times – “The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia” – and The Ashes were born.
Since that day it’s been the name of the most hotly contested and brutal series in world cricket and it all kicks off again in literally a few hours’ time. Typically the build-up is every bit as intense as the contest itself and this series has been no exception. With England the visitors on this occasion the Aussies have made it their business to ensure the ‘Pommies’ – their less than affectionate nickname for the English – are every bit as unnerved and unsettled as humanly possible ahead of the opening ball being bowled at The Gabba in Brisbane.
The rhetoric cranked up considerably in the weeks approaching England’s arrival and, ably assisted by the Australian press, went into overdrive upon the tourists landing on Antipodean soil. The insults have been flowing to and fro with uncanny ease but it’s been left to the normally mild-mannered Aussie spinner Nathan Lyon to deliver the most savage salvo, citing his desire to “end the careers” of some England players during the series. If the words until now have been part of a phoney war, Lyons bullish comments have lit the blue touch paper.
Not content with his wish to force some England stars into retirement, he also spoke of aiming to get England captain Joe Root “dropped” from the England starting XI, of how the English tourists if 2013/14 were “scared”, of how the Aussie’s current pace attack of how Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins are bowling quicker than Mitchell Johnson did in that same series [Johnson blew England away with one of the most destructive bowling displays ever seen] and how England, with or without the services of Ben Stokes, have “no chance” of winning this series.
Lyon’s prophesies may or may not come to fruition but in the unlikely event of anyone forgetting the brutal nature of Australia’s demolition of the English last time out on home soil – they won the series 5-0 – the Aussie spinner made sure that on the eve of the First Test it is now everyone’s first point of reference. Australian coach Darren Lehmann will no doubt consider that particular part of the mission well and truly accomplished.
England meanwhile will be keener to focus on the fact they current hold ‘the Urn’ – the symbolic ‘trophy’ that reportedly contains the ashes of some bails burnt after the 1882/83 series in Australia – having won the most recent series 3-2 on English (and Welsh) soil in 2015.
Unfortunately for the English they know only too well that the conditions under which they triumphed two summers ago will be a far cry from those they are about to encounter in the southern hemisphere and, as loathe as they will be to give even the slightest credence to Lyon’s comments, there are a few parallels between 2013/14 and 2017/18. The ferocious onslaught of pace that began in Brisbane 2013 and continued throughout the whole series courtesy of a fired-up Mitchell Johnson is set to be replicated again this time round in duel format – Starc and Cummings both capable of regularly breaking the 90mph barrier that Johnson hit with such alarming comfort.
With the Australian wickets sure to be of the rock hard, lightening quick and true of bounce variety, the hosts having such pace in their armoury is huge tick in the box for them. England’s attack meanwhile is of a less dynamic nature, instead they rely heavily on the accuracy and invention of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad; the only genuine pace in their attack coming from Chris Woakes, who is considered relatively pedestrian in comparison to the Aussie pace men.
Another uncomfortable parallel for the English is the unsettled nature of their top order. In 2013/14 Jonathan Trott went on that tour but only after having suffered from fatigue and mental pressures at the end of that summer’s Ashes series in England. In hindsight his inclusion on that tour party was an error and he was unable to withstand the strain exerted from all corners in the goldfish bowel of an Australian tour. He went home mid-series and despite making a mini-comeback he never recovered his form and eventually retired from international cricket. Trott’s demise was only part of the story however and he was far from alone in failing at the top of the England batting order; none of them getting even close to coping with the speed and hostility of Johnson.
Other disasters to befall the English in 2013/14 were a mid-tour retirement by experienced spinner Graeme Swann – who cited his body as “no longer liking five day cricket” as the reason for his shock decision – and a series of indiscreet off-the-field rows between coaching staff and senior players, all brought on by the pressure of being constantly outplayed by Johnson and co.
Where it all started to go wrong for England in 2013 and where this time round they’ll be acutely aware of avoiding a repeat, was getting off to a terrible start in Brisbane. After winning the toss and electing to bat Australia struggled to make too much headway in their first innings and were bowled out for a relatively modest 295. The problems only really began for England with the ball in the hand of Johnson – who had previously been a subject of derision by the England fans due to a reputation for wayward bowling – and with him bowling what were known in cricket terms as ’rockets’ the game was quickly turned on its head. After a steady start in which they reached 82-3 they were bowled out for just 136; a set-back from which, in truth, they never recovered. Johnson typically did the damage but with support from other quicks, Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle, and a couple of wickets for Lyon. Australia ended up winning the match by a whopping 381 runs and for England the die was cast.
This week England simply have to make a better start and will know only too well the potential consequences, particularly psychologically, of taking another hammering at the Gabba. To expect a win may be heightening expectations a little too far – England haven’t won in Brisbane since 1986 and Australia haven’t lost there since 1988 – but to emerge with a draw would be viewed as a major fillip for what lies ahead. Even if the worst were to happen and they were to lose it is imperative that it isn’t the soul destroying, morale sapping type of defeat that set the tone in 2013.
It will be a challenge, that much is guaranteed, and faced with a hard, bouncy, true pitched that might just as well have been hand-picked for Starc and Cummings the conditions will be ripe for an all-out pace onslaught at the Aussies look to exploit the weakness at the top of England’s order. The atmosphere too will be bristling and hostile – something that’s a given at the Gabba – and in true Aussie fashion the big names, like Alastair Cook and Joe Root, will be targeted on the basis that if the ‘trophies’ can be neutralised the lesser names will soon follow.
So much for England depends on those opening few hours, minutes even, and as 2013 proved it’s not an over exaggeration to say that the series can be won and lost in the exchanges of those opening sessions.
If, and it remains a big if, England can depart Brisbane with spirit, limbs and confidence intact then an intriguing prospect awaits in Adelaide where, for the first time in men’s Ashes history, there will be a day-night test. For the visitors this, in theory, offers an advantage that is far from the norm in the southern hemisphere, with the prospect of cool evenings and dampness in the air offering Messrs Anderson, Broad and co the rare chance of movement in the air.
Naturally it offers the same advantages to the Australian quicks but it’s something that occurs more naturally in English conditions and therefore is a more natural fit for the England bowlers who rely less on raw, uncontained pace and more on clever line and length, and movement in the air and off the seam. Anderson – England’s all-time highest international wicket-taker – in particular will thrive if offered assistance through the air and will welcome the chance to do Down Under what he does so frequently in the conditions of an English summer.
Adelaide may of course prove anything but advantageous to the tourists but with a pink ball in hand and the prospect of cool, damp evening air, England should head to South Australia with optimism, and a small wager on the sides heading to Perth’s WACA for the Third Test tied at 1-1 is well worthy of consideration.
If, another big if, England do head to Perth with the series all square then the belief of the tourists and the travelling Barmy Army will soar and it really will be a series in the balance.
In terms of the key players, we have already touched upon the Starc/Cummings v Anderson/Broad match up and upon the conclusion of the 5th and final Test in Sydney a telling stat will be which of those two pairings have taken the most wickets. The smart money is naturally on the Aussie duo to win this battle on home soil but with this likely to be Anderson’s Ashes finale the Lancashire man will be desperate to end his battle with the old enemy on a high. The Australian conditions may not give him the help he gets back home but he’s a clever operator who uses length and line to frustrate batsmen and David Warner, the Aussie’s top batsman, who looks to score runs quickly will be in the sights of Anderson. Success, or otherwise, for the Englishman in this particular battle will go a long way in determining the outcome of the series.
The battle of the skippers in another intriguing one. Both bat at number four, both are regarded as their team’s talismanic batmen and both are under pressure. For Root it is his first Ashes series in charge and he will be desperate to avoid going down the Alastair Cook route of 2013/14 where he was successfully targeted by the Australians and rendered ineffectual with the bat. The hosts will of course target him, he knows that, but if he can ride the storm and come out the other side by scoring plenty of runs it will inspire the Englishmen around him.
Smith meanwhile will not want to go down in Australian cricket history as one of the few captains to have lost the Ashes on home soil, and that in itself brings huge pressure. Along with Warner, the Aussie skipper is the team’s go-to guy for runs and if England can keep the pair of them reasonably contained they will give themselves a great chance. Unlike the hosts, the English won’t declare their intention to ‘target’ Smith but without doubt his will be seen as a prize scalp and there will be a plan in place to exploit his natural tendency to move in front of his stumps and play shots on the leg side.
Whoever edges the ‘battle of the skippers’ will have a bearing on the overall outcome.
So, while the Australians begin as favourites, the English are not the rank outsiders the hosts will have you believe. Much depends on the first few sessions of the First Test in Brisbane and if England can withstand the barrage of pace, hostility and verbals that will inevitably come they could set the tone for the rest of the tour. Then it will be game on. If they wilt the Aussies will dominate.
For those tempted by a long shot England to win the series 3-2 is an intriguing 12/1 with Dafabet, the same bookmaker also offering 8/1 for a repeat of the Aussie’s 5-0 whitewash in 2013/14. As far as the top bowler in the series goes, Pat Cummings at 4/1 looks interesting, as does Jonny Bairstow at 6/1 to be the leading runscorer.