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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Ashes 2017/18: As Australia host England, some things have changed but some things remain the same

Ahead of the latest iteration of cricket's oldest bilateral series, here are Paul Radley's five talking points

The first Ashes Test starts at Brisbane on Thursday. Ryan Pierse / Getty Images
The first Ashes Test starts at Brisbane on Thursday. Ryan Pierse / Getty Images

Given all the problems they have faced in the build up to the Ashes, which starts in Brisbane on Thursday, it is easy to forget England actually still hold the urn, after winning the series with a match to spare at home last year.

Much has changed since Mark Wood and Ben Stokes starred in that series-clinching win at Trent Bridge in 2015. Some things, though, will apparently always stay the same ...

Phoney war

Verbal jousting before and during an Ashes series is hardly new. Some of the latest fare has felt especially classless, though.

Nathan Lyon – played three Ashes series, lost two – spouted the ambition of wanting to end England players’ careers. And he called out Matthew Prior for apparently being “scared” and wanting to go home early last time in Australia.

Prior, the former England wicketkeeper, hit back on social media. “You’ve embarrassed yourself [Lyon] and this game has a funny way of biting back,” Prior tweeted.

Stokes, trying and perhaps failing to maintain a low profile while waiting on a police investigation to see whether he can play at all, also nibbled at comments by former Australia opener Matthew Hayden.

“Hayden says he doesn't know who half our squad is … only 2 from the squad haven't played at International level ... he's a cricket pundit yeah?” the absent England all-rounder wrote on Twitter.

Alastair Cook is not on social media. “It becomes a normal series after the first two hours, then everyone starts to talk about the cricket again,” the England opener said, sagely.

Key players, not keyboard warriors

All the antagonism has distracted from the fact the Ashes is played in cricket grounds rather than cyberspace.

Whose prospects are brightest? Australia are strongly favoured by most pundits, but in truth both sides are flawed.

Australia’s selectors might have pulled off a masterstroke with some of the left-field selections they have gone with for the first Test. Time will tell.

But the response home supporters gave to the news Australia had solved their Matthew Wade v Peter Nevill wicketkeeper conundrum by picking Tim Paine instead at least provided a pick-me-up to the hitherto beleaguered visitors.

The home side have two players – Steve Smith and David Warner – in the top six of the world rankings for Test batsmen. Other than that, there appears to be little for England’s experienced bowling attack to fear.

Tim Paine will be Australia's wicketkeeper at the Gabba. Chris Hyde / Getty Images
Tim Paine will be Australia's wicketkeeper at the Gabba. Chris Hyde / Getty Images

Bowling mores

The away side’s new-ball attack of James Anderson and Stuart Broad have 894 Test wickets between them.

The five pace bowlers named in the Australia squad for the first two Tests have far fewer than half of that total between them.

And yet few batsmen around the world would likely choose to face Australia’s attack over England’s – at least from the standpoint of physical safety.

As Lyon succinctly pointed out, the hosts have twice the fire power they did last time the sides met.

“I was sitting there, thinking: I could die here,” Kevin Pietersen later wrote of facing Mitchell Johnson at the Gabba in 2013.

Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc could be just as fiery as Johnson was back then when the action starts on Thursday.

Mitchell Starc, right, will be a challenge for the England batsmen. Chris Hyde / Getty Images
Mitchell Starc, right, will be a challenge for the England batsmen. Chris Hyde / Getty Images

Opening gambits

Much was made of the fact Mark Stoneman was unknown to the Australian public when he arrived for his first Ashes tour. But is that really such a surprise?

Could any people in England, by contrast, pick Cameron Bancroft, the new Australia opener, out of a line up?

And Joe Nobody has shaped up OK so far. Stoneman has passed 50 on each of his four trips to the wicket so far in his debut England series in Australia.

The Surrey left-hander is the 12th opening partner Cook has had in the five years since Andrew Strauss retired.

Australia’s top order is no more settled. Bancroft’s arrival means it is the sixth time in the past seven seasons that Warner has started the Australian season with a new opening partner.

Mark Stoneman has been consistent on the tour down under so far. Ryan Pierse / Getty Images
Mark Stoneman has been consistent on the tour down under so far. Ryan Pierse / Getty Images

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Twist in the tail

There was good reason for the feeling of foreboding England supporters felt at the start of the tour.

Stokes was absent for reasons other than cricket. Wood was not trusted to remain fit for action for the duration of a tour. Steven Finn went home injured before bowling a ball.

That is the sort of shemozzle that had pre-empted many an Ashes hiding in the past.

And yet it is not beyond the realms of possibility than any of those players could yet play a role in the series.

Stokes would likely be recalled pending a favourable outcome to the police investigation. Wood is already in Brisbane, as part of the England second string squad shadowing the first team.

Neither will have given up on another slice of Ashes history.