Australia

Extreme Ashes rivalry exposed

A deep roar rumbles around the Gabba. Summer has arrived. England are here.

Thousands of eager fans will pour up Brisbane’s Vulture Street toward the Gabba on Thursday morning for the first Ashes Test. Sweaty from the moist morning heat, the punters will gather in bars around the ground and resume endless predictions and debates about what will unfold throughout the series.

At this point, opposing fans might as well be different species. You only have to explore the comments on popular cricket pages to see the extremity inspired by the Ashes rivalry.

Some fans are certain of their opponent’s flaws and equally sure of their own nation’s superiority in every measure, but they’ve all imagined the catastrophy of losing the Ashes. Nihilistic thought is soon overtaken by the sense of occassion.

On the first morning in Brisbane, ice cold amber liquid flows from frosty taps and the pubs roar with arguments, laughter and reflections on past series.

Fans share their confidence, optimism and insecurity.

Inside the ground the GABBA’s smooth and shiny pitch lay uncovered, absorbing the morning’s sparkling sun. Its lightening fast surface awaits the anxious players, who in turn hear the rising chorus from outside the ground.

The toss of the coin approaches. It’s time to go in.

The first morning in Brisbane is a cultural icon. Cut into the late Australian spring, it signals the shift to summer’s bush fires, hail storms, cyclones and Test cricket.

Brisbane’s cricket ground is a graveyard for visiting teams. Australia haven’t lost a Test Match there since 1988. Twenty eight consecutive matches have passed without defeat.

It’s the GABBATOIR and by late-afternoon on the first day, it will be a cauldron of fire.

Lubricated by thousands of litres beer, the outer will be rocking. Especially if English wickets are falling at the hands of Australia’s formidable fast bowling attack.

Equally possible is the prospect of tumbling Australian wickets. Batting collapses are now as frequent as Steve Smith hundreds. Warner’s runs are vital but if Smith has a bad series, Australia will struggle.

Same for England. If Root fails, who gets runs?

England’s all time leading Test run scorer, Alistair Cook, has a big job. He must occupy the crease for long periods, protect the softish middle order and force Australia’s injury prone fast bowlers to toil away for long spells.

On the whole, this is a contest between two relatively ordinary sides. That will be good for neutral spectators. It might be low quality, but highly unpredictable and entertaining.

With Root, Cook, Stuart Broad and England’s all time leading wicket taker, Jimmy Anderson, the touring side has proven quality. But it’s the last tour for three of that four. Can they rise again?

If Ben Stokes does indeed join Moeen Ali in the middle order at some point this series, England’s spine would look tougher than Australia’s.

Have the Australian selectors got it right with Shaun Marsh and Tim Paine? Will Usman Khawaja and Peter Handscomb deliver?

Runs at the death will be invaluable. Whose tail will wag the most?

It could be a tight series. We haven’t had one Australia for decades.

From here. Both sides can win. Lower scores and dramatic fourth innings run chases will feature and the victor shall be the side with the greatest resilience to withstand frantic periods of intense battle.

Australia 3-2?

Ashes Series Selection Dilemma: Fitting 14 into 11

Australian selectors have one heck of a job picking 11 blokes to face England at Sophia Gardens. Contention rages over the middle order and the bowling attack but unlike 2009 or 2013 these are good problems; at least 14 guys make a good case for the Cardiff Test.

An almost leisurely two nil victory in the Caribbean confirmed two theories and uncovered another; Steve Smith is becoming one of the best batsman Australia has produced in over a decade, Australia’s fast bowling is lethal and Adam Voges is a capable dark horse. Perhaps a fourth note should be added, Shane Watson continues to pour on the match-winning 25s.

The Aussies begin with two four day tour matches and the first starts on 25 June at Kent followed by Essex at Chelmsford. This gives the players and selectors an opportunity to perform and assess.

Here’s a wrap of the Aussie touring party.

Certainty at the top

Chris Rogers missed two Tests in the Caribbean due to concussion but he surely returns to partner David Warner.

Steve Smith is Australia’s tenth number 3 since 2011 and – at 26 with an average of 56 and scores of 97, 162*, 52*, 133, 28, 192, 14, 117, 71, 25, 5*, 199 & 54* in his last 13 innings – could be the last number 3 Australia will need until about 2025.

Michael Clarke is determined to be the first captain to win in England since Steve Waugh in 2001.

The middle candidates

Shaun Marsh scored a ton on debut in 2011. Couldn’t get off the mark in several subsequent innings and was dropped. Came back in 2014 and has scores of 32, 17, 32, 99, 73 & 1 at number 5 against India and 19, 13*, 11 & 69 against West Indies filling at opener.

Adam Voges plundered a ton on debut against the West Indies. Voges’ selection baffled punters who’d prefer a younger talent but at 35 and with 11000 First Class runs at 46, Voges adds steel to Australia’s squad. After 14 years without a win in England this is not a series about blooding talent.

Mitchell Marsh was promising with the bat in the Tests he played against Pakistan and India and is unspectacular, although talented, with the ball.

Shane Watson… um. There’s still a strong chance he’ll play a key role in this series. He’s a great slips fielder. Every team needs one!

Wicket-keepers

Cricket Froth was convinced Brad Haddin would retire at the end of the summer. But at 37 Hads is keen as mustard to win a series in England. His presence is a huge asset for Australia. Opponents hate him; he brings the needle to this Aussie team (along with Watson from behind the stumps) and won’t be moved an inch by a combative English media or parochial home crowds. Peter Neville is Haddin’s capable back-up.

The bowlers

There’s only one thing as certain as the force of gravity on planet earth; Ryan Harris will play every single Test match in England if he is fit.

Splitting the rest is probably the most difficult task for selectors. Mitch Johnson murdered England last time and is in solid form. Mitch Starc swung the Duke a mile in the Caribbean and was lethal in the world cup and Josh Hazlewood has looked the part since hitting the Test scene. All these blokes bowl between 140-150kph and then there’s Peter Siddle, a proven workhorse who’s dropped to 5 in the pecking order.

In one sense the ECB could be expected to kill the local pitches to negate this ferocious attack, but England does not have a frontline spinner. Whatever is done to tame pitches for Australia’s fast bowlers will have equal effect on the hosts.

Nathan Lyon will be needed as Australia seems reluctant to play four fast bowlers. Victorian leg spinner Fawad Ahmed is the 17th man on tour and could be a trump card if a real turning pitch shows up.

In a strange video coming out of Dominica in the West Indies the Aussies revealed that pickle juice is used widely by players as a highly regarded cure for muscle cramps. See the Cricket Australia video here: http://www.cricket.com.au/video/chris-rogers-video-blog-pickle-juice-dehydration-west-indies-test-series-bupa/2015-06-19