It’s here. The moment we’ve all been waiting on. The Ashes. No, not the Women’s Ashes that just finished, this is the real Ashes, the Men’s Ashes, as we can now call it. It is doubling as the first test in the official Test Championship, now with points for wins, losses and draws. The winner of this test, presuming there is a winner, will be officially the best team in the world, and the loser will be the second best.
There’s been just enough time for us to get over the tied World Cup final, and, for those who followed it, just enough time to get over Ireland’s shock near-win over England. For Australia, the greater shock is that we’ve actually picked Cameron Bancroft, at least in the squad of 17.
Australia have picked 17 and England 14, and that’s just for the first test. Australia had a probables squad of 25, which itself was a minor shock in that it didn’t include Glenn Maxwell, with the major shock in the final 17 being the inclusion of Cameron Bancroft, especially given that Kurtis Patterson, with a test batting average of 141.00, has been left out, one of two centurions the last time Australia played, along with Joe Burns, who didn’t make the cut. At least the third one, Marcus Harris, made the cut, but there is talk that he might not make the final XI, as Cameron Bancroft may be preferred.
For England, the big news is that they have included Jofra Archer, who, if he plays the first test, will be making his debut. There is no guarantee that he will play, though, as he is one of two bowlers included from the side that beat Ireland, with James Anderson the other one. Even though top-scorer Jack Leach was left out of the squad, his spot will presumably go to Anderson and Archer may have to wait another game.
Most of Australia’s team looks fairly predictable with just three spots up for grabs: the second opening spot behind David Warner; Usman Khawaja’s middle order position if he is not fit; and the third fast bowling position. For the first of these spots Marcus Harris is the overwhelming favourite, but Cameron Bancroft is a chance; if Usman Khawaja doesn’t get fit in time, his position is likely to be filled by Matthew Wade; while it seems, incredibly, that it is out of Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood for the third and final fast bowling position, with James Pattinson seemingly a certain starter.
Australian XI (probable): David Warner, Marcus Harris, Steve Smith, Travis Head, Marnus Labuschagne, Matthew Wade, Tim Paine (c) (wk), Pat Cummins, James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon
For England, there are potentially four players coming back in, with Jos Buttler, James Anderson, Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer being added to the squad from the one that defeated Ireland, with just Jack Leach left out. If all four were to play, then the likely ones to miss out are Joe Denly, Olly Stone and Jack Leach and that’s probably it, which essentially means that for Archer to play then they would need to leave out man of the match Sam Curran or risk going in without a spin bowler on a deck that traditionally takes spin. It looks to me more likely that Jofra Archer will miss out. There is no guarantee that Buttler will play either, and it looks like Denly has probably done enough to keep his spot.
England XI (probable): Jason Roy, Rory Burns, Joe Denly, Joe Root (c), Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow (wk), Chris Woakes, Moeen Ali, Sam Curran, Stuart Broad, James Anderson
Pitch and Conditions:
Edgbaston is one of few grounds in the world with no discernible advantage based on who bats first, making the toss largely irrelevant. The problem for Australia is that this is one of England’s best grounds, having won the last four tests in a row there dating back to 2015. They are 6-0 in their last eight tests, with two draws, their last loss coming all the way back in 2008.
As for Australia, they have lost two matches at this ground, with their last win way back in the glory days of 2001, though that was a big one, where Australia won by an innings. This is the ground where we had one of the all-time best test matches in 2005, when Australia lost by 2 runs.
That match was decided, ultimately, by an umpiring error, when the last Australian batsman, Michael Kasprowicz, was incorrectly given out when the ball hit his hand when it was not attached to the bat. It didn’t stop England celebrating their first series win over Australia for 16 years, though. That’s this ground.
Crowd and player behaviour:
Ashes tests always get their fair share of sledging from players and taunts from the crowd, and England’s players and administrators have said that they plan for this to continue, in spite of calls by Virat Kohli and Sarafraz Ahmed during the World Cup not to do it. With David Warner and Steve Smith both in supreme form, and both clearly upset by the taunting during the World Cup, expect that to continue, as they will be booed when they walk out to bat, when they hit a boundary, and just about every other occasion. If Cameron Bancroft ends up playing, which is an outside chance of happening, it will intensify significantly.
Whether it gets out of control is another issue entirely, but David Warner has not historically been very good with being able to handle such taunting and sledging so the potential for a blow-up is large. It is also notable that Bancroft has not made amends with Warner or Smith. While Warner and Smith have made up with each other, and with everyone else, there have been no public statements whatsoever made by Bancroft or by the other two, so there is a very real chance that they might turn on each other if they end up batting together, and there is a very real possibility that they could be Australia’s top 3.
David Warner won three man of the match awards in the World Cup and was magnificent in the IPL, and, if he can be half that good in the test, then he could well be Australia’s best player. He was a long way behind Smith as at when the ban came but right now it is Warner who is in the better form, and in many ways he looked like he was playing test match cricket in the World Cup anyway, with his slow batting.
Steve Smith is still a major player for Australia, and you don’t average 60 in tests for nothing. He is one of the “fab 4”, along with Root, Kohli and Williamson, and he will be keen to show that, at least in tests, he is the number one. It will be his first test for over a year and his first test playing under a captain for many more years than that. His form during the ban has been far more consistent than Warner’s, and we can expect some big runs there.
James Pattinson is a big in for Australia, and, incredibly, he looks set to split the big three of Australia’s bowling stocks, with Josh Hazlewood most likely to be the one to miss out. He’ll have to do pretty well to impress but, if his form before his injuries first struck in 2013 are anything to go by, then he could spell some major headaches for England, and few in their side will have any idea how to deal with him.
Joe Root continues to be England’s big player, and he will do so here. He is the rock that England revolves around, allowing them to play just 4 specialist batsmen, then the wicket keeper and all-rounders, which is an incredible thought. We could be in a situation where only Burns, Roy, Denly and Root play as batsmen, with Bairstow at five and all-rounder Stokes at six. Given how weak the other three batsmen are at test level, Root’s performance will be make or break for England.
Sam Curran was the man of the match against Ireland and is in great batting and bowling form, but whether he can continue that against Australia is another issue entirely.
Chris Woakes had an incredible bowling effort against Ireland and was pretty good with batting too, and he could be a handful.
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Five Fearless Predictions:
(1) Australia will bat first – Winning the toss and batting is generally what you do when you play test matches, but at Edgbaston it doesn’t really matter, so England will likely want to show off their bowlers, who managed to bowl Ireland out for just 38 runs in their last test. They will also be keen to put the returning Smith and Warner under pressure with some fierce bowling and sledging, and England will be hoping that Bancroft plays as well. Australia will likely bat first if they win the toss too, in spite of that fear, as you usually like to bat first in tests. Australia might choose to bowl first to avoid the sledging, but that would be a weak way to approach things and seems unlikely.
(2) England will sledge like crazy – If you think that England will agree to “not boo Smith”, you’d be foolish. Not only will England’s crowd do it, but the players will too. They undoubtedly have a number of jokes lined up to get under the Australian players’ skins, especially if Bancroft plays. If Warner is opening with Bancroft, expect a comment to Bancroft not to be too scared of Warner, and a comment to Warner not to go around bullying his opening partner. Expect Smith to get a comment along the lines of “so it wasn’t sticky tape, then?” and, of course, there will be comments talking about sandpaper and sunglasses cases. There are dozens of jokes they could make, and expect at least a few of them to come out. For spectators, in many ways this will be the most exciting part of the match. Let’s hope that the stump mike catches it!
(3) Chris Woakes is going to terrorise – He was great against Ireland and it didn’t feel like it was because they were a weaker team. He is in tip-top form and is going to be pretty hard for Australia to handle.
(4) Matthew Wade is going to be big – I am expecting him to play and to go big. It’s a big deal for him and he is going to have a lot to prove, plus he is in some incredible form. He was Australia’s test wicket keeper only a couple of years ago and to come back as a batsman is a big deal.
(5) England will win – England are in some great form, have the emotional boost of winning the World Cup, and Edgbaston is a great ground for them. Australia’s lead-up has been less than ideal, with no warm-up games other than an intra-squad game, having 25 players then cut down to 17, which is still a pretty bloated squad, and it was announced far too late.
The last time Australia had this many probables and were this late in announcing their side was in the infamous 2010/11 Ashes, when Australia lost at home to England, something that was bad enough that it led to the Argus Review. Indeed, Australia were still doing reviews as a result of that right up until the ball-tampering, when different kinds of reviews started happening. It feels in a lot of ways like an experiment for Australia. It might be good long-term but for this test it seems unlikely. But you never know. Maybe Australia can do something amazing and win this. Fingers crossed!