The waiting game is almost over, and after a seemingly endless build up, attention can finally turn to action on the cricket field, as Australia prepares to host its oldest and most intense rival, England, in a five match Ashes series.
The venue for the first test, staring tomorrow, is the Brisbane Cricket Ground in the suburb of Woolloongabba, Brisbane. Not many people call it that though – it is to all cricket fans simply the Gabba, or to nascent cricket journalists looking for a catchy tag-line, the Gabbatoir, owing to Australia’s enviable record at the ground. And it is this record more than anything that will have England worried as they look to start their defence of the Ashes they won at home in 2015 – Australia have won 63% of the 59 tests they have played at the ground, and England have only ever won there four times in 20 attempts.
England of course have the much better recent record in matches between the two teams – that 2015 win being one of four of the last five Ashes series that England have won, with the hosts only win in that period a 5-0 drubbing in 2013/14 which left England rattled and shorn of many of its established stars. The Australian media, and even the most mild-mannered of their players, are making great talk of repeating this series and opening up scars of old English wounds, but if the truth be told these are two almost completely different sides, with few player remaining in either side from that encounter. What psychological damage lingers from four years ago remains to be seen, but Australia have set themselves up in their fans’ eyes as strong favourites with a win over the old enemy almost certain. They will hope they can walk the Ashes walk as well as they can talk the talk, otherwise egg will very much be on Antipodean faces.
It’s not doubted that both squads have their fair share of inexperience to them. England have no fewer than five uncapped players in their 17-man squad (Mason Crane, Sam Curran, Ben Foakes, George Garton and Craig Overton) with the bowling looking especially vulnerable to any injury to the first choice starting arsenal. That said, they have three players in the squad with over 100 caps each, and will hope that the mix of seasoned old-hands and fresh-faced exuberance will be one that can carry them forward.
Australia for their part have sprung a host of last-minute selection surprises – dropping opening batsman Matt Renshaw (depriving him of a chance to play against the country of his birth) in favour of uncapped Cameron Bancroft as well as recalling Shaun Marsh to the middle order for his ninth (yes, ninth…ninth!) attempt at proving he is worthy of a test place. The biggest surprise was probably the recalling of Tim Paine as wicketkeeper after several years in the wilderness. The Australian selectors have copped a bit of flak in the rabid local press, so there is reason to be nervous for the hosts too.
Both sides have also been in indifferent and inconsistent form in Tests over the last two years. Australia, ranked fifth in the ICC rankings, have won only one of their last five Test series, losing at home to South Africa and away to Sri Lanka and India. England (ranked third) while winning their last two series at home against the West Indies and South Africa, also lost heavily to India. Both sides have recent test defeats to Bangladesh to be proud of.
So, aside from home advantage, there is actually very little to choose between two middle-ranking teams in transition. Both bowling attacks are reasonably settled, both batting line-ups anything but. So all will come down to who steps up when it matters when the bats and ball finally get their chance to do the talking.
Whilst the main prize will of course be first blood in the battle for that famous 3-and-a half inch high urn, and the bragging rights that go with it for the next two years, there are plenty of individual milestones are stats to keep a watch out for:
Alastair Cook (England)
Former skipper Cook, winner of three Ashes series so far, has 11,629 test runs to his name from his 147 tests. The runs total puts him ninth in the all-time world listings, 185 runs behind Sri Lanka’s master-batsman Mahela Jayawardene in eighth place. How he would love to take a huge stride towards that target at the Gabba.
To do so, he would most likely need his 31st test century, and if he were to notch up a tonne in Brisbane he would move into the world top ten for that particular stat too, alongside Steve Waugh, erstwhile captain of the hosts.
Cookie has also scored 14,894 runs in all formats of international cricket, needing just 106 more to break the 15,000 barrier.
Jimmy Anderson (England)
England’s leading all-time wicket-taker has 506 test scalps so far, and 793 in all international formats, so will be on the prowl looking for seven more victims of his vicious swinging balls to bring up 800 wickets.
Stuart Broad (England)
Second only to Jimmy in England’s all time wicket-takers list is Australian fan-favourite Broad with 388 wickets. What price 12 more at the Gabba to become only the 14th bowler in Test history to take 400?
Steven Smith (Australia)
Ranked number one Test batsman in the world, just ahead of his English counterpart Joe Root, captain Smith already has a mightily impressive 20 Test centuries to his name. one more will move him up alongside David Boon and Neil Harvey into Australia’s all time top ten century-maker rankings.
David Warner (Australia)
When he’s not running his mouth off to the press declaring war on England, vice-captain Warner is also quite adept at running between the wickets, and has also notched up 20 Test centuries, so he too will be eyeing a top ten spot.