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The 72nd Ashes Series

by Neil Burns

On Wednesday December 8th at the Gabba in Brisbane, the 72nd Ashe series begins. Previously, Australia has won 33 times, England 32, and there has been 6 drawn series.

Can England win? In my opinion, it’s possible, but highly unlikely. I think it is more likely they will receive a heavy beating and the consequence will be the end of Joe Root’s career as England test captain. 

Dis-ruption:

This Ashes Series may be the most eagerly-awaited yet most-disrupted preparation in advance of the first ball being bowled.

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Provided the rains and the pandemic hold off for a few more days, elite cricket can return to the lives of Australians and English folk.

England’s attempt to regain the Ashes over the next 7 weeks in Australia against a backdrop of off-field problems that have engulfed the Cricket Boards of both nations.

My sense is that Australia will be triumphant by the time the final test of the series is completed in early January at The Sydney Cricket Ground because of the disruption their pace bowlers (and Nathan Lyon) will create for England’s batting line up. Only Joe root and Ben Stokes are proven star players in Ashes series and this isn’t likely to be enough against such a strong Australian bowling attack.  Once England’s team begins to chop and change and new batsmen get tried in key positions (1,2,3) then the game will be up.

The key to any possible England series-winning success is a strong start. Similarly, the key to avoiding potential humiliation in the series is to prevent defeat (especially heavy defeat) too.

The Wollongabba Cricket Ground Brisbane:

Home of Queensland Cricket, The ‘Gabba has seen England win once in the past 35 years – a time when Sir Ian Botham’s destructiveness with the bat and his influence as an all rounder inspired others around him. Perhaps Ben Stokes can do the same for the present England team in Australia?

There is a reason why Cricket Australia starts test series for overseas touring teams in Brisbane – the pitch, the crowd, and the climatic conditions are difficult to adapt to. Touring teams tend to go 1-0 down! 

Down the years, Brisbane has provided some horrific moments which have represented microcosms of a deeper malaise in the England team’s psyche at the time. Nasser Hussain’s bizarre decision to bowl in 2002 (when all evidence suggested ‘bat first’) on winning the toss as the visiting England captain, Australia reached 364-2 at the close of play on Day1. Fundamentally, Nasser didn’t ‘fancy’ his batsmen and wanted to protect them against the possibility of being knocked over cheaply in the first innings of a new series.

England hadn’t won a toss in Australia in the first match of an Ashes series for 30 years – and here was Hussain giving up the advantage in seconds of madness.

Off-field Challenges:

It has been an unsavoury period for the game. Navigating complex issues – especially when legal processes are to the fore – is far from easy. But, I am no fan of virtue-signalling by administrators for the purpose of trying to ‘look good’ rather than individual and collective leadership driven by a values-based approach to its’ raison d’etre.

Dealing with the on-going challenges provided by a sporting landscape with big money involved, significant media involvement impacting most activity, and governance in a sporting world with an increasingly corporate approach.

However, experienced (or god) any administrator is, the individual is always happy when the major matches are being played because it switches the focus to the unfolding drama on the pitch, not off it. And from Wednesday onwards, the administrators will breathing huge sighs of relief – unless of course the players return to on-field indiscretions which create major international tremors. Bodyline is ‘a ghost’ that reminds people what can happen when sport seemingly gets ‘out of hand’.   

Key Battles:

Broad v Warner

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Stuart broad has been a superb international cricketer for a long while. His record is most impressive, and his performances in Australia previously highlight his ability to deal with the unique challenges of performing in such a hostile space.

In England during the last ashes series, Broad totally dominated the brilliant David Warner his status to that of ‘a walking wicket’. Can this psychological hold over Warner continue to play out in Australia? Maybe.

James Anderson v James Anderson:

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If James Anderson’s ageing body can hold up over a 5 match concentrated test match series, England has a chance. My fear is that it won’t. England’s greatest bowler and leading wicket-taker has tended to bowl at his best when coming in to test series off the back of a strong preparation phase which has included plenty of overs in the middle. This Ashes Series has offered little or no cricket.

Steve Smith v England Bowlers;

The former captain of Australia has returned to elite cricket after his ban and resumed his input as a batsman of class and has now been offered the vice-captaincy too, following Pat Cummins elevation to the role of test match captain after the resignation of Tim Paine.

Smith has dominated England’s bowlers for many years and the psychological scarring may run too deep for some of them to be effective against him over the course of a test match series in Australia. The ‘batsmen-friendly’ pitches and hot weather conditions makes Australia ‘a graveyard’ for many visiting bowlers.

If England’s attack cannot find a way to get the Kookaburra ball to move beyond the initial 20 overs, and if the Australian openers protect Smith form the new ball, then I fear England may experience the sight of Steve Smith making several big centuries to ‘tee up’ victories for his country.

Wild Card Influences:

Can Ollie Robinson, Jack Leach, Dom Bess, Haseeb Hameed, Zak Crawley or Olly Pope excel in a number of innings across the series to influence the overall result? Can Dawid Malan play to a high standard in most matches and become a contender for Man of the series? I hope so.

But, history shows that few England ‘rookies’ dominate Ashes series away from home. Chris Broad was one example of a batsman who ‘bucked the trend’ in 1986/7. England won the Ashes off the back of his 3 consecutive centuries. Can Malan be that player this time around? Or will Yorkshire’s Jonny Bairstow bring his ‘A game’ to the test arena and dominate the contest with his aggression and attacking strokeplay? 

Can the brilliant Jos Buttler prove his class in the format which has (to date) proved most difficult for him to prove his all round worth as a cricketer? Or, will this Ashes tour see the end of a test career which promised so much but ultimately proves he is best suited to white-ball cricket exclusively.

Experienced performers are the individuals who need to play at their best if visiting teams are to emerge victorious.   

England, Bio-secure Bubbles & Family Life:

The modern professional cricketer has become accustomed to living in bio-secure bubbles and dealing with the challenges of COVID-19 testing procedures.

However, this doesn’t mean it has been an easy process to contend with. Over time, there can be an accumulation of mental fatigue and touring parties need to rely on more than technical and tactical excellence to succeed in winning test match series.

Team spirit is vital. And that is harder to create, and maintain, without the freedom to go out and socialise as well as live freely in the assigned team room in designated hotels.

Without the love and support of families, and without the benefits of a strong team spirit, defeats on tour can be very hard to take. I fear the worst for England if they start poorly in Brisbane and if they aren’t able to play to their full potential in Adelaide where the pink ball and floodlit conditions offer them their best chance of success.

In Conclusion:

Hold on tight! It could be a bumpy ride over the next seven weeks!

Here’s hoping I am wrong…

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