There is no denying the significance of the Ashes. It is perhaps the biggest cricketing extravaganza after the World Cup. The tournament, played between England and Australia, had its origin more than 100 years ago and the name 'Ashes' stuck to their rivalry when Australia went to England in 1882 and defeated them. Later, the British newspaper The Sporting Times published an obituary stating English cricket had died. Their subsequent series was being dubbed as the one to regain the ashes of English cricket.
It's 2017 and the battle between two of cricket's oldest rivals is still going strong. This time, England are in Australia to defend the urn that they won two years back. Playing at home, Australia under Steve Smith are favourites on paper, but England would be taking them on after a good summer, having beaten both South Africa and the Windies at home.
With the first Test slated to begin on Thursday at the Gabba, we take a look at some of the players from both the teams who can make an impact:
If Joe Root is playing a cricket match, it's mandatory to put his name as one of the players who can make an impact. The England captain is the best batsman in his team and if England have any ambition of beating Australia Down Under, Root has to play a major role.
The man from Yorkshire boasts of an average of 53 in 60 Tests and he has been among the runs in the pre Ashes warm-up games. His batting abilities are known to everyone, but it will be interesting to see his captaincy methods in his first Ashes series as the leader of the pack. We got a glimpse of his leadership role against South Africa and the Windies during the English summer, but captaining the team in the Ashes can be termed as his real test.
Root also has some score to settle in Australia. The last time he played the Ashes in Australia, his team suffered a 0-5 drubbing and due to his form, he was dropped from the final Test. He calls that moment as "hitting rock bottom", and would be hoping to have better memories this time around. Root's runs and his captaincy can be England's big weapons in this series.
The fast bowler's wicket-taking abilities are world-renowned. However, what really makes Anderson dangerous is his vast experience. Anderson will be playing the Ashes for the fourth time in Australia, and that is why he holds the key in England's bowling attack. He might be 35-years-old at the moment, but Australia just cannot afford to take him lightly. It looks like age has not hampered Anderson's form at all, considering he took 20 wickets in four Tests against South Africa and followed that up with 19 against the Windies in three Tests.
Anderson's bowling average in Australia is not an eye-pleasing one (38.44), but that doesn't mean he's not a threat to the Aussies. England's best bet to rattle the Aussies in their own backyard is Anderson. Root would be hoping that his premium fast-bowler and team's vice-captain lives up to his expectation. This might also be the last time Anderson will play in Australia wearing the whites, so the Lancashire pacer will try to make the series memorable.
Stoneman might be a newcomer to the international arena but he has plenty of first-class experience under his belt. He made his debut for England against the Windies earlier this year and scored a decent half-century in the Leeds Test. Not that it's enough to put his name in the 'players who can make an impact' list, but he has shown fine form in the warm-up matches ahead of the Ashes. He batted four times in the warm-up games, and each time he has scored a fifty or more.
It's true that the bowling attack in the practice matches was not of the same class as the one that has Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins in its ranks, but it showed that Stoneman was in the right frame of mind. Batting in Australia is not all about talent and skills, it is also about the state of mind. If a batsman is coming into the series with runs behind his back and riding high on confidence then his chances of making an impact increases.
"Stoneman has obviously been our most consistent," England head coach Trevor Bayliss said. "He looks like a player that’s made for this. He’s tough little nuggety player who likes to get on with it when he’s got the opportunity," Bayliss added. England's team management are backing the southpaw to come good against the Aussies, and he certainly has the ability to make an impact in the series.
How can we ignore Starc when we are speaking about the Ashes, bowlers, and impact players? The left-arm pacer is one of the best in the world and Australia will depend a lot on him during the course of the series.
The 27-year-old has been in terrific form off late, capturing 17 wickets for New South Wales in his two Sheffield Shield matches. He also made history when he became the first bowler to complete two hat-tricks in the same Shield match, against Western Australia, and is only the eighth player to do it in a first-class game.
The pacy pitches in Australia are tailor-made for him and he will exploit the bounce on the tracks to the best of his abilities. England's batting line-up include many a newcomer playing their first Ashes, who would understandably be feeling the pressure, and the prospect of facing Starc is likely to benefit the home team.
"He's (Starc) definitely got it in him. I've just spent some time with him. He's bowling fast," former Australian fast-bowler Ryan Harris said. "He probably had a little bit of an issue over the last few months with not swinging the ball as much as he'd like. But giving him that red ball, he's probably as consistent as I've seen him for a while as well."
Here's a fact or two about the Australia captain. Smith has a Test batting average of nearly 60 in 56 Tests. When playing in Australia, that average shoots up to nearly 69. Such has been his form in the past year or two that he's ranked the No 1 Test batsman, with 936 points in his pocket. There's no doubt that the majority of England bowlers' plans will be centred on Smith.
Smith's runs are crucial for Australia if they want to regain the urn. He usually leads by example but this time the pressure is more. The team will look up to him in tough times, and he can't afford to lose his form in such an important series.
There is also a considerable amount of criticism about Smith and the team management because of the kind of squad they have chosen for the first two Tests. Spin legend Shane Warne said: "Australia look confused", while another former leg-spinner Stuart MacGill termed the selectors as "morons". So skipper Smith has a point or two to prove and if he gets the runs, his team are guaranteed to be in a good position.
The reason for including Bancroft and not David Warner is the intention to look at players beyond the obvious ones. Bancroft selection came as a surprise because regular opener Matt Renshaw was dropped owing to poor Sheffield Shield form. And talking about the Sheffield Shield, Bancroft's form in the tournament made it impossible for the selectors to ignore him. In three Shield games, the 24-year-old scored 442 runs at 110.50, including an unbeaten 228 for Western Australia in their match against South Australia.
Just like Stoneman, Bancroft will go into the Ashes high on confidence and that might make a difference. Playing at home, Bancroft will know about the conditions and with form by his side, he can prove to be costly for England. Bancroft's cool and composed attitude will complement well with the fiery Warner. If both players can get Australia off to a start then England's comeback will become a daunting task.