Brisbane: There is certainly a buzz around Brisbane. The Ashes is about to start, the English flags have been hoisted across walls in some of the renowned pubs in the city centre and the Barmy Army are starting to congregate around the city’s favourite watering holes. For the locals, they just cannot wait for their fast bowlers to hurl that first bouncer at the English batsmen.
At a time when many believe Test cricket is declining sharply, the Ashes still creates that positive vibe and interest. In Australia, the Ashes is still ranked as the pinnacle of cricket and kids still emulate thrashing the ‘English’ in a game of backyard cricket.
Deflating the English on Australian soil has become a habit in recent times. For the last 30 years, it has almost become second nature to thump the English on their home soil. Australia has won 24 out of 36 encounters, losing just six with the remaining games being drawn.
The most resounding thumping came four years ago, when Mitchell Johnson re-galvanised the art of fast bowling on the hard, fast and bouncy Australian pitches.
Bowlers the key to success
This series is about replicating the five-nil whitewash from 2013-14. The expectation amongst the public is high, especially, given that the current bowling line-up has been touted as the most fearful in Ashes history. Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins’ thunderbolts are tipped to cause havoc and strike fear in the visiting batsmen.
But if Australia are to replicate the heroics from four years ago, the bowlers need to prove they can perform as a group rather than just relying on pure intimidation.
It is no secret that the hosts will attack England with their pace bowlers. Starc and Cummins will be the aggressors, bowling short, sharp bursts and going for the jugular, while, Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon will fulfil the holding role.
The challenge for Australia is whether Cummins and Starc make life uncomfortable for the opposition batsmen in the same manner as Johnson? Starc has the pace, but close to 50 percent of his wickets in Tests are bowled or LBW. Which highlights the fact that he prefers bowling on a fuller length and zooms in on the stumps rather than the throat. Cummins, with his whippy action along with height, is the main person that can unsettle the Englishmen. But can the pair of them get sufficient support from the other end?
While all the focus will be on the speed merchants, it will be Hazlewood’s accuracy and his ability to generate that extra bounce that poses a plenty of danger to the visitors. Ever since breaking into the stateside at a tender age of 17, Hazlewood has been compared to legendary quick Glenn McGrath and this Ashes series could be a defining moment of his career. With all the focus on Starc and Cummins, expect Hazlewood to fly under the radar and potentially be the player of the series.
Perhaps the most telling factor could be the fitness and durability of the three fast bowlers. The last time Australia kept three bowlers consistently fit throughout a summer campaign was four years ago. It rarely happens in the modern world and with the back-up stock not as strong, the fitness and durability of the three men is also set to be a defining factor in the Ashes.
One man Australia can ill afford to lose is Lyon. The off-spinner is in the best form of his life and thrives on the extra bounce of the Australian surfaces. Along with Hazlewood, he is the glue that will bind this Australian attack together. If he falters or loses confidence, then the task of taking 20 wickets on flat pitches could be arduous.
It is fair to say the outcome of the Ashes hinges on the way the English batsmen handle the Australian bowling attack.
New ball wickets the only way to stop Australia
For the past few years now the pitches in Australia have been flat and the batsmen have cashed in by scoring huge first innings totals. The lack of lateral movement, off the pitch and through the air has meant the deficiencies in the Australian batting against the moving ball have largely been unexposed.
David Warner has been the greatest beneficiary of the benign pitches, averaging nearly 60 at home. Usman Khawaja, who returns to his No 3 spot, averages 65 and while Steve Smith has proven himself all-around the world, his average in Australia hovers close to 70. Their game has been built on playing on placid tracks where they can trust their hand-eye co-ordination to send the ball fizzing to the fence.
Apart from the day-night match in Adelaide, it is highly unlikely the nature of the pitches are going to change meaning the likes of Warner, Khawaja and Smith are going to make merry against an English bowling attack that lacks fast bowlers with the ability to rattle Australia with pace.
Around the three experienced batsmen is debutant Cameron Bancroft, the inexperienced Peter Handscomb and much sought after Shaun Marsh. If the experienced men start off brilliantly and put the England bowlers on the back foot then expect the middle order to flourish.
The test for England is whether they make early inroads with the brand new ball, or not. It is worth noting that the last time England won a series down under in 2010-11, in each of the three Test matches, they had picked up three Australian wickets inside the first 25 overs in the first innings of the Test match.
If the likes of James Anderson and company can repeat those feats, then there is a chance to expose the inexperienced Australian middle order. The likes of Warner, Smith and Khawaja will be aware that once the Kookaburra is 25 overs old, it will be their time to shine.
Australia's greatest challenge will be on a grassy surface in Adelaide. But otherwise England has to focus on choking the Australian batsmen with some disciplined bowling. They have to entice the Australians into rash shots by piling on the pressure, or else face the prospect of spending a plenty of time on the field.
While that is unlikely, it is the Ashes and the burden of expectation can scramble the best of minds.
Playing on home soil and with a bowling line-up that has all the dimensions covered, Australia will be difficult to beat. While it may not be series whitewash, Australia should win the series 3-1, but if England comes with ‘nothing to fear’ attitude they could push Australia all the way. Gentleman let’s play.