After weeks of barbs being exchanged between both camps, Australia and England will be getting ready to let the bat and ball do the talking with the first Ashes Test commencing on Wednesday at The Gabba.
The latest edition of cricket's oldest active series marks the beginning of a new chapter in Australian cricket, with Pat Cummins taking over the reigns of the side in the longest format from Tim Paine, who stepped down from the role following a sexting scandal and has recused himself from the sport for the time being. With former captain Steve Smith as his deputy, Cummins will hope to bring the Aussies back to winning ways in the red-ball format, having lost their last Test assignment to India at home last summer.
England, meanwhile, will be setting their sights on regaining the urn for the first time in more than six years. After their 3-2 series win at home in 2015, they surrendered the urn to the Aussies in their trip Down Under by a 4-0 margin, and were held to a 2-2 draw by the Paine-led visitors at home right after the 2019 ODI World Cup.
While naming a full strength squad that's missing only tearaway fast bowler Jofra Archer among its regulars, England will be especially buoyed by the return to cricketing action of talismanic all-rounder Ben Stokes. The New Zealand-born cricketer, who made his debut in the 2013-14 Ashes, returns to the field after spending nearly six months away nursing a finger injury as well as taking time away from the game to tend to his mental health.
Stokes was in blistering form during the summer of 2019 — his unbeaten 135 at Headingley making for one of the most epic comebacks witnessed in the sport as England pulled off a sensational heist after being set an improbable 359 to win. Captain Root and coach Chris Silverwood will certainly be hoping for an encore this time around as the visitors seek their first series win on Australian soil in over a decade.
Former Australia pacer Brett Lee, who had been part of several Ashes campaigns throughout the 2000s, described Stokes' inclusion as nothing short of a "mastermind".
"The inclusion of Ben Stokes has been a mastermind, it’s a fantastic move for England. Firstly, thankful that his finger has recovered enough to allow him to get out back in the cricket nets and to get through the mental toughness that he’s been going through the last couple of weeks."
"It’s good that he’s overcome that and is feeling confident with himself again, and he would definitely be a hard target for the Aussie cricketers to try and get out," said Lee in a chat with Firstpost.
Though not included in England's side for the first Test in Brisbane, James Anderson is expected to play a key role for his side in the next four games. Anderson, who is already the most successful seamer of all time and the third-highest wicket-taker overall with 632 wickets to his name, could well be featuring in his final Ashes and will hope to make it a memorable one if that indeed is the case.
Lee, for one, believes Anderson, bowling in tandem with new-ball partner Stuart Broad, to be a major threat to the Aussie batting lineup going into the series.
"It’s over 1,100 wickets between Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson. I’m looking to see how they attack the Australian top order. And that’s one team, the Australian cricket team that is, that will have to settle on what they believe is their best top six. And you’ve got guys like Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, 630-odd wickets for Anderson and over 500 for Stuart Broad, it’s going to be a really good challenge for the Australian top order," said Lee, himself one of the most successful bowlers of all time with more than 700 international wickets to his name.
The New South Welshman was effusive in his praise for his fast-bowling colleague from Burnley, Lancashire, describing his career as nothing short of "phenomenal".
"I could give you a five-minute spill on how good Jimmy Anderson is, and I could use an array of words. But I reckon, simply, the best way to describe his career is as phenomenal. He’s had a phenomenal career, a Test career. He’s bowled well in one-day cricket, but certainly in Test match cricket."
"To play for so long — and I was lucky to play up to the age of 39, not Test cricket but the shorter version — but the fact that he’s still playing Test cricket at the age he is and the amount of wickets he’s taken, he will go down as, if not the best fast bowler to ever play the game, he’ll be up there in the top two anyway."
Lee was part of several Ashes campaigns starting with the 2001 series in England. The sight of Lee on his haunches with Andrew Flintoff consoling him after he failed to get Australia over the line in the memorable 2005 Edgbaston Test remains one of the most defining cricketing images of all time, and certainly among Ashes' greatest moments.
When asked about the experience of playing in an Ashes, Lee described it as a fantastic moment in his career.
"I think when you’re a young kid and you’re growing up and you’re watching the history of the game, Australia vs England, it’s the Old Enemy. So as a young kid, you want to wear the Baggy Green cap and you want to make sure you go out there and get the chance to play against England.
"So the Ashes is very special and I’ve been lucky enough to play in a number of Ashes series. It’s such an amazing moment, it’s a fantastic moment in your career, and it’s an amazing vibe. There’s such a good buzz around the ground, the fact now that we’re getting crowds back in Australia, and certainly around the world. Hopefully the Barmy Army can get a way to field their spectators out here. So it’s really, really exciting," Lee said.
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