For a team that has dominated cricket for the last quarter of a century, Australia has not seen more testing times than the last 16 months. The aftermath of the Cape Town fiasco in March 2018 led to wholesome changes in team personnel and the support staff. The repercussions were not just an embarrassment, but they also lost key players including their captain and vice-captain for the immediate future.
Tim Paine, the least controversial player of the side transcended from being unsure of his spot in the XI to be the captain of the ship overnight. Some flamboyant limited-overs players kept the team afloat in white-ball cricket but the test set-up was in disarray. Australia lost the final Test to South Africa at Wanderers, lost to Pakistan in UAE and conceded a home series defeat to India for the first time ever. The side managed to salvage some pride by beating the hapless Sri Lanka at home - the only Test series win yet for Paine.
The Core is Back
The fact that Steve Smith and David Warner have scored more Test runs than the rest of the 15 men in Ashes squad put together is sufficient to imply the value the duo brings to the side. Without them, the team lost not just their commanders but also players, who have scored invaluable runs at a consistent basis for the team.
Psychologically, Warner carries a personality of an executioner equipped to bludgeon. He is among those rarest of cricketers who can create an insurmountable difference on the first morning of a Test.
Smith on the other hand is a surgeon in a war like situation, a person who is completely unperturbed by the heaps of bodies around him and focuses just on the job at hand, saving the life of each possible man, stitch by stitch. While Warner, a slave to his flamboyance, gives opportunities to the bowlers to take him down, Smith toys with the bowlers. Since the inception of his career, Smith has used his fidgety technique as a disguise to the lead the bowlers to believe that he is a candidate for bowled and LBW. The only thing the bowlers have managed to find in their search is the sweet spot of Smith’s bat as he flicks them nonchalantly on the leg side. To what heights of greatness will his technique lead him, only time will tell, but for the time being Smith more often than not ends up having the last laugh.
The Other Opener
Since Chris Rogers’ retirement in 2015, Australia has had seven players opening for them in addition to the ever-present Warner. Out of the seven, only two have managed an average of 40 or more – Joe Burns (40.7), who is not the part of the squad and Usman Khawaja (96.8), who is a very important lynchpin of the Australian middle-order. The problem of an inconsistent opening pair is perhaps the only similarity between the two sides going into this series.
The two men selected for the job includes Cameron Bancroft - the third ‘official’ culprit of the Cape Town Saga - and Marcus Harris. Neither of them average 40 even at the First-Class level. Harris has absolutely no experience in English conditions apart from the two games he played for Australia A earlier in July. Since he thrives on scoring predominantly square of the wicket, patience will be a key for him to wait for the lengths that suit his style of play.
Bancroft on the other hand captained Durham after his ban was lifted in December and has averaged a healthy 48.8 in 9 games. His experience in English conditions might give him the edge over Harris when the Aussies finalize the XI. Warner’s opening partner during the last Ashes in the English summer, Rogers, was Australia’s player of the tournament. Four years later, they might still end up missing him.
Numbers 5, 6 and 7 are key positions for any good Test batting line-up. The batsmen in these positions have to be mentally prepared and technically equipped either to weather the storm in case of a collapse or to play the second new ball well to strengthen the early initiative. At the start of this series, these positions appear to be the biggest area of weakness for the Australian team. The players expected to fill these positions – Travis Head, Matthew Wade and the captain Tim Paine have no prior quality experience of playing in England. Wade and Head played a few innings for Australia A against English counties earlier this year with some success. There is no recent memory of good players succeeding during their first tour of England let alone the players averaging 28.58 and 35.1 (Wade and Paine) in Tests.
Paine might have struggled to keep his position in the side if only the rules allowed him to captain from the sidelines. Given Warner and Smith are back in the side, he will be under a lot of pressure to perform with the bat, gloves and decision-making.
A discussion to include ‘bits and pieces’ players in Marnus Labuchagne (averaging 65.5 for Glamorgan this summer) and Mitchell Marsh (average of 12 in Ashes 2015 and 25.4 overall) is also on the cards. Labuchagne’s overall First-Class performance (average 37.4) and Marsh’s everlasting inconsistency with bat and ball might go against them.
However, to win a game of cricket, a team needs to be just better than the opposition on a given day. Statistically, most of the batsmen stated to play in the Top 7 don a better average than their English counterparts do.
A strong bowling line-up
Historically, most Australian teams have been blessed with World Cass bowlers. From the times of Victor Trumper to Dennis Lillee to Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne in the recent memory. Continuing the trend, the Australian bowling line-up includes one of the leading fast bowlers in the world currently in Mitchell Starc and the best red-ball spinner in the game right now in Nathan Lyon.
The prior experience of playing in the English conditions for all except Pat Cummins will provide them added advantage. On the outset, the only factor that may hinder the success of their bowlers in this series is injuries. James Pattinson, making a surprise comeback after an injury-hit career, is untested on the fitness required to last a 5-match series. With Starc already doubtful for the first Test at Edgbaston, the Aussies cannot risk further injuries to their other bowlers.
As another Ashes series commences, with Warner and Smith at helm for the Australian team, the bowling unit possess the pace and guile to change the recent trend of away Ashes defeat for Australia and claim their position as one of the all-time Aussie greats. A series win here will mark the culmination of testing times for the Australian team.