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Bazball meets Test champions as battle for urn begins in Edgbaston

Last updated on 15 Jun 2023 | 05:22 PM
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Bazball meets Test champions as battle for urn begins in Edgbaston

Australia haven't won a Test series in England since 2001 while England have been deprived of the urn since 2018

There is something different about the build-up to the 2023 Ashes. For the last 10 years at least, every Ashes series has had one favorite, majorly defined by the host country. 

Things are quite different this time. It is tough to anticipate a winner. Australia have dominated the Ashes folklore since 2017 but England are the hosts. Australia haven’t won their since 2001. In 2019, they managed to retain the urn but the series was drawn 2-2. But they are heading into the series with the World Test Championship mace. 

England, on the other hand, are a rejuvenated side. They carry a different outlook from the side that lost the 0-4 Down Under less than two years ago. Under Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum, they have won 11 out of their 13 Tests. 

In short, both sides are loaded with confidence. 

The question is, will the Bazball continue to flourish? Many experts believe that is a method bound to fall at some point and this Australian attack could be it. Stokes, the England skipper, has already hinted at flatter decks in the series.

Australia occupy the top three positions in the ICC Test batting rankings with Marnus Labuschagne at first, Steve Smith at second and Travis Head at the third spot. 

It is the closest the two teams have been at the start of a series in a long time. 

Things to watch out for

Can Bairstow replicate his 2022 heroics?

It has been 10 months since Jonny Bairstow last batted for England. After recovering from a horrific leg injury, that put him out of the T20 World Cup and six Test matches, the Yorkshireman featured in the one-off Test against Ireland 10 days ago. He kept wickets but didn’t get to bat. 

Bairstow was the flag bearer of the Bazball theory when it surfaced around the same time last year. In six Tests under Stokes & McCullum before getting injured, the right-hander plundered 681 runs, averaging 75.7 at a strike-rate of 96.6. He amassed four tons. 

Bairstow’s impending return has come at the cost of Ben Foakes, renowned as one of the best wicketkeepers in England and a decent batter - an average of 38.5 since last summer. Clearly, Bairstow is pivotal to England’s chances of success as they aim to continue the do-or-die attitude with the bat. Upon his return to professional cricket in April, he scored 97 for Yorkshire’s second XI. In the subsequent two county cricket matches, Bairstow had scores of 20*, 0, 27 and 36. 

Incidentally, until the start of last year, Bairstow's Test career was surrounded by dark clouds. It was a fighting hundred at the SCG against the same Aussie attack that put his Test fortunes on track, as well as earned England a draw. Though he will be batting at six (or seven), to what extent Bairstow is able to replicate his splendid form last year can bear a decisive impact on the outcome of the series. 

Moeen’s comeback 

Instead of finding a replacement for the injured Jack Leach in the county circuit, England have returned to Moeen Ali for the sole spinner’s role in the squad. The off-spinning all-rounder said goodbye to Test cricket in September 2021 but mulled on a return for the series in Pakistan last year. While that didn’t materialize, England’s stop-gap approach to fill Leach’s shoes has pulled Moeen back to Test cricket. 

Moeen averages 28.3 with the bat in Test cricket and 36.7 with the ball. These are the numbers of a bits-and-pieces cricketer. On the surface, Moeen’s recall can appear to be a backward move but England don’t play another Test for a long time after the Ashes, by when they expect to get Leach back. 

Therefore, Moeen’s comeback makes sense as a transient option. Otherwise, England also had attacking but inexperienced options in Rehan Ahmed and Matt Parkinson (one Test each). There was Will Jacks who has only two Tests. It is obvious England are expecting Moeen to lengthen the batting resources, chip in with some crucial 30s and 40s with the lower order and hold one end together with some miserly bowling. 

However, Moeen averages 47.9 with the ball against Australia in England and 64.7 overall against Australia. But for Moeen, there is no pressure. “Ashes is a free hit. I am not playing for my spot,” he said in an unprecedented quote for a Test cricketer. 

Warner up against Broad in England 

Both David Warner and Stuart Broad are at an interesting phase in their careers. Warner has already hinted at drawing curtains on his Test career in the forthcoming home summer. He averages only 25.7 in England and would want to leave a mark in his last series in the country. Broad is in an extended phase, fighting to keep himself relevant in every game given a new fast bowling talent pops up at the start of every home summer. 

Therefore, it is fair to presume both players will also be playing for their spot throughout the series. In such circumstances, Broad will possess an extra challenge for the left-hander. Broad dismissed Warner seven times in the 2019 Ashes for only 35 runs. It was one of the most one-sided head-to-head battles. Warner managed Broad much better in the 2021/22 Ashes Down Under, scoring 77 runs for two dismissals, but the dynamics are different in England. 

While the numbers are tilted in Broad’s favor, Stokes’ demand for a batting friendly wickets can come to Warner’s aid. 

Ground Details, pitch and conditions

Edgbaston has hosted four Tests since 2018. The batting average of 30.8 is the second highest among all Test venues in England. The word is that the pitch is flat. It helps both the batting sides but on the bowling front, Australia hold an edge. Pat Cummins and Co. are more used to bowling on flatter decks than the likes of James Anderson, Broad and Ollie Robinson. 

Australia are also better on the spin bowling front with Nathan Lyon. Spinners have picked every fourth wicket to fall in the second innings in this time frame. Lyon picked 6/49 in the final innings when Australia successfully defended 398 against England at the same venue in 2019. 

Tactical Nous

> Travis Head has been in breathtaking form since his comeback in the 2021/22 Ashes. However, he has shown one weakness in his game. There is a stark drop in his average against short ball while facing pacers. India failed to make it count in the recently concluded WTC final but expect England to greet the left-hander with a barrage of short balls around his head. 

> Since 2021, Bairstow has been dismissed by pace 25 times in Test cricket. Only 10 times he has been out in the first 30 balls of his innings. Seven of them have come against balls moving in. On that note, Scott Boland could be a match-up for Bairstow. Boland has 33 Test wickets and 17 of them have come with balls moving into the batter. 

Probable XIs

England announced their XI two days prior to the Test. Australia, yet to announce their XI, will have to decide between Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood. The latter is available for selection after regaining full fitness. Starc had an underpar WTC final which weakens his case. 

England: Ben Duckett, Zak Crawley, Ollie Pope, Joe Root, Harry Brook, Jonny Bairstow (wk), Ben Stokes ( c ), Moeen Ali, Stuart Broad, Ollie Robinson, James Anderson

Australia: David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Travis Head, Cameron Green, Alex Carey (wk), Pat Cummins ( c ), Mitchell Starc/Josh Hazlewood, Nathan Lyon, Scott Boland

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