England vs Australia | Wednesday 08 July - Sunday 12 July | Sophia Gardens, Cardiff | 12:00
Following weeks of the usual enthusiastic bluster, hyperbole, analysis and careful scrutiny, the first Ashes Test finally arrives to provide much needed perspective to the highly-anticipated English summer series. There is no more prestigious contest in cricket and no prize valued as highly as the urn, World Cup included. Although the Ashes only involves two Test playing nations, the cricket world will fully focus its collective attention on the opening match in Cardiff. Australia are the holders following a whitewash Down Under that served to rip apart the very fabric of the English side. As England wax lyrical of the “brand of cricket’ now exhibited, Australia can barely contain their mirth. Prepare for a vicious series full of sledges, controversy and of course, the sublime.
To Win Match
England coach Trevor Bayliss has promised that England will fight fire with fire. It is as much a comment on the nature of the opposition as it is about his own side’s playing style. While England most certainly have turned the aggression up a notch in recent performances, Bayliss’ comment acknowledges the importance placed on how Australia plays the game. Instead of focussing on England’s strengths at home and finding ways to frustrate Australia, Bayliss is more interested in going toe-to-toe with the tourists. One can’t help but feel that this will end in agony. The highly-charged nature of the contest plays perfectly into Australia’s dominant mindset and ramping up the tension could only serve to fire them up further.
Bayliss has also basically confirmed the England lineup heading into the Cardiff Test. Captain Alastair Cook will open the innings with the inexperienced Adam Lyth, who scored his maiden Test century in his second Test against New Zealand. Lyth would hardly have faced an attack with the potency of Australia. A woefully out of form Gary Ballance will walk in at first drop, completing a trio of left-handers at the top of the innings. In my opinion this could be a crucial oversight. It allows Australia’s attack to find their rhythm quickly and is something that the opposition captain will surely plan for. Ian Bell is scheduled to come in at four, Joe Root at five and Ben Stokes at six. With Bayliss indicating that Moeen Ali is still the first-choice spinner, he will arrive at seven followed by ‘keeper Jos Buttler at eight. Mark Wood, James Anderson and Stuart Broad will complete the lower-order, with Adil Rashid and Steven Finn likely to man the drinks. England bat relatively deep but there is going to be massive pressure on the likes of Stokes, Ali and Buttler to dig England out of potential holes. With their natural instincts to attack and techniques still fallible, it remains to be seen if they can weather the storm.
Additionally, England’s strike bowlers in James Anderson and Stuart Broad must stamp their authority on the series from the first Test if England hope to be competitive. Broad has a better Ashes record than Anderson but has not shown what he is capable of in some time. He’s best when trying to hit the top of off-stump but seems to drag it short far too often and become ineffective. Mark Wood will play an important part in containing Australia’s run-rate and following up on pressure applied by the opening quicks. Ben Stokes plays the part of fourth seamer while perhaps the most important member of the attack will be Moeen Ali. He has looked low on confidence in recent spells and unless things improve will be destroyed by an Australian batting lineup with no sympathy for erratic spinners.
Australia will simply relish the opportunity for another five Tests against their greatest rivals. Australia regained the Ashes at the back end of 2014 for the first time since 2006 with an emphatic 5-0 whitewash that led to numerous English retirements and the rise of Mitchell Johnson as the world’s most feared fast bowler. While England dance the proverbial Ashes jig and thunder thinly-veiled taunts, the Australians seem more intent on letting the cricket do the talking (for once). Sure, they’ve also engaged in the standard Ashes banter with the media but it seems an altogether more lighthearted and self-assured assault. The Australian squad have been dubbed “Dad’s Army” due to their aging patrons, but with age comes experience.
Adam Voges is likely to feature in his first Ashes following a century on Test debut against the West Indies. At the age of 35 it is a late introduction to the longest form of the game, but a timely one. He has excelled in the Sheffield Shield since discovering he would not be selected for the World Cup and his calm nature at the crease will be welcome in Australia’s middle-order. It is a habit in Australian cricket to grant late call-ups. Current opener Chris Rogers played a once-off Test in 2008 before being all but forgotten. Rogers was reintroduced in the 2013 Ashes side - at a similar age to Voges - in England, as Australia decided experienced rather than exuberance was the answer. Rather than an aging squad, a more careful look shows a heady mix of youth and experience. David Warner is still 28, Steve Smith 26, Nathan Lyon 27, Mitchell Starc 25. They are all likely to take to the field in Cardiff. Due to Ryan Harris’ injury-enforced retirement, another young gun in Pat Cummins has been called up. Together with Hazlewood and Starc, he is likely to form a part of Australia’s future attack.
The selectors face a tough decision between Shane Watson and Mitchell Marsh. The latter has struck two consecutive centuries in the opening tour matches but has been slightly expensive with the ball. Shane Watson, in contrast, has struggled a bit with the bat but has been miserly with his seamers. Australia can only feasibly choose one of the two and my bet is with Mitchell Marsh in red-hot form. Spin will also form a cause for concern. Nathan Lyon was taken to the cleaners against Middlesex with final match figures of 1 for 201 while Fawad Ahmed was punished by Kent. While captain Michael Clarke has played down to poor form of his spin contingent, they cannot afford to be handed the same treatment in Cardiff.
This will be only the third Test hosted at Sophia Gardens, the first coming in 2009 when England fought to force a draw in the first Ashes Test of that year. The next Test saw Sri Lanka visit in 2011 and England romped to an innings victory. As per the groundsman, it is very unlikely that the pitch in Cardiff will turn as the heatwave in the country has receded. Instead, he envisages a fair contest between bat and ball and a traditional wicket that will deteriorate as the match wears on. Win the toss; bat first.
VERDICT: Australia 19/20
For all of England’s brave talk and bluster, I just can’t see them having the quality to overcome an Australian side who seem balanced and confident in all departments. If Australia play to somewhere near their potential they should record a comprehensive victory. While this series won’t be the walkover that took place in Australia in 2013, I still don’t believe that England are near the level that is required of them. Back the Aussies to reign supreme in Wales.