The traditional war of words is well and truly underway ahead of next month’s Ashes series.
Graeme Swann thinks Steve Smith’s technique will expose him; in turn Smith says England will not come close to Australia; and former Aussie quick, and current Yorkshire coach Jason Gillespie, says Australia’s team is old and tired.
As always, it is a case of bring it on!
Hopefully, when the battle for the urn begins in earnest it will be conducted in the right atmosphere with both sides adhering to the spirit of the game.
And, even if they do, there will still be plenty of abrasiveness, namely in the form of the pitches that England will turn out for the series. During the last series in England the tourists were greeted with pitches which, in the main, were not the verdant ones they were accustomed to seeing in the Old Dart.
England entered the 2013 series with the belief that it had Australia’s measure in two important areas.
Firstly, it felt that its fast bowlers – James Anderson in particular – had a mastery of reverse swing that the Australian attack could not match and the more barren pitches would allow them to exploit that advantage earlier and more readily than on a well-grassed surface.
Secondly, England felt it had a match-winner in off-spinner Graeme Swann.
Dry pitches and plentiful footmarks were expected to amplify Swann’s influence and highlight the chasm between the spin bowling stocks in both camps. He entered the 2013 series as a 53-Test veteran boasting 226 wickets at 28.7.
Australia had two specialist spinners in its squad – off-spinner Nathan Lyon, whose 22 Tests to that point had netted 76 wickets at 33.2, and 19-year-old orthodox left-armer Ashton Agar, who arrived in England without having played a Test and on the back of just ten first-class matches.
In the end, the spin duel was clearly a one-way street.
Swann captured 26 wickets at 29.0 across the five Tests while Australia’s specialist pair, with the support at times of Steve Smith and Michael Clarke, collected 15 scalps between them at 44.2.
Fast forward to 2015 and things look markedly different.
With Swann having retired midway through the last Ashes series in Australia in 2013-14, Australia has the leading spinner. Lyon enters the upcoming series as Australia’s most successful off-spinner of all-time, by virtue of wickets, with a career tally of 146 wickets from 41 appearances.
His specialist spin partner is the Pakistan-born, uncapped leggie Fawad Ahmed who led the wicket aggregate in last summer’s Sheffield Shield competition – 48 wickets at 24.8.
England’s incumbent spinner is 28-year-old off-spinner Moeen Ali, with 11 Tests and 33 wickets behind him at 32.6. He likes to give the ball a good rip and will surely be the man chosen for the opening Test.
Should he not come to the terms with the Australian batting his likely replacement would be 27-year-old Yorkshire leg-spinner Adil Rashid, who while uncapped at Test level has turned out in 11 ODIs and six T20 internationals.
England will be keen to roll out some benign and grassless pitches to both stunt the effect of the outright pace of the likes of Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc, Ryan Harris and Josh Hazlewood.
By dint of pure pace the tourists will have their England equivalents covered.
The more barren decks will once again aid the home side’s ability to extract old ball swing.
However, those same conditions may also play into Lyon’s hands.
In the recently completed two-Test series against New Zealand, England had three left-handers at the top of the order – openers Alastair Cook and Adam Lyth ahead of Garry Balance.
Should the pitches prove lifeless for the Australian quicks Clarke may opt to introduce Lyon into the attack early in each innings and rotate his pacemen in short, sharp bursts at the other end. Lyon will like his prospects of both keeping the left-handers quiet as well as producing wicket-taking deliveries.
England would be best served moving Ian Bell up to number three to throw a right-hander into the mix earlier – he has the temperament and technique to quell the opening bowlers and is arguably his side’s best player of spin.
He may well choose to attack Lyon from the get-go with his preference for the lofted straight drive down the ground bound to come into play.
England is likely to have as many as seven left-handers in its eleven with Moeen, Ben Stokes, Stuart Broad and James Anderson all odds-on to play. Lyon will be licking his lips at the thought of such a menu.
In the end, the affable and perennially smiling offie may well prove to be one of his country’s trumps as it looks to retain the famous little urn.
Once again, bring it on!