George Orwell’s dire predictions for 1984 may have seemed minor compared to what Australian cricket faced that year.
‘Worst Ashes team to inflict a whitewash’, was a description people started proposing in 2013. Now there’s a contender in the works.
The current Australian side is well in contention to get out the ladders, the rollers, and the paint trays and treat England like a weatherboard holiday house in need of maintenance.
Even if back-to-back whitewashes don’t transpire, both of those Australian sides won the Ashes back by Perth and both did so in comprehensive fashion.
Neither of those sides did so with anything near the strength, on paper, of the previous whitewash side in 2006-07. Names like Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, blah blah blah, pretty good at cricket.
Come to think of it, nothing on paper is very strong. Remember the scene in Risky Business where the Tom Cruise’s character’s best friend eats a phone number to stop Tom Cruise cancelling a date? Yeah, try doing that with a Nokia.
But you know what I mean. The more recent Australian teams have had a far lower wattage power in terms of stars whose worth was proven before the series rather than emerging during it.
So the question now is: which is the better team between Michael Clarke’s lot last time around and Steve Smith’s on this rotation?
You might also say now isn’t the time to decide given one team has already played all five Tests in a series and the current lot has played only three.
Sure, you’re all logical. You probably have a regular place for your keys, so you can find them every day. You’re so smug.
But we don’t know if Trump is going to nuke North Korea before the end of the Sydney Test. We may never see the final scoreline. So we have to get in and do it now. The Ashes have been won twice. It’s time.
1. David Warner (2013) versus David Warner (2017)
(Extremely Juan Antonio Samaranch voice:) The winner is… David Warner!
Quelle surprise. That’s French for ‘what a surprise’. It’s important to say that in French for the purposes of showing off.
But, look, which Warner? Is it Old Warner or New Warner?
And does Old Warner refer to the 2013 version because he came previously or to the 2017 version because he’s more advanced in years?
However you look at it, 2013 Warner has the advantage. He was as yet unproven in the Test team but bounced back from a recent suspension with an important hundred in Brisbane and then made another in Perth. He topped the series for runs.
In the current series he’s found ways to contribute but hasn’t yet dominated a match. Also, 2013 Warner is the one who tried to whack Joe Root, which made English people feel so sorry for Joe Root that it got him selected for the captaincy – which has worked out pretty well, thanks, for Past Warner.
It’s seasonally appropriate to imagine the Ghost of Warners Past, Present and Future. One would be sledging you mercilessly, the second would be meditating and lecturing you about positive mindsets and the third would be sledging you mercilessly.
2. Chris Rogers versus Cameron Bancroft
No real contest here. Bancroft got a few cheap ones in Brisbane and hasn’t done much since.
Rogers made a couple of 50s in live matches and then spanked MCG and SCG hundreds, even if he loses out to Bancroft in the crucial third wicketkeeper stakes.
His dancing was also key to post-series celebrations. The only question is: could Rogers at his Perthian peak have competed in the Heaviest Head in Western Australia?
3. Shane Watson versus Usman Khawaja
Wow. Wowwww. What a contest. Battle of the first drops. Brut versus Rexona. Brute force versus finesse.
People may want Watto at six in this composite team, but he played this whole series in the Bradman/Ponting position that his talent deserved.
In the current series Lil Uzi Vert has made 50 and 53, but he got out immediately after raising the milestone.
The best Shane W ever to play for Australia made a similar score in setting up the Adelaide win and then smashed his fourth and final Test century in Perth to set up the declaration and end Graeme Swann’s career the right way – with a 22-run over.
He went on to make a vital 83 not out in the Melbourne run chase to ensure it went without incident.
And that’s before we come to his bowling, credited with making sure his team’s frontline attack got through the series unscathed. Watson kept the screws tight all series and picked up some useful wickets. The only bowl Usman ever had was full of Froot Loops.
God, it feels too good to say this: it’s the Big Rig all the way.
4. Michael Clarke versus Steve Smith (2017)
Sorry, Michael, back to the comm box. You were good – a vital hundred in Brisbane backed up big in Adelaide – but you’re up against a guy who has matched your best several years in a row. All comers, all conditions, and here in three games he’s already played two innings for the ages.
The grind of an uncharacteristically slow Brisbane ton, the flourish of a fast WACA double and Smith has more runs in four knocks than you managed in ten.
5. Steve Smith (2013) versus Peter Handscomb versus Shaun Marsh
As if he wasn’t already enough like a cyborg, imagine we got to send Steve Smith back in time to take down an earlier model of himself.
But he’s batting at five in his younger incarnation, from which spot Handscomb got dropped and Shaun Marsh only played one sub-par Test.
So like any good franchise we can instead spin the tale so that one time-travelling robot is coming to help itself out.
Imagine this: you finally get through modern-day Smith, cover driving you to distraction for a massive hundred, and then out walks early-model Smith, pulling and hooking you all day instead.
“I know now why you cry. But it is something I can never do.”
6. George Bailey versus Shaun Marsh versus Mitchell Marsh
Apologies to Gorgeous George, who had the cheekiest smile of any Ashes, took lots of nice catches at short leg and marmalised Jimmy Anderson for 28 runs off an over.
Unfortunately his Ashes cameo can’t match either Marsh, and Shaun has to get this spot after two brilliant innings, both with the trophy on the line.
His 50 in Brisbane came at a genuinely crucial time with Australia in trouble at 4/76 and enabled Smith to build that match-winning hundred. Then Marsh’s own hundred at Adelaide was a masterpiece of patience that batted England out of the game.
His brother Mitchell would be a shout for his stunning 181 at the WACA had he managed to push Shaun up to five, but Shane Watson’s bowling is far superior, and one innings doesn’t get you the spot.
7. Brad Haddin versus Tim Paine
For the ultimate Hail Mary pick Paine has kept almost immaculately and made handy runs.
But Haddin’s Ashes was the highpoint of his career. Australia was in trouble in every single first innings, and in every one he came through with at least a half century, slashing and counterattacking.
Haddin made more runs than any batsman in a series batting outside the top six. Of keepers batting up the order, only three ever made more than Haddin’s 493.
Along the way he demoralised England and created the opportunity for Mitchell Johnson to win the Ashes.
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8. Mitchell Johnson versus Mitchell Starc
Same first name, same left arm, same batting approach and same maximum speed well over 150 kilometres per hour. It’s only right that these two go up against each other.
Starc has reaped rewards in this series, with 19 wickets at an absurd strike rate of 39. But you still feel that he hasn’t quite been at his best. He’s found a way to take wickets, but he hasn’t been unplayable.
Johnson really deserved that word. Almost no other series has been defined by a single player as strongly.
He took a wicket every five overs and paid a dozen runs apiece. He tallied 37 of them by series end. Obscene.
9. Ryan Harris versus Patrick Cummins
Age before beauty, experience before youth. Cummins has been a revelation this year, impressing in Asia’s unhelpful conditions before taking that form back home.
He’s taken vital wickets at vital times, and as much as Ryan Harris was a very capable hitter with the bat, Cummins has him comfortably covered in that department with an almost top-order technique and results to match.
But Harris in his Ashes was perfection as the partner to a super-attacking bowler. He gave nothing away at barely 2.5 runs per over from his bowling while consistently being a threat himself.
Constantly pitching up, constantly challenging the edge, and in 22 cases getting rewarded. His own wickets came at less than 20 runs each, and he bowled one of the best balls of all time to knock over England’s captain in Perth. Lock him in.
10. Peter Siddle versus Josh Hazlewood
P-Siddy is the most criminally underrated Australian fast bowler since whoever was before him. His contribution to the Ashes whitewash was immense, with the lowest economy rate of anyone from both teams.
He was the leaf-blower drying up the middle. He also went about his batting with the serious application of a kid opening his first bank account.
But I’m going to contribute to the legacy of underrating him by saying that Josh Hazlewood gets the nod instead.
Hazlewood has been almost as economical but retains more of an air of danger at the same time. His bounce is steeper, his top speed is brisker, his bouncers are more discomfiting and he can bowl similarly long spells. Can’t leave him out.
11. Nathan Lyon (2013) versus Nathan Lyon (2017)
It’s easy to assume that age will have improved him, but the off-spinner of four years ago was already an excellent player.
He took a five-for in Melbourne to cause England’s collapse when setting a target and made the incisions in Brisbane that let Johnson get deep in the cut. Lyon also started a dominance over Alastair Cook that continues to this day.
But in the end there’s no doubting that today’s player goes about things with more confidence, more swagger and more consistency.
By 2014 he had 19 wickets from five Tests; this time he already has 14 from three. He’s going for fewer runs, has a lower average and is monstering England’s left-handers.
He also has the world’s most wickets in 2017 and isn’t far off passing some Australian greats to become fourth-highest on the list of wicket-takers. And his fielding has blossomed with some brilliant catches and run-outs.
Who is in, and who would win?
What would happen if the two teams played each other?
Again, you’d have to tip the class of 2013-14. Both have their batting frailties, but you’d think that Clarke and Past Warner would be able to handle Starc and Cummins.
Aside from finding a way around Smith at his peak, you’d think that the ferocity of Johnson’s best series and the quality of Harris would be enough.
That’s reflected in the final composite XI, with four from the current squad, seven from last time. We’ll see if that changes in a couple of weeks.
Australia’s composite Ashes XI