What. A. Ball.
There are plenty of narratives that add to the excitement of Thursday’s first Ashes Test – chiefly, England’s Cricket World Cup victory.
With plenty of question marks still present and a level of uncertainty about what to expect, below are five stories that will emerge.
Jofra Archer will underwhelm
England’s World Cup hero is widely expected to feature heavily throughout the most important series in cricket.
The 24-year-old has had a whirlwind 2019, becoming eligible for England after months of fanfare, before playing a key role in the ODI triumph and now in the Test squad.
Having played 28 first-class games for an average of 31.3 with the bat and 131 wickets at an average of 23.44 with the ball, his red-ball record carries greater weight than the Big Bash League performances Australian fans feel has helped make the fast bowler.
The hype brings expectations he will deliver immediately, and it may be misguided.
Archer’s ability in the limited-over format is eye-catching, yet he often benefits from a mindset that requires his opponents to bat aggressively, regardless of where the ball pitches and how fast it arrives.
Despite his good first-class record, international cricket is a completely different beast. Archer has shown a tendency to get bored bowling in the same spots in all forms of the game and if he tries too much, batsmen have the time and patience to wait for the bad ball.
Archer may become one of the world’s best fast bowlers and his x-factor brings a level of excitement to an English team that is in need of big personalities. I see a similar trajectory to Mitch Starc’s career – both players have extreme pace and love to attack batsmen and get the stumps skittling.
Sometimes it works brilliantly and sometimes, as we’ve seen with Starc, it can leak runs.
Archer handled the World Cup well, but the Ashes may be a bridge too far.
Cameron Bancroft will be the leading run-scorer in all games he plays
Australia will be giving itself the best chance at retaining the urn if Bancroft is selected over Marcus Harris.
Bancroft’s technique is solid and he has spent months preparing for this series against the Dukes ball, while Harris’ susceptibility to fall to a moving ball outside off-stump due to iffy early footwork can be exploited by an experienced attack.
The 26-year-old has received plenty of criticism following his suspension, but the facts are present – he has been rock-solid in county cricket this season, averaging a little over 45 and leading Durham as captain.
The leadership has helped him reacclimatise to the competitive game and given Bancroft a different perspective to both batting and bowling. The only pressure he will feel is whatever he places on himself and knowing how he goes about his cricket, there’ll be a sense of calm to Bancroft’s batting.
Many have been suggested Bancroft was on the verge of being dropped prior to his suspension and have cited this as part of the reason for him to not be near the squad again. But he was Australia’s leading run-scorer in the series against South Africa prior to all the controversy, with 223 runs at 37.17, and appeared to finally gain some confidence against a world-class bowling attack.
Bancroft’s average of 73.3 in his last four first-class games suggests he is in form and batting with great confidence. Come the end of the Ashes, the doubters will be silent and Bancroft will have scored more runs than any other Australian in the games he plays.
Hopefully it’s all five.
Dom Sibley will save the English top order
He mightn’t be in the squad for the first Test, but Dominic Sibley will get his chance at some stage during the series and will finally provide stability to a top-order that has been lacking since Alastair Cook regressed years ago.
The 23-year-old is the leading run-scorer in county cricket’s Division 1, with 940 runs at an average of 62.66, and is quickly becoming an internet darling for fans screaming for young talent.
The right-hander has always seemed destined for the big stage, scoring a double century in just his third game, thus becoming the youngest player to do so in the County Championship.
After a couple of indifferent seasons, Sibley has truly emerged this season with a strong technique, exercising great patience in swinging conditions.
Watching him play is a throwback to some of the most level-headed batsmen over the past decade, with his ability to manipulate the field matching his selection of deliveries to attack.
There’s the thought that Jason Roy needs to open the batting to protect a couple of younger options. But with Roy seen as a potential number four and Rory Burns copping the Peter Handscomb treatment, Sibley’s introduction to the English team will be fast-tracked and he’ll immediately provide strength in the opening stand.
Remember the name Dom Sibley.
Steve Waugh’s presence will be felt
Just as Ricky Ponting’s influence on the Australian ODI team was felt during the World Cup, Steve Waugh will have an impact on this current group of cricketers.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Australia will be mental. On top of the obvious pressure and nervousness about the series on foreign ground, the English fans are notoriously rowdy and will target team chemistry and cohesion as part of its chanting.
Having all three previously suspended players back in the squad – and most likely in the XI – shouldn’t be an issue, but media coverage and self-doubt inevitably has an impact.
Waugh is, mentally, one of the strongest individuals to have ever worn the baggy green. His captaincy was key to the 2001 Ashes success and his leadership created a strong bond within the playing group.
Australia truly has its best chance of retaining the Ashes and cannot let off-field pressures creep into on-field performance. The squad looks good and players appear to be in-form. The fact it’s likely to be a series dominated by the ball means strong batting will be even more valuable.
Waugh won’t be front and centre in the media or in the rooms, but you can be sure that his presence will be felt and the impending batting successes can be partially attributed to the strength in will Waugh provides.
The past is not an indication of future events
Edgbaston hosts the first Test – a venue Australia hasn’t won at since 2001, while England hasn’t lost at the venue in Test cricket since 2008.
In fact, the 31-run victory over India in 2018 is the closest result at the venue for the home side since that Test in 2005 against Australia.
Edgbaston has been a venue for the bowlers of late, and medium-fast swing bowling has generally been the most effective. England’s biggest strength in that department, however, tends to be their biggest batting weakness – they have struggled against the same type of bowling, while spin proved effective for Ravi Ashwin in 2018 as well.
Australia will identify early wickets as the key to success. As previously mentioned, Rory Burns’ form has been sub-standard and Jason Roy’s mindset opening in Test cricket is up in the air.
Joe Root is said to be batting at three and the last thing the host nation needs is their star batsman in early against a hungry Australian attack.
Despite a level of uncertainty about the batting, Australia look more secure and reliable than the English line-up and an opening partnership of David Warner and Bancroft would certainly get the team off to a good start.
For those identifying each team’s record at Edgbaston as a reason for an easy English victory, I suggest you think again. The weather looks poor overall, but if a result is to be had, Australia will be in the best position.