The biggest Test series in cricket has arrived, as Australia look to claim their first Ashes tour win since 2001 against an England side full of confidence after their World Cup victory.
It’s a long, long tour for the Aussies, and after their World Cup campaign was cut short at the hosts’ hands, revenge will be on their mind.
But kicking things off at Edgbaston could be a blow for the tourists.
Their 2015 collapse, where Australia were knocked over for 136 and 265 and lost the Test inside three days, will live in the memory bank of the senior players still in the side – David Warner, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon – but it’s long been an ordinary ground for the Aussies.
Still, this may be the best preparation Australia have had for a recent Ashes series, given the entire squad – whether through the World Cup, Australia A tour or County Cricket – have all been playing in English conditions for the last couple of months.
Things have been made difficult for selectors given no Test cricket has been played since February, while Warner, Smith and Cameron Bancroft haven’t played a five-day match since last March.
England, on the other hand, had a Test warm-up against Ireland, and were almost left wishing they hadn’t.
It might have been a four-day Test, but it didn’t go close to the full distance, with only a spirited fightback pulling them to victory after the hosts crumbled before lunch on Day 1 for just 85.
Don’t let that fool you though – England are one of the best sides in the world, particularly playing in their own conditions, and there is a reason Australia haven’t won in there since 2001.
Still, the English do have their weaknesses, particularly in the top order.
Unfortunately, the weather forecast for Birmingham is looking a little wet, but hopefully we can still get a result.
Overall record: Played 346, Australia 144, England 108, drawn 94
Overall record in England: Played 166, Australia 50, England 49, drawn 67
Overall record at Edgbaston: Played 14, England 6, Australia 3, drawn 5
Overall series record: Played 78, Australia 40, England 33, drawn 8
Overall series record in England: Played 38, England 19, Australia 15, drawn 4
Last five series
2017-18: Australia won 4-0 in Australia
2015: England won 3-2 in England
2013-14: Australia won 5-0 in Australia
2013: England won 3-0 in England
2010-11: England won 3-1 in Australia
Last five matches at Edgbaston
2015, July 29-31: England won by 8 wickets
2009, July 30 – August 3: Match drawn
2005, August 4-7: England won by 2 runs
2001, July 5-8: Australia won by an innings and 118 runs
1997, June 5-8: England won by 9 wickets
Given England have only named 14 players for the first Test, their squad is the easier of the two to work out, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t questions.
Joe Denly revealed on Tuesday night (Australian time) that he’ll move to no.4 to allow Joe Root to bat at first drop, which means Jason Roy and Rory Burns will open up. Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow will follow in the middle- to lower-order.
As for the attack, Stuart Broad and James Anderson will certainly play, but there’s no out-and-out spinner in the squad.
Moeen Ali is the all-rounder, but with Chris Woakes and Jofra Archer also competing for spots on what will likely be a green wicket where spin may not play much of a factor, they could opt for four quicks.
It’s hard to see them not including a spinner though, and with Archer battling a side strain from the World Cup, it would appear the ever-consistent Woakes will get the final spot in the side.
1. Jason Roy
2. Rory Burns
3. Joe Root (c)
4. Joe Denly
5. Jos Buttler
6. Ben Stokes
7. Jonny Bairstow (wk)
8. Moeen Ali
9. Chris Woakes
10. Stuart Broad
11. James Anderson
Rest of squad: Jofra Archer, Sam Curran, Olly Stone
Most of the Australian side is more or less settled coming into the first Test of the series, but in their 17-man squad, reports suggest only one spot still hangs in the balance, with the conditions, pitch and form in the nets likely to decide the contentious position.
Justin Langer has stated that the final bowling spot will come down to a three-way tussle between Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Peter Siddle, meaning James Pattinson is a lock to make his Test return.
Talk that Starc should be saved for Lord’s is madness. Conditions might dictate that, but there is a nine-day break between games, and unlikely to be long toiling efforts at Edgbaston.
However, from all reports, the pitch is rock hard, and even if it does have an even covering of grass, the fact Starc is the spearhead of the attack should get him over the line ahead of Josh Hazlewood and Peter Siddle.
If reports are to believed, David Warner will open with Cameron Bancroft, followed by Usman Khawaja, Steve Smith, Travis Head and Matthew Wade, before skipper Tim Paine rounds out the top seven.
It’s not hard to see why Bancroft has been picked to open, given his runs and leadership for Durham, while Wade’s mountain of runs across all three formats in domestic cricket, and on the Australia A tour, have given him the gig at six over Marnus Labuschagne, who could be considered stiff to miss out after scoring 1100 runs in County Cricket.
1. David Warner
2. Cameron Bancroft
3. Usman Khawaja
4. Steve Smith
5. Travis Head
6. Matthew Wade
7. Tim Paine (c, wk)
8. Pat Cummins
9. James Pattinson
10. Mitchell Starc
11. Nathan Lyon
Rest of squad: Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Marnus Labuschagne, Mitchell Marsh, Michael Neser, Peter Siddle
Joe Root must hold England together
England’s only glaring weakness is the top order.
Roy, Burns and Denly only have 11 Tests between them, with the skipper needing to stand up and play multiple strong innings to avoid the pressure being heaped on what is a relatively strong middle order.
Root’s method of fixing things is to promote himself to number three, but it’s a method which has been tried before, and has been proven not to work all that well.
Apart from the fact he has openly stated the break of batting at four after captaining is important, in Test cricket there is no more important batsman for England than Root, and he must bat in the position which is most comfortable, with the side being built around him.
Even though it’s Root who has instigated this supposed change, the numbers don’t really back up his cause. While he averages 49 with the bat across his decorated career, and 54 on home soil, he has only averaged 40 batting at first drop.
Combining first drop and the high-pressure situation of the Ashes doesn’t seem to be the best idea going around, but he has to hold England’s innings together, and maybe he is seeing visions of going in at two for nothing anyway, making it a viable argument for the skipper to bat at three.
What can Warner and Smith provide?
There is no question that Australia are better off for the return of the former skipper and vice-captain.
They were two of the best batsmen in the world, and judging by their World Cup form, still are. Warner, in particular, was excellent and will barely need to change his style to adapt to red-ball cricket.
An attack featuring Anderson and Broad with a red Dukes ball is a trickier proposition, but the form Warner is in means this is a chance for him to change all the perceptions about his batting in England.
While Smith’s form was at times sketchy during the World Cup, he had some great innings and a knack of turning the strike over with ease.
That’ll be crucial during this Test. When the ball is moving, and during those periods where England’s bowlers are on top, it’ll be pivotal to ensure bowlers aren’t just bowling at the one batsmen.
Smith is one of the best manipulators of the crease in the world, and while he is vulnerable to being trapped LBW, he must back his natural game and play positive cricket.
Can Nathan Lyon play a critical role?
The one big difference between the two sides is spin bowling.
The Edgbaston track has been known to take turn late in matches, and so the strategy for England of only playing Moeen could pose a risk.
Nathan Lyon, on the other hand, has stamped his authority as one of the best spin bowlers in world cricket.
The 31-year-old has a Test match bowling average of 32 and 343 wickets, but has taken 104 wickets in the past two calendar years across 21 Tests. That’s an average of almost five per Test.
Now, granted, English conditions don’t always suit spin, but with all the talk pointing to this pitch being fairly hard, it’ll suit Lyon’s bowling as he can undo batsmen with extra bounce.
He has also done surprisingly well in England throughout his career, averaging 30, however, it’s the potential fourth innings where he could have the greatest influence.
With any assistance he could run through England, although having Stokes and Burns as the only left-handed batsmen in the opposition top seven could be a sticking point.
Swing or bust for England
England’s pace attack is dangerous.
Anderson and Broad have averaged 26 and 28 throughout their careers, but those numbers are even better at home.
When you compare that to the Australian attack, Cummins has never bowled a ball in England during a Test, Pattinson has the uninspiring figures of 7 for 307 from two matches, and Starc’s career average of 28 is blown out to 31.
The advantage England have is an attack made up of veterans who are excellent at bowling the right pace for the conditions and swinging the duke ball.
Broad and Anderson will then be backed up by the equally consistent Woakes, or the speed demon Archer, who has just finished terrorising everyone at the World Cup with his bouncers and yorkers at 150 clicks.
It’s a scary English attack, one which is going to put the Australian top order under the pump.
Dates: Thursday, August 1 – Monday, August 5
First ball: 8pm (AEST)
Expected daily finish time: 3am (AEST)
Venue: Edgbaston, Birmingham
TV: Live, 9Gem
Online: Live, 9Now
Umpires: Joel Wilson, Aleem Dar
|First session||8pm – 10pm||7:30pm – 9:30pm||6pm – 8pm||11am – 1pm|
|Lunch||10pm – 10:40pm||9:30pm – 10:10pm||8pm – 8:40pm||1pm – 1:40pm|
|Second session||10:40pm – 12:40am||10:10pm – 12:10am||8:40pm – 10:40pm||1:40pm – 3:40pm|
|Tea||12:40am – 1am||12:10am – 12:30am||10:40pm – 11pm||3:40pm – 4pm|
|Third session||1am – 3am||12:30am – 2:30am||11pm – 1am||4pm – 6pm|
Note: The hours of play are subject to change. One hour per day can be added on due to weather interruptions, and a further half an hour may be added should extra time be needed should the minimum overs for the day not be completed.
England will be confident at Edgbaston. Australia might take a while to warm into this series, and if the ball starts hooping, I’m doubtful they’ll be able to score enough runs.
Regardless, I expect the match to be closely fought and won on a few key moments or sessions, with England just falling over the line to take a 1-0 lead before we head to the home of cricket.
This, of course, is as long as the weather doesn’t spoil the five days, which, unfortunately, it well could do.
England in a thriller to rival 2005.
Don’t forget to stay across every ball of the action from Edgbaston as The Roar cover the match with our live scores, blog and highlights of each day’s play.