Australia paceman Josh Hazlewood has declared himself ready to return from the side strain that ended his Ashes series after the first Test in early December.
Test cricket is so often a game within a game. In Ashes cricket, it’s magnified even more with individual matchups.
Getting off to a good start in a series can settle the nerves and put away any demons an individual might have about who they’re up against.
It’s why so much was made about Steve Harmison’s first ball of the 2006/07 series. It was just one (very wide) ball but it set the tone. Harmison was the opposite in England the previous Australian winter when he sconned Ricky Ponting in the head on Day 1 of the series. It gave England confidence that they could take it to the Aussies even though they went on to lose the first Test.
As a batsman, if you start to lose out to a bowler then the pressure builds. Joe Root and David Warner know exactly what that feels like.
Other than the question of how do you get Steve Smith out? – which ALL of England’s bowlers must answer, these are the individual battles that are key to deciding the Ashes.
Joe Root vs Pat Cummins
Captain vs captain. Best batsman vs best bowler in the world. It doesn’t get any bigger than this.
Joe Root’s average against Australia (40.33) is 15 runs fewer than his career (55.02) and he’s yet to score a century in Australia. In recent times there’s one major reason for that. Patrick Cummins.
Cummins has dismissed the England captain for fun in the 10 Tests he’s played against Joe Root.
In those matches, Cummins has got him out seven times including twice for ducks.
Root simply must find a way to counter Cummins’ dominance against him and it has to start in Brisbane.
Four years ago Cummins had Root out twice at the Gabba – LBW for 15 and LBW for 51.
Against the rest of the Australian lineup, Root is far more confident. While he has also been dismissed by Hazlewood (including a pair at Leeds in 2019) and Lyon seven times, he’s played more against them and his averages against those bowlers are a lot closer to his career average.
While he didn’t score a century last Aussie tour there were signs that he started to figure out the Australian pitches (albeit some flat ones at Melbourne and Sydney) with scores of 61, 83 and 58 retired ill to finish a forgettable summer for England.
Root will know that Cummins has extra pressure on him this series as the new captain of Australia. This matchup could well decide the Ashes.
David Warner vs Stuart Broad
David Warner must be sick of seeing the smiling face of Stuart Broad after yet another dismissal at the hands of the England quick.
Broad has Warner’s number 12 times in the 23 matches they’ve played against each other. As far as Warner is concerned the one positive is that eight of those dismissals have come in England.
Warner has been far more comfortable facing the England quick in Australian conditions. He averages 60.25 against England in Australia when Broad is playing compared to 26.04 in the Old Dart.
But the sheer dominance of Broad over Warner in 2019 will still have a psychological impact and that’s why the first Test is so crucial in how this matchup swings.
If Broad was to snag Warner’s wicket early in Brisbane he’ll feel like he has the mental edge for the rest of the series. Likewise, Warner can get the monkey off the back and prove on Aussie pitches he is the boss.
It really is a must-watch battle.
Alex Carey vs Jos Buttler
A brand new wicketkeeper for Australia is up against an experienced player but one who has struggled against the Aussies.
As we saw with Geraint Jones in 2005, there’s a chance for someone like Carey to make a name for himself as a wicketkeeper in this series with relatively low expectations after Tim Paine stepped down.
Carey will have at least two Tests to show what he’s capable of before selectors assess whether to stick or go with Josh Inglis. There’s pressure there but also an enormous opportunity to cement his place and career.
While Carey hasn’t played a Test he does have a lot of experience at the International level with 45 ODIs and 38 T20Is.
His first-class average of 34.73 is more than handy and if he can match that in the first two Tests and take a few catches along the way he’ll have done his job.
Jos Buttler in a sense is also making debut, as he’s never faced Australia in Australia.
All 10 matches for Buttler against Australia have come in England conditions where he averages just 20.50 with a highest score of 70.
As we’ve seen in the shorter format, Buttler is capable of breathtaking cameos and is arguably the most aggressive batsman in England’s lineup outside of Ben Stokes.
England may well choose to give Buttler a free rein like India did with Rishabh Pant last summer which would be very exciting to watch.
The Aussie pitches should suit Buttler who loves the ball coming onto the bat.
Ben Stokes vs Cam Green
Just having Ben Stokes in Australia has given extra buzz to the Ashes series. We all know what he’s capable of after THAT innings in Headingley plus THAT other innings in the Cricket World Cup final of 2019.
The England camp firmly believe that Stokes can have a significant impact despite his lack of cricket. In reality, everyone is in the same boat in that regard so he’s not coming into the series with as big a disadvantage as might usually be the case.
As good as Ben Stokes is, he can’t always save England and he’ll be better suited with some pinch-hitting to get England to a comfortable total rather than bailing them out from a consistent collapse.
Stokes has played four Tests in Australia and has averaged 34.87 with the bat and 32.80 with the ball. A small sample size but an indication that he is a genuine all-round threat this summer.
Cam Green has the chance to be Australia’s Ben Stokes and while he hates the comparisons he can make an impact with either bat or ball. Australia will take either. Both will be the icing on the cake.
Green has shown glimpses with the bat and the enormous power he has will scare England – particularly if Australia makes a solid start. If he’s coming in a 4 for 300 – watch out.
Green has also bowled without luck and he definitely deserves a Test wicket to his name. His role will be to keep it tight and hopefully find some reverse swing with the old ball. Green may not be able to match Stokes this summer but even just a few partnership-breaking spells or a couple of quick-fire 50s could be enough for Australia.
Nathan Lyon vs Dom Bess/Jack Leach
On the surface, Graeme Swann’s 15 wickets at 39.80 in the 2010/11 Ashes looks mediocre but Swann was one of the reasons England managed to win a rare series down under.
He was equal third on the most wickets column in the series and it was his economy rate that made a big difference. Swann went at 2.72 runs an over which is one of the best economy rates by an overseas spin bowler in the past 20 years.
If England is to be competitive they need their spin bowler (Whether they go with Bess or Leach) to keep it tight. The Australian sun will take it out of the quicks and any help to tie down one end while they rest is crucial.
Even if Bess or Leach can’t take consistent wickets, they can play a significant role by going at less than three runs an over.
For Lyon, that elusive 400th Test wicket has been ‘just around the corner’ for what seems like an eternity. Once he gets that wicket out of the way he’s likely to settle into his role.
He’s taken 85 wickets against England at 30.52 which is better than his career (32.12). In Australian conditions, he’s always taken at least one wicket in every bowling innings against the Poms and more importantly, he keeps it tight.
The spin battle is a key to victory and you’d expect both batting lineups to try and assert their dominance as soon as spin is introduced. The spin bowler who holds their nerve in the predictable onslaught will be the piece of the puzzle towards that Ashes urn.