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Ashes 2017-18: Cometh the hour, cometh the captain

First-time Ashes captains Steve Smith and Joe Root have to step up to the plate not only when they have momentum but also when the team needs them most

cricket Updated: Nov 22, 2017 12:47 IST
Sidharth Gulati
Sidharth Gulati
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Ashes 2017-18,Steve Smith,Joe Root
Australia's skipper Steve Smith (L) and England captain Joe Root smile as they pose at a media opportunity in Brisbane on November 22, 2017, ahead of the first Test of the Ashes Series.(AFP)

How do you expect an Aussie captain to respond on the first Ashes day at home after losing the urn in England two years ago? Play the proverbial captain’s innings of course! It’s easier said than done but trust the tough-talking Ricky Ponting to walk the talk.

On a sunny day at Brisbane, Punter signalled gloom for the Andrew Flintoff-led England by scoring 196 -- one of the finest innings ever played in the Ashes. The hosts went on to win the Test by 277 runs before inflicting a 5-0 whitewash on the Poms for the first time in 86 years. Ponting led the scoring charts with 576 at an average of 82.28 and won the Compton-Miller Medal for Player of the Series.

Was he motivated by revenge? “I have never mentioned that word once, not even to myself,” claimed Punter. But such was his single-minded intent of crushing England, through batting, fielding and captaining, that it was hard to believe him.

Ashes are won and lost by the captains’ attitude. And when that translates into form with the bat or ball, a team can’t ask for more. Captaining for the first time in the Ashes, Steve Smith and Joe Root have the responsibility to make their batting count as much as possible. They won’t have to look far out for inspiration.

READ | Ashes 2017-18: Glenn Maxwell included as cover for David Warner

Strauss’s timely but forgotten knock

After birthday boy Peter Siddle’s hattrick restricted England to 260 in the first Ashes 2010-11 Test at the Gabba, Michael Hussey’s master-class that helped Australia take a 221-run first innings lead.

Alastair Cook’s double century and Jonathan Trott’s unbeaten 135 were the highlights of England’s mammoth second innings declared at 517/1. But the 110 by captain Andrew Strauss -- who got out for a third-ball duck in the first innings -- deserves a mention because had he got out early, things could have been completely different in England.

That Test eventually ended in a draw. But the psychological momentum secured by getting the better of Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus, Mitchell Johnson and Nathan Hauritz for almost two days was one of the prime reasons why England defeated Australia 3-1. Strauss’s counter-attack helped shift the momentum towards England at the right time.

Mark Taylor had played a similar knock but in different circumstances in the 1994-95 series. Up 2-0, Australia were bundled out for just 116 in Sydney after Darren Gough wreaked havoc with a six-wicket haul in overcast and seaming conditions. Taylor top-scored with 49.

England managed a 193-run first innings lead and with fifties from Graeme Hick and Mike Atherton, they set Australia an improbable target of 449. What followed was a brilliant comeback. Shane Warne and Tim May’s frustrating stand and some assistance from rain helped Australia remain 2-0 up but it couldn’t have been possible without Taylor’s 113. Australia won the series 3-1 but in hindsight, Taylor’s knock was the catalyst in Australia retaining the Ashes, considering England had won the fourth Test in Adelaide.

READ | Ashes 2017-18: David Warner in doubt for Brisbane Test vs England

Clarke strikes when it’s hot

Michael Clarke was made in the same mould as Taylor. After opting to bat in the second Ashes 2013-14 Test in Adelaide, Australia were in a tricky situation at 174/4. Clarke, who had slammed a century in the first Test in Brisbane, made a well-compiled 148 and his 200-run partnership with Brad Haddin guided the hosts to 570/9d.

Australia won the match by 218 runs and completed yet another whitewash after Mitchell Johnson annihilated the visitors. Had Clarke not stood up then, England could have staged a comeback and that would’ve robbed the Aussies of the momentum they got with a 381-run win in the first Test. Clarke’s century ensured the doors were firmly shut on England.

Rarely have we had an Ashes with two new captains. And that too, two of the best batting talents. Smith though has a slightly upper hand in terms of experience as captain, having led Australia in 26 Tests. Root, on the other hand, has been captain in just seven Tests.

But Root couldn’t have probably dreamt of a better start than the one at Lord’s where he scored 190 in the first innings, helping England win the Test by 211 runs. Smith too had a similar start to his captaincy, scoring 133 against India in Brisbane in a productive 2014-15 series that also gave us Virat Kohli in his best avatar.

Smith’s statistics --- 12 centuries in 26 Tests as captain, six of them against India --- suggest he preserves his best for Kohli’s boys but this Ashes will show whether he can turn on the heat against Root who’s currently hailed to be one of the best batsmen ever.

First Published: Nov 22, 2017 10:02 IST