England vs Australia: Back from wilderness, and into the Ashes
Two weeks have passed after what was perhaps the greatest one-day match ever, and there is still fatigue left over from the ebbs and flows of an emotionally draining World Cup final. How do you top that? Bring on the Ashes, the most fitting engagement to close a summer of the most memorable cricket England has witnessed in years.
The Ashes have been gripping affairs, at least since the turn of this century. And with innovations like numbered shirts and concussion substitutes, it continues to break new ground. But it’s the dramatis personae—players like Jofra Archer, Ben Stokes, David Warner, Steve Smith, Cameron Bancroft, Peter Siddle and James Pattinson—who should make this series another stirring watch.
To begin with, the selection process has been unusual. England picked 14 players, a rarity for a home series, including Jofra Archer and reinstated Ben Stokes as the vice-captain.
“The wider circumstances—a successful home World Cup campaign followed so quickly by a home Ashes series—are unprecedented. It feels sensible to select an expanded squad and leave a number of bowling options open for the final team selection,” said England national selector Ed Smith on Saturday.
By fast-tracking Archer to the Test squad, England have wasted no time in utilising the express pacer in all three formats, somewhat akin to how India accelerated Jasprit Bumrah through the ranks in 2018. Archer has taken 131 wickets in 28 first-class matches at an average of 23.44 since his senior debut with Sussex in 2016, and it is only fair that he goes on to become the first black England player to feature in an Ashes series since Michael Carberry in January, 2014.
But it is also a story of karma. Playing through the pain of a side strain during the second half of the World Cup, Archer is the epitome of the sacrifice and will of an outsider trying to find his place. He is one of England’s own now. As is Ben Stokes, who was exiled to play local cricket in New Zealand after the Bristol bar brawl in 2017 while his team lost the Ashes on the other side of the Tasman Sea. A superlative World Cup has turned the tables for him.
Australia’s methodology behind the Ashes squad selection befits the occasion. According to several reports, each of the 25 probables were informed about their fate in private and in alphabetical order after they had turned out against each other in a potential selection match at Southampton. It doesn’t get more tense than this for the players, patiently waiting for their turn to face the chairman of selectors Trevor Hohns and chief coach Justin Langer. Considering Australia’s penchant for a bit of theatre when it comes to marquee series, this may come across as an ostentatious move, and quite in line with the school of thought that brought the house down with the ‘Homeworkgate’ scandal during the tour of India in 2012-13.
In inexplicably excluding Alex Carey, the man behind their lower middle-order fightbacks in the World Cup, Australia have managed to surprise. But the checks and balances that have been in place since last year’s Cape Town Test have allowed Australia orchestrate a slow overhaul of their image but not their spirit. Tim Paine now leads a squad that has opened its arms to the reunited trio of Warner, Smith and Bancroft. Smith and Warner were already part of the World Cup squad; with three centuries and 647 runs—one short of tournament topper Rohit Sharma—Warner has already atoned for his role in the ‘Sandpapergate’ scandal. So has Smith who was busy in the middle order throughout the World Cup. But the road to salvation has been tougher for Bancroft, the main perpetrator of the act at Newlands. Throughout the nine-month ban, Bancroft kept the Baggy Green at his side, reminding himself of the task to get back into the Test team.
“It’s good motivation isn’t it?,” Bancroft was quoted as saying by cricket.com.au. “To look at it and go ‘yeah I’m playing cricket but there’s something bigger I eventually want to be able to get back to’.”
Piling up runs helps too. During his stint with Durham, Bancroft amassed 726 runs in nine matches with two centuries, but the clincher was a combative and unbeaten 93 during the warmup match on a difficult Southampton pitch. “He’s the type of player we think we need in our Australian side. He’s tough, he’s enthusiastic, his work ethic is fantastic. And he’s infectious. We need people like that, people who want to continue to improve their game, and who are hard-nosed and tough. He fits the bill,” Hohns had said.
By finally getting back James Pattinson fit and raring to go, Australia fulfill a long-cherished dream of fielding the entire pace talent groomed in this decade: Peter Siddle, Mitchell Marsh, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc being the others. Siddle is reminiscent of the fearsome Australian bowling that keeps hammering away at one line, running up to the batsmen and riling them at every chance. Almost forgotten, Siddle came back strong against Pakistan last October, after a gap of two years. Pattinson last played a Test three years ago before a back injury derailed his career. Older and wiser versions of these men can’t be good news for England. This summer belongs to England so far. Only Australia have the opportunity to take the sheen off it. Taking centrestage in this series will be a few men who know what wilderness feels like. Expect them to play the cricket of their life.
Ashes schedule: August: 1-5 1st Test, Edgbaston; 14-18 2nd Test, Lord’s; 22-26 3rd Test, Headingley; September, 4-8 4th Test, Old Trafford; 12-16 5th Test, The Oval.