To paraphrase Billy Joel, they, indeed, didn’t start the fire. From Fred ‘The Demon’ Spofforth to Mitchell Johnson via Jim Laker, Ian Botham and Freddie Flintoff, it was always burning since the world’s been turning. Yes, the Ashes, the mother of all cricketing contests, is upon us. And Joe Root, after a second-ball reprieve, has started it in a very positive fashion for England.
Two years ago, in Australia, the Poms were cringing with fear. Johnson had been hurling thunderbolts and the England batters were running for cover. Jonathan Trott was traumatised and took an early flight home. Graeme Swann retired mid-tour. England’s performance had gone downhill after that. A World Cup defeat against minnows Bangladesh was the lowest point. The Kevin Pietersen (KP) controversy came close on its heels. Andrew Strauss, England’s new director of cricket, had a baptism by fire.
England rallied from the brink. Interim head coach Paul Farbrace brought in positivity, Alastair Cook found form and the team played a very entertaining series against New Zealand. Now, the onus is on Trevor Bayliss to keep up the good work. England’s new coach had been impressive in the IPL while in-charge of the Kolkata Knight Riders. The Ashes is a different ball game altogether and this is England’s moment of reckoning—whether they’re on the right course. A series victory would be a huge achievement. Defeat could be catastrophic.
Bayliss urges his boys to play fearless cricket and Root did just that during his brilliant 134 off 166 balls in Cardiff. It was a sort of innings you expect KP to play. The charismatic middle-order batsman is history now as far as international cricket is concerned. England have found his successor.
Two years ago, Root had been among the long list of England failures Down Under. He was dropped for the final Test in Sydney, but it proved to be the turning point. He has averaged 85.41 in 13 Tests after that Australia tour. Also, he’s Test cricket’s highest run-getter (642) in 2015. Root versus Steve Smith should be one of the highlights of the series.
Smith has rapidly grown in stature since the home series against India last winter—Australian summer to be precise.
His 769 runs in four Tests (average 128.16) with four centuries and two half-tons were almost Bradmanesque. The 26-year-old also captained Australia when Michael Clarke had been sidelined with a hamstring injury. He’s the man for the future. The challenge for him would be to make a mark in this tour. Smith has had an average record in England with 345 runs in six Tests and only one century. This is a reason why his arch rivals still don’t rate him highly. This series provides him with an opportunity to become an Ashes hero. He has made a slow start, but there’s plenty of time to recover.
Over to bowling now and the focus is once again on Johnson. The left-arm quick was the difference between the two sides last term with 37 wickets from five Tests at an average of 13.97. The Cardiff pitch was flat enough to nullify his threat in the first innings. But beware England, he will come back strong.
Johnson has another Mitchell by his side, and Starc is bowling beautifully. A five-wicket haul in the first innings of the first Test is a very good beginning. He’s going to be England’s tormentor-in-chief.
In Mark Wood, the hosts, however, have someone to fight fire with fire. They didn’t have serious pace in their ranks in the last Ashes series, so the response to Johnson’s aggro was tame. They can unleash Wood now.
The young fast bowler has played only two Tests before this—nine wickets, strike-rate 48.6—but made serious impression with his pace and control against New Zealand. He made Brendon McCullum hurried into his shots with his full-length deliveries. BJ Watling hopped to his bouncers. Wood is like a breath of fresh air amid English conservatism with his unorthodox action and attacking mindset. He could be England’s answer to the Mitchells…England have traditionally produced medium pacers; swing bowlers to be precise. They haven’t produced many with raw pace. Harold Larwood, Fred Trueman, Brian Statham, Frank Tyson, John Snow, Bob Willis, Devon Malcolm and Simon Jones—the list ends there. Now they’ve Wood, who could be quite a handful with his 92 mph deliveries and reverse swing. Earlier this year, Wahab Riaz had shown Australia could be rattled with hostility. Young Wood started the mind games early, targeting Shane Watson. Actions speak louder than words.
Australia are superior in the spin department. Nathan Lyon is a very good off-spinner and a far better wicket-taking option than Root and Moeen Ali combined. England are still a tad iffy about playing leg-spinner Adil Rashid. Then again, apart from Laker in 1956 and a little bit of Derek Underwood and Swann after him, spinners have seldom made an impact in the Ashes. Shane Warne is not included in the discussion, for he was a genius and normal rules never applied to him.
England had suffered ignominy Down Under. This time, they’ve made all the right noises in the lead-up to this assignment of duty. Armed with Botham’s pep talk and good wishes from the Prince of Wales, they’re now ready to go. Count them out at your peril, for Australia are poor travellers. They haven’t won the Ashes in England since 2001.