A preview of the 2015 Ashes Series with our predictions and players to watch over the summer.
And so, the biennial clash of two fiercely proud -some might say arrogant- nations commences today in Cardiff as England and Australia square off in the first test of this year’s Ashes series. A series steeped in tradition, the moniker was first applied in 1882 after Australia’s first ever series victory on Australian soil. A mock obituary appeared in a British newspaper, The Sporting Times, stating English cricket was dead and “the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.” As a symbolic gesture after England’s victory in 1883, England captain Ivo Bligh was presented with a small urn –this is itself is a quirky story– containing “the Ashes of Australian cricket.” Ever since a tiny replica urn -symbolic of the vanquished side’s game- has been presented to the winning captain in what has become the most trumpeted rivalry in international cricket.
England and Australia. It would be difficult to conjure a more self-important sporting nation than the former –indeed the victorious England side of 2005 were awarded MBEs for winning a two team cricket series- while the Antipodeans approach and play their sport with complete, unapologetic, though invariably well backed-up, arrogance. It is fitting that these two nations should play out such a grandiose contest every two years. There really is no other sport where a stand-alone rivalry is granted such an unprecedented level of attention in both the public and media fora. Aussies hate the Poms while England love nothing better than to stifle the incredibly brash, in-your-face Australians. Nonetheless, if one chooses to dip for the first time into what is generally perceived in these parts as an incredibly boring game, there is no better cricketing experience than the Ashes.
Test cricket is completely different to what we saw earlier this year at the limited overs World Cup. Played over five days with both sides batting for two innings each, the side with the most runs after five days wins but they must bowl out the other side’s entire line-up. If a side is still batting at the end of day five without surpassing the other side’s score then the game ends in a draw. The wicket and crease are prepared differently for test series. For example English bowlers like to swing and seam the ball –this article explains these terms perfectly- but as day four and five approach cracks appear in the pitch and this is when spinners come into their element.
This year’s series sees Australia, led by Michael Clarke, attempting to retain the urn for the first time since 2003. England ended years of heartache and downright humiliation with a thrilling victory in 2005 –their first since 1987- bringing to an end an unprecedented era of Australian dominance fronted at various times by greats such as sledging king Merv Hughes –more on that later- Steve Waugh, Glenn McGrath and the most prolific leg-spinner of all time, Shane Warne. Warne’s fist ever delivery in Ashes cricket in 1993 –‘the Ball of the Century’– to a hapless Mike Gatting has gone down in cricketing lore, not only for its brilliance but for the singular impact it had in reintroducing leg-spinners to cricket.
Along with Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff –a genuine, modern-day, English folk hero- the man who really swung that 2003 series in England’s favour was the now exiled, Kevin Pietersen. Twelve years ago the English public were unconvinced as to whether this highly touted, South African import would deliver. Over the next six weeks he answered that question emphatically, smashing Warne and co. to all corners of English grounds as the unproven maverick became the doyen –Freddie aside- of the English summer. There’s no great point in retracing our steps as Pietersen’s enforced absence this summer has already been well-documented and the English public –save for Pietersen’s dickhead mate, Piers Morgan- have for the most part moved on. Nonetheless, expect any English failing to be tied, whether logically or not, to Pietersen’s absence.
Following the 2005 breakthrough, England actually won three of the next five series although these wins were bookended by humiliating 5-0 whitewashes on Australian soil. This summer however England will enjoy home comforts and raucous home crowds, led by the highly irritating though admittedly passionate Barmy Army. Also, as we mentioned above the ball swings in the air in English conditions –mainly it seems due to cloud cover- and James Anderson, England’s all-time leading wicket-taker is peerless in this department.
English cricket was somewhat in the mire for the last twelve months with the probably sulking shadow of Pietersen looming large in this period. 2014’s whitewash ‘Down Under’ was followed by this year’s World Cup abomination, with the English performing considerably worse than a vastly less well-resourced and frankly inferior side in Ireland. A drawn test series against a West Indian team shorn of its stars bore bad omens for the fast approaching series against New Zealand, a team who in terms of attacking style and low-key demeanour proved the antithesis of the beleaguered English. Yet, what a difference a few weeks makes. England drew the test series (five-day games) and recovered to win the one-day series (50 over games) against the World Cup runners-up to give English cricket an incredibly timely boost before the arrival of Australia. The upturn in performance resulted from England taking a very un-English approach, releasing the shackles and playing with reckless abandon. Australia will still be the favourites, but Alastair Cook’s England have every chance, boosted further by the injury-enforced retirement this week of the hugely important, swing-proficient Australian bowler, Ryan Harris.
The above-mentioned New Zealand series was notable for the absence of sledging –the hot topic in this summer’s gaelic football championship- but really an age-old mainstay of all sports. If England invented cricket then Australians are the unquestioned founding fathers of sledging: relentless verbal insults aimed at an opposing batsmen with a view to weakening the batsman’s mental resolve. While New Zealand ignored the use of insults there is absolutely no chance that England or Australia will decline the opportunity to ruffle their opponents’ feathers. After the recent series against the ‘Black Caps’ was played in fantastic spirit, Anderson –a serial sledger- attempted to mount the high horse, disingenuously asking for the upcoming Ashes to be played in the absence of any nasty verbals. The Australians, however, saw right through this. We’re inclined to respect the Australians for their frankness, not because we’re particularly fond of sledging, but because both sides will engage in the thorny psychological wars. We’ll take a straight criminal over a dodgy cop any day of the week.
There seems, however, to be a different level of vitriol -probably media driven- between the current sets of players. This isn’t helped by the fact that Australian opener David Warner –a guy who would be as divisive as Kevin Pietersen if he were English but is loved in Australia- punched English batsman Joe Root in a Birmingham bar in 2013, in the build up to that year’s Ashes series. Warner has reportedly calmed down –that is according to himself- but we’re certain that once the series starts all bets will be off. Australian coach Darren Lehmann openly encourages his players to take on the opposition mentally and England’s pair of Anderson and the risible Stuart Broad are as mouthy as they come. So, frankly, something has to give. Despite the relative paucity of information about cricket players –at least compared to their soccer counterparts- it seems they are a decidedly prickly, bitchy, irritable bunch. Between Warner’s antics, the furore surrounding Pietersen –indeed English director of cricket and former teammate Andrew Strauss was caught calling the South African a “cunt”, unaware that he was live on air- and the perceived nastiness on the pitch there is no chance this series will pass without some form of widely-debated indiscretion.
The series will be tighter than the Aussies expect though they rarely expect a challenge let alone contemplate being beaten. Nonetheless, England may be riding on the crest of a deceptively, insubstantial wave, as, despite their self-congratulatory summer thus far, they have achieved little in terms of consistency. Additionally, today’s test is new coach -incidentally an Australian- Trevor Bayliss’ first game in charge following the tumultuous spring. Expect drama, countless barbs from both camps and believe us, despite the duration of each test, truly thrilling cricket. The home side will battle gamely but we expect Australia’s proven class to tell. Australia to win this lengthy production and ride not so quietly into the sunset.
Our Prediction: Australia to win series 3-1 (9/2 generally)
While the sledging of recent series has been marked by a dearth of wit there are some classic sledges from earlier Ashes series, where even the victim may have allowed themselves a concealed smirk. Here are a couple of our favourites:
Merv Hughes to Graeme Hick
Hughes, a notoriously chippy, mountain of a man aimed this at batsman Graeme Hick with the Englishman going through a period of hopeless swishing of the bat, unable to score.
Hughes: “Mate, if you just turn the bat over you’ll find the instructions on the other side.”
Glenn McGrath to Michael Atherton
Revered Australian fast-bowler Dennis Lillee originally devised this eternally popular set-up, used on this occasion by Glenn McGrath against former England captain, Michael Atherton.
McGrath: “Athers, it would help if you got rid of the shit at the end of your bat.”
Atherton earnestly looks at the bottom of his bat.
McGrath: “No, no, the other end.”
James Ormond to Mark Waugh
The little known England bowler James Ormond was preparing to bowl to Mark Waugh – a fine player but never regarded as being in the same league as brother Steve- leading to a more subtle, English response.
Waugh: “Fuck me, look who it is. Mate, what are you doing out here? There’s no way you’re good enough to play for England.”
Ormond: “Maybe not, but at least I’m the best player in my family”.
And, the classic Ashes sledge courtesy of legendary English all-rounder, Ian Botham.
Ian Botham to Rodney Marsh
Botham, like Hughes was never one to play the game with his mouth shut. As the Englishman prepared to bat, Aussie wicket keeper Rodney Marsh decided to put him off and was as emphatically as is possible put back in his box.
Marsh: “So how’s your wife and my kids?”
Botham: “The wife’s fine – the kids are retarded.”
Alastair Cook (England) – Possibly the most boring batsman in the world, Cook is an obdurate opener who when locked in can make massive scores. Accusations of conservatism challenged by new found freedom in New Zealand series. Can be a bit wibbly-wobbly when the concentration wanes. Needs big scores to lead England.
Michael Clarke (Australia) – Definitely taking a lead from Machiavelli in declining the notion of inspiring love from his players. A tricky character but superb batsman when in form. Also an aggressive, creative captain who will attack rather than defend against batsmen. Terrible injury history may slow him while pre-series form is poor. Needs to step up like he can.
Players to Watch
Joe Root- An absolute revelation this year, the baby-faced Yorkshireman is the absolute darling of the expectant English public. Appearance belies his steely demeanour. If he has the series he is capable of, England will compete.
Moeen Ali- England’s spinner is tasked with replacing retired great, Graeme Swann. The Australians will target the relatively untested Ali so if he crumbles England lose. End of.
James Anderson- England’s leading all-time wicket taker. An incredible ability to move the ball in the air and as combative as they come. Will happily mix it with the Australians in what will definitely be his last home Ashes series.
David Warner- Loathed in England –water off a duck’s back for an Australian- Warner is incredibly explosive with the bat. When firing, Warner has the ability to take the game away from opposition bowlers. Arguably Australia’s most important player and definitely Public Enemy Number One.
Steve Smith- Once pilloried by the English media Smith is now ranked the best test batsman in the world. The English still think they have seen something that makes him vulnerable and believe he can’t cope with English conditions. It would be fantastic to see Smith prove his obstinate set of doubters wrong.
The other Mitchell, Johnson that is, destroyed England last time round but he may on the wane this time round. Mitchell Starc has proved a revelation, bowling with immense pace and aggression and though unpredictable at just twenty-two has the potential to become the dominant figure in this year’s series.