“You’re just upset because no one loves you any more” — Kevin Pietersen to Shane Watson. The Aussie was apparently going through a tough time in his personal life back then.
“Get ready for a broken f*#@ing arm” — Michael Clarke to James Anderson.
“I definitely think they’re rattled by it. They don’t like it at all. Their coach has come out and wanted a truce from what I’ve heard, but that’s not going to change from our end” — Mitchell Johnson on Australia’s sledging policy.
It’s that time of the year again. The season where emotions run wild, words aren’t minced and legacy maintained — of competitive cricket and rivalry.
The England-Australia encounter — alias The Ashes showdown — is that magnum opus on the cricketing calendar where players get under each others’ skin. In fact, the banter that starts before the action is a sort of a countdown. It reminds the fans to book their tickets, stock their beers and rerun the old DVDs.
Even potential match-winners — like high school students who would bunk prom nights to prepare for their semesters — cut down on their international appearances, months prior to the battle, to avoid injuries and sharpen their skills.
Ahead of the ‘war,’ as stated by Australian opener David Warner, that commences on November 23 at The Gabba in Brisbane, let’s meet the marquee soldiers of the regiments.
The England skipper climbed up the ranks through The Ashes. Having played two editions of the tournament and bagging ‘The Player of The Series’ award last time, in 2015, he remains the batting mainstay. Among the batters England has produced in recent times, Root stands out. The right-hander is capable of a fusillade, if needed, as well as anchor an innings. However, there is a bit of doubt on his batting position. After taking over Test captaincy from Alastair Cook earlier this year, Root moved to No. 4 from No. 3. The switch didn’t affect his performance, but for The Ashes, coach Trevor Bayliss indicated that the skipper may have to go back to his original position.
Crane — one of the surprise inclusions in the squad — could initiate thunder and lightning. Though former England skipper Michael Vaughan didn’t nod to his selection, there are murmurs in the Australian camp. Of course, they didn’t expect England to pick a certain leg-spinner from Hampshire and push him into the flight to Australia. The Aussies aren’t aware of his variety, leave alone deception. Coincidentally, the 20-year-old picked up the cherry after witnessing the 2005 Ashes; Shane Warne is his idol. A wrist spinner is a rare species in England; he may still await his club internship certificate, a bowler not known to opposition is a bowler won. Root needs to be brave enough to pick him.
Second coming stories have often been effective in The Ashes. Remember Chris Rogers for Australia in 2015? James Vince’s recall to bolster the England top-order is no surprise. The right-hander is a high profile batsman in the county circuit. To solve more problems, he is ready to fill in the No. 3 position too, if Root is adamant on No. 4. The 26-year-old has been tried, tested and discarded by England last year, but the Hampshire lad has been timing the ball well of late. With five half-centuries in the domestic season and a fair bit of experience in Australia, thanks to the Big Bash League, Vince was an automatic choice ahead of Tom Westley.
Even if Anderson decides to prolong his career till the next Ashes, he would still be a player to watch out for. The seasoned speedster, sitting on 506 wickets in 129 Tests, is the senior-most customer in the battle. His numbers speak of his performance. If England is to break the 31-year winless streak in Australia, the 35-year-old needs to switch on his vintage swing mode. So far, the Lancastrian has claimed 43 wickets Down Under, but his bowling average had taken a beating. The only weapon is his experience, which may come in handy. He has also experienced whitewashes in The Ashes but that’s how he learned his lessons. If any bowler can pierce through the Aussies psychologically, it’s him.
Renshaw is all that Warner isn’t — an old school opener straight out of the early to mid 20th century. The southpaw scores on patience and aptitude to design an innings. The 21-year-old is that batsman who would try to bat out a Test. Renshaw will also reunite with childhood friend, Root. Yes, you read that right. He was born in Yorkshire and grew up playing cricket with the England skipper. “I used to cry when I got out and he’s probably going to pull that one out maybe, I’m not sure,” he told Sydney Morning Herald, on how he is expecting Root and the Barmy Army to sledge him. The rookie looks prepared.
He may not have the loud mouth of a Ricky Ponting or a Warne, but Smith is shrewd, sharp and difficult to bowl to. The right-handed batsman, with a stance that allows him to change shots in the last minute, could be an ordeal for England if he finds his rhythm. Over the years, Smith has developed into a rock, courtesy his unorthodox feet movement and clever shot selection. Even Sir Ian Botham believes that getting Smith early will be half the job done. “The reality is the Aussie batting should hold no fears for England because once they get past David Warner and Steve Smith there is very little else to worry about,” he told Mirror. With 20 Test hundreds and an average of 59.66, he is the key to Australia’s courage.
The name Mitchell is like a death bell to English ears. If Johnson tore them apart in 2013, Starc is pumped up for an encore. The 27-year-old is the most ferocious pacer today. He already sent a warning to England with his comeback performance (a 10-wicket match haul) for New South Wales against South Australia. Starc is one of those pacers who had disappeared from international cricket for a brief period to cure his injuries and plot England’s downfall in the upcoming Ashes. His last Test came against India in March. He wants his team-mates to emulate Johnson. “If it’s not me, you’ve got Pat Cummins bowling fast bouncers, you’ve got Josh Hazlewood bowling consistent line and length, so much like that attack did when Jono took all those wickets, I think we complement each other really well,” Starc told BBC.
When Australia plays at home, the focus has mostly been on the bowlers. The right-arm fast bowler, Hazlewood, is an automatic entry into the debate. Being a line-and-length bowler, he has the ability to steal edges off experienced batters. His accuracy fetches him wickets — 118 wickets in 31 Tests are good numbers for a cricketer who made his Test debut only three years ago. There is a shadow of Glenn McGrath in his follow-through, stamina and ability to generate bounce. The former Aussie quick, also the pacer with the most number of wickets in Tests (563), recently commented that Hazlewood carries the pedigree to topple him in the charts.
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