The build-up is just about perfect

The display board shows the final result when the two sides met each other in the Ashes in 2014. Will England reverse that, is the million-dollar question.-REUTERS

The Ashes is right up there as one of the biggest events in the annals of Test cricket. Yes, there are the storied contests between India and Pakistan, the historical fiery skirmishes between the West Indies and Australia, the spitfire face-offs pitting South Africa and Australia but the Ashes is on a different terrain, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

Just like India-Sri Lanka matches a few years back, the tussles between Australia and England have become a tad too frequent. It looks like yesterday that a moustachioed Mitchell Johnson sent England stumps cart-wheeling and before you read this, the latest Ashes would well and truly be on with the first Test at Cardiff from July 8.

This eternal combustion with its blend of aggression, nostalgia and a deep sense of history will motor on till August 24 — technically the last day of the fifth and final Test at the Oval. But the question remains — does repetitive clashes, breed boredom? The answer is a resounding ‘no’.

The Ashes is right up there as one of the biggest events in the annals of Test cricket. Yes, there are the storied contests between India and Pakistan, the historical fiery skirmishes between the West Indies and Australia, the spitfire face-offs pitting South Africa and Australia but the Ashes is on a different terrain.

The build-up is just about perfect — watch the promos on television and you would wonder what the India-centric mauka, mauka campaign was all about during the World Cup. The buzz is on with former and current cricketers on either side kicking off the cut and thrust of verbal sparring.

The other stereotypes will also find a place. Writing in his book It Takes All Sorts, the late Peter Roebuck penned: “And so the Australians play an aggressive game… and the Englishmen are torn between Victorian suffering and Georgian flamboyance.” It is a truism that cannot be denied. Australians are fused together by their burning desire to win and subterranean tensions are cast aside in the chase for greater glory. It is common knowledge that Steve Waugh and Shane Warne weren’t the best of mates but they still combined well.

Contrast that with England which has made a song and dance over Kevin Pietersen’s alleged divisiveness and cast him to the dungeons and that line from Roebuck — ‘Victorian suffering and Georgian flamboyance’ — still holds its value. If Australia would look to drive home the advantage gained with a 5-0 whitewash secured at home last season, England obviously prefers to erase that bit of a damning past and also show that it can rise despite Pietersen’s absence.

The ‘KP’ factor like the elephant in the room, can be a burden as every false-step by skipper Alastair Cook and his fellow batsmen will surely evoke a tweet from the maverick and his good friend Shane Warne will twist the knife in while wearing dapper suits in the commentary box. And that is also part of the acoustics of the Ashes — the surround-sound will draw as much attention as the on-field action.

Australia prospered last year as Johnson hurled his missiles and had a cowboy swagger from a wild western. David Warner too had that bravado backed by a withering bat. Captain Michael Clarke let it all hang out, sledging the England fast bowlers. England wasn’t merely muzzled, it was decimated. But peaks are hard to sustain — be it skill-sets working like clockwork, demanding fitness levels and a razor-sharp mental approach — and that is a factor that might undermine Australia.

A lot has happened since those heady days ended on January 5, 2014 as Australia completed a 5-0 triumph over England in Sydney. Phillip Hughes’ untimely death and the resultant emotional turmoil, Clarke’s fitness woes, Johnson’s sudden loss of zip and the attendant pressures on Mitchell Starc to stand up and deliver, will all weigh on Australia, though, for all practical purposes, it will start as the favourite to retain the urn.

England will rest on the host’s advantage, pliant crowds, the James Anderson-Stuart Broad tango and also pray that Cook regains that hunger for his acclaimed daddy hundreds. If the captain can stonewall the Johnsons and the Starcs, England will buy time, provide cushioning for its middle-order and also breed frustration within the rival ranks, used they are as in recent times, to quickly topple their former colonial ruler.

There is no Jonathan Trott, lost to the perils of anxiety, and Pietersen, axed for non-cricketing reasons that are largely mumbo-jumbo and it is up to Cook to gloss over that huge vacuum. He is under the kosher too as his ODI berth has been rightly snatched away and another Ashes debacle will leave him in front of the firing squad.

Cook, however, would know at the back of his mind, that in the last Ashes it was England that stepped in as favourite before being forced to eat huge quantities of humble-pie.

A reversal could happen and what is sport for but to dismantle hierarchies and spring surprises? But for that the senior trio of Cook, Anderson and Broad should step up and Ian Bell has to be the middle-order pivot. The series could also offer more glimpses into oriental touches as three spinners with Pakistani roots — Moeen Ali and Adil Rasheed (England); and Fawad Ahmed (Australia) — can fancy their chances of exhibiting their wares provided the English summer stays dry instead of slipping into its quixotic bouts of rains.

Man to man, Australia is superior and should take the Ashes even though it suffered a blow with the retirement of Ryan Harris but England can take a peek at 1981 when Ian Botham turned the tables with both bat and ball. The Guardian then reported: “To be at Headingley yesterday was to be part of a drama as gripping as anything the fertile mind of Wilkie Collins could have dreamed of.

“It was impossible to take the eye away from a single delivery; every run that edged Australia towards the target of 130 heightened the anxiety of an absorbed crowd; every wicket England captured added another heart beat of tension, until by the time that Willis uprooted Bright’s middle stump to end the game, most nerves could have stood no more…”

It remains to be seen if England can take a leaf from this and mount an ambush. Before the verdict dawns, sink into your sofas, put your feet up and imbibe the Ashes through the television. Its charms are infinite.

KEY CONTESTS Alastair Cook vs Mitchell Johnson

Right from the Glenn McGrath days, Australian spearheads target the rival captain and Alastair Cook will face a searing examination from Mitchell Johnson. The latter may have slowed a wee-bit since the heady Ashes back home but if he regains that old steam and spunk, Cook could have his hands full. The bouncers will fly, snarls might be back and if Cook can block and negate Johnson, England will gain a huge brownie point. And having played a huge role in the axing of Kevin Pietersen, Cook better lives up to his Bradmanesque early days!

David Warner vs Stuart Broad

A sledgehammer opener intent on hammering the bowlers all over the park and a speedster keen on knocking the batsmen over makes for riveting viewing. In David Warner and Stuart Broad, there are prime examples of the above mentioned traits. Often the tone and tenor of a series, is determined by the jousts between the opening batsmen and the opening bowlers and the tussle between Warner and Broad in the first Test at Cardiff, could well throw large hints about the way the series could shape up. Warner is ruthless against the short ball and Broad doesn't mind dishing a few to hustle the batsmen besides probing around the off-stump and these are ingredients for a rousing mini-battle.

Michael Clarke vs James Anderson

Much water has flowed down the Thames since the last Ashes but it isn't easy to forget Michael Clarke's unbecoming sledge to James Anderson: "Get ready for a broken f***ing arm." After that series, Phillip Hughes' unfortunate demise, showed a softer side to Clarke but Anderson, bowling at home, with the added delight of having emerged as England's highest wicket-taker in Tests, is bound to keep that taunt in mind. Clarke has his share of fitness woes too and Anderson is bound to test him, with his probing lines and unending pressure. Enfeebling the Australian captain would top Anderson's agenda and the way Clarke handles that will offer enough cues for the rest of his team-mates.

Ian Bell vs Nathan Lyon

Ian Bell has a lot on his plate especially since there is no Kevin Pietersen or Jonathan Trott as his fellowcomrades in the batting order. Bell has to be the adhesive that holds the England batting together and besides stemming the Aussie pacers, he has to dominate the spinners too and that could be the key in the middle stages of a game. Bell loves to use his feet and unlike a few of his peers, can be a touch flamboyant against spin and his duel with Nathan Lyon will make for interesting watching besides influencing the momentum of the series.

Brad Haddin vs Jos Buttler

Wicket-keepers never face-off in the cricketing sense but the way both Brad Haddin and Jos Buttler contribute to Australia and England respectively, will be critical to both teams. Besides their big gloves, Haddin and Buttler can contribute with their bat as well and that adds to the all-round option for the famous rivals. Depth is what Haddin and Buttler promise and their roles will come under scrutiny though the former is at the tail-end of his career and the latter is still a rookie in the larger sense.

K. C. Vijaya Kumar