London: It does not look as though it is going to be a high-scoring Ashes series, or one-sided like the last - Australia won 4-0 - or one that features a lot of spin, or quick over-rates. It promises to be a rather one-dimensional dogfight until mid-September, by which time England may or may not have won their fifth home Ashes series in a row.
This type of cricket will be dictated by the brand of Dukes ball, manufactured in 2018, with a prouder seam than this year’s model being used in the County Championship. It may seem esoteric that events should be determined by this small sphere; but such varying conditions as the type of ball, and pitch, and overhead conditions have made every series different to all those that have gone before, back to the creation of the Ashes in 1882.
Last summer, against India, the ball worked a treat for England’s swingers and seamers. Led by James Anderson, who took 24 wickets at only 18 runs each, England beat India 4-1. Same recipe, same result? Cricket never works that way, to order; but England’s strength is their pace bowling, illustrated by the options in their 14-man squad for the first Test, and it makes sense for England’s think tank to place faith again in Anderson and his cohorts - although Australia’s special strength is also their pace bowling, with seven options in their 17-man squad.
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Modern drainage dictates that more grass has to be left on the pitch at the start so it does not crumble in the heat, which makes the pace bowler’s life easier still. Twenty for two, and 100 for five, are going to be familiar scores - especially when England bat. And this is when the dogfighting will begin, the matches won or lost.
England’s top-order frailty - the absence of a partner for Alastair Cook as he then was, let alone a successor - has had one silver lining: the growth of the England late-order scrapper. In the last home Ashes of 2015 it was Moeen Ali who led the counter-attacks from No 8: it was no coincidence that in the three Tests won by England, he and Stuart Broad shared a half-century stand. Moeen finished as England’s third highest run-scorer, after Cook and Joe Root, with 293 off 410 balls, a rollicking rate for a home Ashes.
It is a long time since Moeen swashbuckled, but Sam Curran has grown into a similar left-handed swordsman. Curran’s 55 runs off 45 balls against Ireland were match-turning. The successful counter-attack has become his hallmark: in half of his 10 Tests he has turned the tide. So even if England’s top order cannot set the game up, their lower order can snatch it away from Australia: Moeen and Curran, Chris Woakes and Broad, even Jofra Archer when he makes his Test debut.
Let us not forget, however, that there should not be an Ashes series this summer. From 1977 they were staged in accordance with the traditional cycle - every four years in England, with a tour of Australia in between - until 2013. So the next home Ashes should have been played in 2017 and 2021.
Nobody has the right to interfere with this quadrennial cycle. It should be sacred, like the four-year Olympic cycle. The administrators of England and Australia, however, decided they were entitled to ignore the traditions of Ashes cricket, and opted for short-term financial gain.
England played Australia in 2013, 2013-4 (not 2014-5 as the cycle should have dictated), and 2015 rather than 2017. These extra series - three in two years and two months when there should have been one - jeopardised the popularity of “the product” as the administrators no doubt called it when selling off some of the family silver. Ashes series became routine, no longer special and the climax of the cricket calendar.
Not only the popularity of Ashes cricket was damaged: so too was the mental health of several England players, and their careers. If the administrations had done their job properly, England would not have been at the receiving end of what could reasonably be called the most ferocious fast bowling of all time: Mitchell Johnson would have been a year older, at 33, and that much less likely to have taken 37 wickets at 13 runs each.
The psychological damage which our administrators enabled to happen - they have moved on without acknowledging any error - is fully revealed in the new film, ‘The Edge.’ It captures the torment England’s batsmen went through in 2013-4, and not only mental: Jonathan Trott cranking the bowling machine up to its maximum of 95mph (the equivalent of a bowler delivering at more than 100mph because the machine gives no cues) and being frequently hit in his desperation to perform, before flying home, a nervous wreck. Matt Prior and Graeme Swann were also broken, permanently, in a series that should never have happened.
The specious rationale offered by England’s administrators was that they wanted to change the cycle, so that World Cups did not occur in the same season as Ashes series: England had been exhausted after going from a long winter in Australia into a World Cup. But the 2019 World Cup would not have clashed with any Ashes series, if only they had left the original cycle alone. Instead, England now have to play a World Cup and an Ashes series in four months.
It is going to be especially tough on the batsmen of both sides who have played in the World Cup: none has had enough red-ball cricket to get into the rhythm of batting for long periods. Cameron Bancroft could emerge as a key figure - as the captain of Durham, and a reformed character, he has kicked on since “Sandpapergate” to acclimatise quietly to English conditions - while David Warner and Steve Smith attract the attention and derision.
Three-two? Probably. To which side? That is the question.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019