It is one of the highlights of the British sporting calendar and a historic event between two sporting superpowers. The first time England and Australia faced off was during the 1882-83 season, and on that occasion England came out on top. Since that first test series there have been sixty-nine series played with thirty-two wins apiece and five draws – a remarkable level of competitiveness for well over a century which is part of the allure and romance of this cricketing battle.
There have been many standout series’ down the decades which have seared themselves into popular memory. The ‘Bodyline’ Series of 1932/33 where a new, aggressive bowling technique perfected by Nottinghamshire miner Harold Larwood caused a diplomatic incident and ‘Botham’s Ashes’ in 1981 where the former captain put in a remarkable display with bat and ball with figures totalling 399 runs, 34 wickets and 12 catches. Most recently there was the 2005 series where England took back the urn for the first time since 1986/87, with Aussie legends like Shane Warne taking a beating against upstarts like Kevin Pietersen and the incomparable Andrew Flintoff. The Ashes truly is cricket’s finest contest, one that draws envy from heavyweights of the game such as India and Pakistan.
This series will also be notable for at least one reason – the second test at Adelaide in early December will be the first day-night Ashes test in history, featuring a pink rather than traditional red ball. The Adelaide Oval also hosted the first ever day-night test in November last year with the Aussies beating New Zealand by three wickets.
The tour started in early November with England playing their first match against a Western Australia Cricket Association team. The two-day fixture in Perth ended in a draw, with Mark Stoneman and James Vince top scoring for the visitors with eighty-five and eighty-two respectively. This pair have performed well in the warm-up matches, and will have a crucial role to play in the batting order just after the openers.
Two four-day fixtures followed against a Cricket Australia XI in Adelaide and Townsville, with England triumphing in the first and drawing the latter. Warwickshire seamer Chris Woakes impressed in both matches with figures of 4-17 in the second innings in Adelaide and 6-54 in Townsville, staking a late claim for a place in the test team.
There has been a long build-up to this tour, and much has happened off the field. The arrest of Ben Stokes in late September due to suspicion of causing actual bodily harm after an incident outside a nightclub in Bristol early in the morning after a match against the West Indies was a hammer blow to the England team. The New Zealand-born all-rounder was in fine form before the incident and seen as a talismanic figure who could lead England to Ashes glory. At the time of writing it is not known what action the police take after collecting evidence, but either way the England management are not currently planning on having him for any part of the test series. The absence of Stokes will clearly hurt England and galvanise Australia, but they do have strength in the middle order of the batting order with the likes of Worcestershire’s Moeen Ali and Johnny Bairstow of Yorkshire who may well find themselves tasked with stemming the Aussie tide.
Down under, the Australians didn’t waste much time in publicly sounding off about their English opponents and much has been made of the media battle and potential sledging that may well occur on the field. Off-spinner Nathan Lyon has been one of the more vocal, saying that he wants to get Joe Root dropped and that the England side who got thrashed 5-0 in 2013/14 were “scared”, even claiming that wicketkeeper Matt Prior wanted to fly home before the third test. Whilst this is hardly the first time that an Australian has been unnecessarily churlish, Lyon’s comments combined with those from teammates and some in the media like former batsman Matthew Hayden have contributed to a negative atmosphere ahead of the tour. To their credit, the England players have not responded in kind and have stated their intent to just get on with playing cricket.
Australia start the series as favourites and their pace attack which features Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc has a good chance of knocking the stuffing out of the England batting line-up. The pitches in Australia are generally harder and faster than their equivalents in the United Kingdom, and nervous batsmen are particularly liable to edge balls which will carry behind to the wicketkeeper. The Aussie quicks will be keen to take scalps at the top of the England order including skipper Joe Root.
Whilst this isn’t the finest Australia team to play in an Ashes series, they clearly have reasons to be confident. However, there are also reasons for the visitors to be optimistic too. Whilst it is true that the Aussies have a few pace bowlers that could be lethal on home turf, England have arguably the finest swing bowler around in Jimmy Anderson who will enjoy the day-night test at Adelaide whilst Root and Cook are experienced and more than a match for their Antipodean counterparts David Warner and Steve Smith.
Regardless of the respective qualities of either team, it will be an intense mental and physical battle in the hunt for victory and a chance for these players to write their names in the annals of Cricketing history.