This is the summer that keeps on giving. It is debatable whether fans are ready for another gut-wrenching, umbrella-handle-chewing sequence of cricket matches, let alone the protagonists in the middle, who have rollercoasted as far as the final and semi-final of a World Cup, which came to its sensational climax little more than a fortnight ago. But the Ashes are here after a necessarily truncated buildup.
There has not been enough time to squeeze in all the usual hype. The prospect of 5-0 has been only briefly circulated and no one is too bothered by that; it is such a well-worn path; there has been little talk of headbutting the line, elite honesty or the magic of the baggy green, though Cameron Bancroft did take the precaution of packing his Australian cap when setting off to play for Durham, a wise move as it turns out.
There has barely been time to speak of sandpaper in advance of the Edgbaston Test when the three prodigals return to the fray for Australia. Bancroft is expected to be back at the earliest opportunity alongside Steve Smith and David Warner, which removes the charge that a nascent Test career was ruined for ever by the myopic sensitivities of the senior members of the Australia side in Cape Town. He has been batting adhesively in tricky English conditions for the past two or three months, so their selectors will surely seize this chance to clear some consciences and renew Bancroft’s international career.
Meanwhile Ben Stokes is restored as England’s vice-captain. There is no time or inclination to agonise whether that is appropriate. The Bristol incident is now ancient history.
So the buildup to an Ashes series, so often reminiscent of a poor pantomime accompanied by a bit of cod psychology, has been none the worse for the shortage of time. Instead, both teams have hurriedly assembled in Birmingham with more serious matters on their minds – such as what constitutes their best team. Neither side can be sure.
Australia have two decisions to make: who bats at No 6 and who joins Pat Cummins, James Pattinson and Nathan Lyon in their bowling attack. There are three surprising contenders for that No 6 spot: Marnus Labuschagne – the definitive pronunciation will become clear once Jim Maxwell wraps his tongue round those syllables – offers a bit of leg-spin; Mitchell Marsh, who enjoyed his comeback in the last Ashes series could give assistance with his medium-pace bowling; and there is Matthew Wade, once the team’s wicketkeeper but now, following the modern trend, a prolific specialist batsman. The better the pitch looks for batting the more likely one of those who can bowl gets a place.
More surprising to the casual onlooker is that Australia are highly likely to split up the quartet who were their wicket-takers in the last Ashes series two years ago. The expectation is that Mitchell Starc, supreme throughout most of the World Cup, will be on the sidelines, a handy bowler to find himself ferrying the drinks in a yellow bib. At best he is competing with Josh Hazlewood and Peter Siddle for the third pace slot.
Australia are setting great store on Siddle’s effectiveness in English conditions, which has been enhanced after playing for Essex in the Championship. In the meantime they can legitimately claim that they have a fast bowling unit that is the envy of every Test nation.
England had some tricky choices to make in this department but they have decided not to delay them. Their four-man pace attack will comprise Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad, Chris Woakes and Stokes. They have gone for experience rather than pace, presumably on the assumption there will be some assistance for the seam bowlers at what has become England’s favourite ground, the Brummie Colosseum. Both sides have the resources to juggle with their attack according to conditions and fitness. And they will surely do so.
The England batting line-up is no longer a puzzle either but it is a curious thing. The Joes will be at three and four but the surprise is that Root will be ahead of Denly. What has happened – apart from being bowled out for 85 – for the plan to change so abruptly after that bizarre Test against Ireland?
The hope is that Root actively favours this move and that it is not a case of him dutifully, though reluctantly, kowtowing to his senior advisers. Root is the captain and England’s best player and it is important he feels comfortable.
The old Australian adage, promoted by Trevor Bayliss, that the best players always bat at three, may be outdated. Steve Smith now bats at four; Allan Border seldom came out higher than that; Steve Waugh was always at five or six. In previous Ashes series the Root at three conundrum might have been debated for a month; there has been little time for it here.
All is set for the off; palms are sweatier and heartbeats quicker as more melodrama awaits on the horizon. Thankfully there has not been much time for too many predictions either but here are a couple. If England can get to 80 for two on a regular basis, then they will win the series but, as they say down under, that is a big ask. A personal guess is a 3-2 victory, given the frailty of both batting sides, the potency of their bowlers and the wonderfully devious Duke ball. But to which side?
England: Roy, Burns, Root, Denly, Buttler, Stokes, Bairstow, Moeen Ali, Woakes, Broad, Anderson.
Australia (possible): Warner, Bancroft, Khawaja, Smith, Head, Wade, Paine, Cummins, Pattinson, Siddle, Lyon.