It’s mind over matter as the Bazball Ashes commence


Big picture: Enter the Ashes paradox

At what stage will it all begin to matter?

Will it come when the teams line up for the national anthem, when the passion of the Hollies Stand seeps through the implacable demeanours of an England team that has been trained in the art of un-think?

Will it come when Joe Root is awoken from a Marnus Labuschagne-style slumber, to assess a scoreline of 2 for 2 in the second over, whereupon all those ghastly memories of Ashes past will start banging down the doors of his frontal cortex?

Will it come when Steve Smith, with seven centuries in his past 11 Tests in England, survives his first catchable edge through the cordon, thereby causing the Dorian Grey-style portrait in James Anderson’s locker to spontaneously combust and reveal him for the grumpy old 40-year-old that we all know still lurks beneath his Bazballed veneer?

Or is all this for real? And have England genuinely and irrevocably transformed the parameters of Test-match cricket, by treating every facet of the contest as their personal playground, thereby consigning 146 years of history and precedent to the recycling bin?

The brilliance of Bazball (and no, it doesn’t matter who coined that term either…) is that it has stripped away the angst and the hang-ups, and left a group of immensely talented ball-players with nothing to declare but their genius. And yet, with respect to the opponents whom they’ve for the most part chewed up in the past 12 months – including an Ireland team for whom Test cricket also didn’t seem to matter – Stokes’ men will not yet have encountered an occasion quite like the one that’s looming on Friday morning. A packed and rapt Edgbaston, expectant as England’s crowds have tended to be all year long, but energised with a slightly different, more epochal tinge – perhaps more akin to a World Cup final than your average bilateral engagement.

And for that reason, we could be about to encounter the Ashes paradox, a never-before-accessed portal on England’s space-time continuum, where two (and in fact, maybe more than two) implacable truths are about to meet head-on.

On the one hand, the Ashes doesn’t matter. Test cricket doesn’t matter. This preview doesn’t matter. Every opinion that has ever been voiced about Zak Crawley’s competence as an England opener doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is watching the ball, and hitting it as hard and as often as possible. And even that doesn’t matter (unless of course you’re driving down the 18th at Loch Lomond).

But on the other hand, the Ashes matters more – and to more England sports fans, casual and otherwise – than perhaps the rest of Test cricket combined. The monstrous hype machine, unleashed by the extraordinary events of 2005 and scarcely reined in thereafter, has been complicit in the gnawing-away of the very fabric of the sport, to the extent that England all but tanked the format two winters ago with, as Stuart Broad put it, a “void” of a display on their last tour Down Under.

And so, if England’s response this time out has been to block out the hype, then that’s not quite the same as disproving its existence in the first place. At some stage this summer – whether it’s the mounting buzz of sports-loving sun-seekers with no global football tournament to congregate around, or the encroaching dread of a strategy that has been found out – the Bazball bubble is sure to be breached by onset of real-think.

For the time being, however, it’s the over-think that’s in over-drive. For all of Ben Stokes’ admirable commitment to entertainment, what happens if England are 2-1 up going into the Oval Test, and the opportunity arises to bat Australia out of the contest? Do they accept the bore-draw and the return of the urn, or are they morally obliged to do as they did with New Zealand in Wellington, and risk the series for the sake of keeping things fun?

And what of the team selection for this first Test at Edgbaston. For all of Stokes’ talk of “fast, flat pitches”, England have opted to leave Mark Wood in mothballs! Is this an admission that their attack is undercooked after a spate of recent injuries, or were they spooked by the recent flat deck at Lord’s, where a lack of extreme pace enabled Ireland to make unexpected hay in the second innings? These might all be rhetorical worries, but they’ll be resonant ones too … even for a side that is determined to lock out the noise.

And, in keeping with the fact that the hype of the Ashes tends to overshadow everything else, none of the above even takes into account the fact that Australia have dispatched a generationally great team to challenge for their first series win in England since 2001.

Last week, they warmed up for the Ashes – and look, there’s that hype again – by winning the small matter of the World Test Championship final at The Oval. It was a crushingly effective performance too, one that overcame a rigorous new-ball examination from an India attack that’s very much the equal of England’s, before piling on the pain on a hard and true wicket that may well have been ordered with Bazball in mind, but clearly didn’t do Travball’s ambitions any harm either.

And then there’s the bowling. It’s become a bit of a stuck record in the past 12 months – various fans and pundits saying “yeah, but just you wait until England try that against X and Y …” – although the manner in which Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammad Shami were dispatched on this very ground last summer augurs well in that regard.

But an attack led by Pat Cummins, whose relentless off-stump accuracy and persistent 90mph pace is a combination that few quick bowlers can truly replicate, and one in which a spin bowler with 487 Test wickets is seriously being discussed as the weak(er) link, now that truly does pose a challenge over and above anything England have yet encountered.

All the same, here we are, on the eve of a mouth-wateringly tasty contest, with two blank slates and the summer set fair before us. Who truly knows what matters anymore. But it’s safe to say, we’re ready as cricket fans to believe the hype, even if the teams themselves will be keeping those eyes wide shut for a while yet.

Form guide

England WLWWW (last five Tests, most recent first)
Australia WDWLL

In the spotlight: Moeen Ali and David Warner

“Ashes?” “lol”.

No single exchange could better encapsulate the absurd genius of Ben Stokes’ captaincy. Moeen Ali might have assumed Stokes’ tap-up was a wind-up, but we know already that he had been tempted by a recall ahead of the Pakistan tour last winter – and now it’s official. A team ethic based on vibes, golf, optional nets and – in Moeen’s particular case – fried chicken is quite literally irresistible, even to a guy who was through with red-ball cricket back in September 2021, and has endured a singularly miserable time against Australia in particular – from being called “Osama” in the 2015 series, to his ripped-finger woes in Australia in 2017-18, to his scapegoating at Edgbaston after one poor Test in 2019. Everything about this comeback feels wrong … except for the precise context in which he’s come back. No hinterland, no pressure, no worries. Take some wickets, have some fun. Win the Ashes? Yeah, sure. Why not?

Not since Steve Waugh and his red-hankied send-off in 2004 has an Australian cricketer set himself up for quite such an elongated farewell as with David Warner. He has nominated the New Year Test against Pakistan at Sydney for his final goodbye, and having played a small but significant role in the WTC final victory over India at The Oval last week, it feels as though he’s back in charge of his own destiny in that regard. But in the meantime, he’s got the mental hurdle of the 2019 Ashes to overcome, in which he averaged 9.50 in ten innings, and was eviscerated time and again by Stuart Broad and his round-the-wicket angle (when asked if that had been a factor in Broad’s selection, Stokes admitted: “I’d be lying if I said no”). A new method of marking his guard – in effect digging two trenches on leg and off stump to prevent his trigger movements from straying out of line – may help him combat that awkward angle, even if his team-mates might find it a touch off-putting. But if Warner needed any more encouragement to live in the now, and forget about past indignities, then he’s come to the right series.

Team news: Broad retained ahead of Wood

One Test into the summer, one huge call already made. England’s stated aim since Stokes and McCullum took the helm has been to play their best available XI in every game – but to judge by Broad’s phlegmatic comments after the Ireland Test last week, not even he believed he was likely to play in the series opener if all their other seamers were fit. However, Mark Wood hasn’t bowled a ball in anger since a fiery stint for Lucknow Super Giants in the IPL in April, and the road ahead will be long and intense for the quicks on both sides. And so, with the confidence of a five-wicket haul at Lord’s – plus the prospect of a reunion with his old sparring partner, Warner – England have opted to trust Broad’s experience and big-game cojones, much as they chose (to his intense annoyance) to overlook them at Brisbane 18 months ago.

Only time will tell whether Broad’s return is a reflection on Stokes’ readiness to fulfil his allrounder’s workload. He was putting his left knee through its paces in training, under the watchful eye of David Saker and the strength and conditioning coach, and declared himself fit to bowl on match eve, but Wood’s presence as an impact bowler would clearly benefit from being part of a guaranteed five-man attack. Either way, it means that Moeen’s return to the ranks, after an absence of 21 matches across 21 months of red-ball retirement, has been relegated to the second-most notable item of team news. Which is, in itself, a reflection of quite how crazy this series could turn out to be.

England: 1 Zak Crawley, 2 Ben Duckett, 3 Ollie Pope, 4 Joe Root, 5 Harry Brook, 6 Ben Stokes (capt), 7 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 8 Moeen Ali, 9 Ollie Robinson, 10 Stuart Broad, 11 James Anderson

Australia have a similarly tough call to make in their bowling ranks, which boasts a rare embarrassment of riches. If Josh Hazlewood were to play ahead of Scott Boland, then their four-man attack would – for the first time in Test history – all boast more than 200 Test wickets. However, Boland’s startlingly under-stated displays make him incredibly hard to sideline. He offers nagging accuracy, guaranteed seam movement, and more pace than his languid demeanour would otherwise suggest, all wrapped up in a Test average of 14.57 and topped with an uncanny ability to strike in his opening spell of a contest. And, with Australia mindful of the pressure that constant line and length can build on even the most free-flowing of batters, if anyone were to make way for Hazlewood’s return, it could yet be Mitchell Starc, whose four wickets in the WTC final came at an economy rate of close to 5.5 an over. It’s a good problem to have, you might say.

No such problems in their batting line-up – in particular that middle-order trio of Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith and Travis Head who, according to the ICC Test batting rankings, have reached heights not touched since West Indies were in their pomp in December 1984. Throw in Cameron Green, flushed with confidence after a stellar IPL and primed to challenge Stokes as this summer’s pre-eminent allrounder, and it’s little wonder they are approaching this campaign with quiet confidence.

Australia: (possible) 1 David Warner, 2 Usman Khawaja, 3 Marnus Labuschagne, 4 Steve Smith, 5 Travis Head, 6 Cameron Green, 7 Alex Carey (wk), 8 Mitchell Starc, 9 Pat Cummins (capt), 10 Nathan Lyon, 11 Scott Boland

Pitch and conditions

It’s been a sweltering week in the UK, and though the first two days at Edgbaston look set to be scorchers, there’s a strong possibility of rain interruptions from Sunday onwards which may play a part in how this contest shakes down. A straw-coloured pitch has been rolled out in the centre of Edgbaston, and to judge by McCullum and Jonny Bairstow’s firm pushings and knockings on the eve of the contest, it’s likely to be hard and true, just as ordered.

Stats and trivia

  • Australia go into the Ashes boasting the top three batters in Test cricket, according to the ICC’s updated rankings, with Head’s century in the World Test Championship final lifting him to a career-high of No.3, behind Labuschagne (1) and Smith (2).
  • Anderson is set to feature in his tenth consecutive Ashes series, having picked up 112 wickets at 33.76 in his previous 35 Tests against Australia. By the time the match begins, he will have been a Test cricketer for more than 20 years, having played the first of his 180 caps against Zimbabwe in May 2003.
  • Moeen needs five more wickets to reach 200 in Tests, and 86 more runs to reach 3000 – two milestones he never envisaged after retiring from the format 21 months ago.
  • Stokes, meanwhile, needs six wickets to reach the 200 mark. However, he has taken just two wickets in his last six appearances due to concerns over his left knee.
  • Smith needs 53 more runs to reach 9000 Test runs, a mark that only Allan Border, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting have previously passed among Australians. If he achieves that score in the first innings, he will keep his average in the 60s.
  • Quotes

    “A player like Mo who I have seen put in some unbelievable match-winning performances, albeit a long time ago, was something I couldn’t look past. That was a stomach and a heart feeling, rather than my brain. Generally I have stuck with my heart and my gut throughout my captaincy so far. Moeen Ali is going to come in here and I am looking at what he can offer on his best days, and not worrying anything else.”
    Ben Stokes on the rationale behind Moeen Ali’s return to Test cricket

    “They’re obviously a very good white-ball team England, but Test cricket’s different, the ball moves a little bit differently. You can’t always bat exactly like you would in a one-day game and I think that’s the strength of our bowling unit.”
    Pat Cummins, Australia’s captain, backs his bowlers to bazooka Bazball

    Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket

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