(Australian Associated Press)
SIX KEY QUESTIONS WITH SIX MONTHS TO GO UNTIL THE ASHES
What looms as the biggest issue in cricket’s biggest series?
At the moment it’s an increasingly tense pay fight between Cricket Australia and the players’ union. Both sides are refusing to back down and that means the Ashes are hypothetically at risk of being affected. Steve Smith, David Warner and their colleagues are yet to seriously discuss the prospect of not facing England this summer. The dispute will almost certainly be resolved long before the much-anticipated opening delivery of the five-Test series. However, until a new deal has been brokered it will dominate the thoughts of Australian players, coaches and fans alike.
So presuming they get on the park, where will the five-Test series be won and lost?
England’s bowling attack, especially their quicks, will have to step up if they wish to challenge Smith’s side in Australia. South Africa’s success last summer was a product of many factors but spells from pacemen – Kagiso Rabada, Kyle Abbott and Vernon Philander were game-changers. James Anderson and Stuart Broad are nearing the end of their careers but boast plenty of experience in Australian conditions. Mark Wood hasn’t played a Test since 2015 but is building form and fitness; he bowls at express pace and could be a handful if he gets it right.
What’s in store for England’s batsmen?
Pace and bounce. Coach Darren Lehmann has never had the luxury of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and James Pattinson all being fit at the same time. Six months can be a long time in cricket but if they’re all in the squad for the first Test, the temptation to unleash the ‘four pacemen of the apocalypse’ will be hard to resist; particularly if the pitch has a healthy green tinge to it. However, it won’t be so simple. It’s incredibly rare there isn’t a frontline spinner in Australia’s XI at home, while Nathan Lyon performed well in India and arguably does his best work at the Gabba.
What other questions surround Australia’s likely XI?
Usman Khawaja, Glenn Maxwell and a stack of players on the cusp of the Test squad will tour South Africa with Australia A in July. Selectors will cast a keen eye on Khawaja and Maxwell in the first-class matches plus the Sheffield Shield rounds that fall before the Ashes. Khawaja is expected to return to the Test team in Brisbane (if not before) at the expense of Shaun Marsh, while Maxwell faces a tough fight keeping his spot ahead of a fast-bowling allrounder, despite impressing in India. Mitch Marsh will be racing the clock to be fit for the first Test after a shoulder reconstruction. Jack Wildermuth was close to being summoned to India ahead of Marcus Stoinis when Mitch Marsh was injured; if the young allrounder continues to impress selectors he could potentially be a bolter in the Ashes squad.
Who is in better form, Australia or England?
It’s hard to get a read on either side so far out. Smith can point to a competitive showing in India as cause for confidence, especially when compared to England’s meek 4-0 surrender in the same conditions last December. However, Australia’s XI that takes the field in Brisbane is likely to be quite different to the team that lost the Dharamsala series decider in March. There is currently just a single ranking point separating third-placed Australia and fourth-placed England on the International Cricket Council’s Test charts.
What do the next six months hold for both teams?
The Champions Trophy starts in England next month. Comparing the one-day tournament and cricket’s showpiece Test series is fraught with danger but it’s worth nothing Australia face hosts England at Edgbaston during the pool stage. Spearhead Starc has suggested a victory in that 50-over game could give his side some momentum heading into the home summer. Following that event, England host South Africa and West Indies in Test series. Australia are set to tour Bangladesh for two Tests and visit India for an ODI series before returning home.