Brisbane : New-look Australia will bank on their pace attack terrifying England once again when two unfamiliar line-ups open hostilities for the Ashes, the oldest prize in Test cricket, in Brisbane on Thursday.
Australia’s surprise selections raised plenty of eyebrows but they will hope their pace trio of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins can replicate Mitchell Johnson’s devastating bowling at the Gabba ground in 2013. England also have an untested batting line-up and their campaign to retain the Ashes urn was dealt a major blow when star all-rounder Ben Stokes was suspended pending investigations into a brawl outside a nightclub.
The build-up to the biennial series, which dates back to the 19th century, has been traditionally feisty, with opener David Warner saying he regarded facing England as “war” and several Australian players reminding the tourists of their treatment by Johnson four years ago. The firebrand left-armer set the tone for the 2013-2014 Ashes with his ferocious fast bowling to take nine wickets at the Gabba as the Australians inflicted a crushing 381-run defeat, triggering a 5-0 series rout.
The Starc-led pace trio have never bowled together in a Test but they stack up favourably with Australia’s greatest pace combinations, with their combined career strike rates better than their gloried predecessors. Australia have a formidable record at Brisbane’s intimidating ‘Gabbatoir’ where they have not lost a Test match since 1988, and where England are winless in 31 years. Starc appears key to Australia’s series hopes and he has targeted England’s big two batsmen, captain Joe Root and former skipper Alastair Cook, in the five-Test series. “Cook and Root are the two main ones at the top who have played a heck of a lot of cricket and done really well at home and away,” Starc said. “Both of them are guys we have to focus heavily on in hopefully getting them out cheaply and getting stuck into that inexperienced batting order.”
Starc said watching footage of Johnson’s fireworks at the Gabba four years ago had inspired him to replicate his match- winning performance. “We all still are (inspired). Whenever you see highlights from that series it was unbelievable,” he said. “How well he bowled and just the aggression and the fear in some of the English eyes, it was always great to watch as a bowler and see batsmen struggle, especially the Poms.” The Australians have done their homework and have crafted their plans based on a file on the England batsmen, compiled by bowling coach and former England mentor David Saker. “It’s great to have Sakesy (Saker) here. Obviously being part of the English squad for a while, it’ll be great for us to pick his brain,” Starc said.
The pace trio, along with the batting of skipper Steve Smith and David Warner, are seen as Australia’s pillars against a similarly placed England, who will look to batsmen Root and Cook and their pace attack of James Anderson and Stuart Broad. England have had a gentle run-in to the Gabba Test with three warm-up games against inexperienced teams, but their Australian coach Trevor Bayliss said they will be ready for what is thrown at them. “Australia like to hit the opposition hard early and we have been talking about going hard ourselves,” Bayliss said. “An Ashes Test will see our intensity rise as high as it possibly can. We are not here to make up the numbers. We are here to win. We’re very confident.”
The shock selection of wicketkeeper Tim Paine for his first Test in seven years has split opinion around the country, with spin legend Shane Warne saying Australia are in a state of “confusion”. Senior batsman Shaun Marsh has also been recalled for the eighth time. Former Test captain Ian Chappell says both sides’ batting appears brittle, but Australia will start favourites to reclaim the urn based on the strength of their bowlers. “Steve Smith’s strike-force is superior to Joe Root’s solid bowling line-up, which lacks the genuine pace that so often leads to success in Australian conditions,” Chappell said. “If Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins remain fit for the full campaign then it’s likely they’ll provide the shock and awe necessary to fracture the confidence of England’s fragile batting line-up.”