It’s is difficult to feel excited about any cricket at the moment given how draining the 2019 World Cup turned out to be for players and fans.
But barely two weeks after the emotional high of the Lord’s final between England and New Zealand, here we are investing our time once again. It’s the Ashes and the start of the new Test Championship, so it deserves our attention and care.
The Test Championship was introduced to bring context to every bilateral series. Earlier, teams would play Tests for the match itself and the points accumulated would count towards the annual rankings. That’s it.
But now every bilateral series carries 120 points and the top teams after the two-year cycle will compete in a final to decide an actual champion. No more dull games and, more importantly, fans will ultimately follow other series as it can have an impact on their team’s standing.
The Ashes never needed context. Even without the Test Championship, the 2019 clash had a lot riding on it with redemption been the underlying theme.
Both teams have a point to prove, right wrongs of the past. For Australia, it will all be about the ball-tampering scandal of 2018 even if they end up winning this series. The three players involved in ‘sandpapergate’ in South Africa have reunited and in fact will form the top order for the Aussies in Edgbaston.
Captain Tim Paine knows the protagonists of that infamous episode – David Warner, Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft – are going to get hounded no matter what they do and the only way Australia can deflect some of the criticism and negativity is by playing and winning fair and square. Even that might not be enough for many but it’s much better than getting pilloried by the public and getting whipped on the field as well.
More than anything, it is important for Australian cricket to do well – as they did in the World Cup – and show the world and public back home that it is time to put the ball-tampering scandal behind them once and for all.
England have an even bigger headache as it relates to their own game. England focused all their energies on becoming a 50-over superpower over the last four years and that meant their Test cricket had to go to bed hungry on many nights. The less said about some of their Test caps over the last four years, the better.
It should come as no surprise that as England rose to the top of the ODI table, they were also shot out for double-digit scores on three separate occasions within the past year – against New Zealand, West Indies and Ireland. England’s Test batting has been brutally exposed for the best part of a season and a half and they need to get their act together now that the 50-over mission has been accomplished.
Also, veteran seamers James Anderson and Stuart Broad won’t be around for more than a season or two, so the future needs to be mapped out just the way the World Cup mission was.
Both teams have made mistakes – albeit of completely different nature. What they do over the next five Tests will show if they are ready to put all that in the past and move to a more positive state of mind.
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Joe Root insists he has confidence in the side England have named for the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston and believes Jofra Archer will have a part to play in the series.
The Barbados-born paceman received his maiden call-up for the series opener following his crucial role in England’s World Cup win but must wait for his chance.
He joins all-rounder Sam Curran and fellow quick Olly Stone in missing out, with senior seamers James Anderson and Stuart Broad joined by Chris Woakes in the XI.
The top seven had already been settled, with the news that captain Root had asked for a return to the problematic number-three slot also removing any questions over the batting order.
That means the decision to delay Archer’s introduction to the red-ball format will garner most of the attention. The side injury he picked up in the World Cup was originally expected to keep him sidelined for at least a couple of weeks, but he made a sooner-than-expected return for Sussex last week.
“I wouldn’t have named it if I wasn’t confident. We are very excited as a group,” Root said of the lineup.
“We have a good record here as a team. It’s very important that we are very focused and very clear on how we want to approach this series and that first day in particular. We feel confident this group of players is more than capable of winning this Test match.
“Jofra is coming back from quite a serious injury. We looked at conditions and made a decision on what we thought would best take 20 wickets here.
🚨 BREAKING NEWS 🚨— England Cricket (@englandcricket) July 31, 2019
We have named our team for the first #Ashes Test!
“It also gives him time to get absolutely ready and fit to make sure he has his workloads up and ready to go for later in the series if he needs to make an impact. (His fitness) will be monitored throughout the week. It’s important that he’s ready to go to offer something different.”
In the end, England have treated Archer with caution, retaining the Broad and Woakes axis which skittled Ireland for just 38 in the previous Test and adding in record wicket-taker Anderson, who turned 37 on Tuesday.
Root’s decision to move up to number three in the order means Joe Denly drops to number four, with Jason Roy and Rory Burns set to open. It is a top order, Root aside, that is inexperienced at Test level and one which was blown away by Ireland last week
“It’s important to spread the experience out and it gives me an opportunity to lead from the front as well,” Root said.
“I also feel now that I’m in a place where I have got my head around dealing with the captaincy and batting – being able to separate the two. It’s an opportunity to make an impact up the order.
“No, I’m not (concerned about the top order). I think it’s a very exciting top order. Jason (Roy), I want him to go out and play in his own way and his own manner.
“He has the ability to go out and put any bowler under pressure at any given time. That’s very exciting.”
Root also rejected suggestions that there is less pressure on him and England to win the Ashes following their World Cup success.
“I think you speak to anyone that has captained England on the verge of an Ashes series, to say that it doesn’t mean as much as another event, I don’t think any of them would agree,” Root said.
“It’s huge. It’s a great opportunity. Cricket in this country is probably at an all-time high. It has interest it has not had for a long, long time. We have the opportunity as a team to make this summer a very memorable one.
“That’s exciting and it’s a great motivator for the whole squad. Ultimately it comes down to how we can break down Australia and how we are going to win enough games to win the series.”
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Tim Paine has suggested that Australia are likely to vary their pace bowling attack in each Ashes Test according to conditions.
There has been much speculation over the make-up of the Australian attack for the first Test at Edgbaston, with Mitchell Starc, Peter Siddle and Josh Hazlewood set to compete for one place.
Captain Paine is delighted with the strength in depth of his bowling unit and says selections will be made based on each Test, not just what the bowlers have done in the past.
“Reputation counts. Guys have had long, successful careers and we know how good they are. We are in a really good situation at the moment where we have a number of quality fast bowlers in particular,” Paine said.
“We’ve looked at what has happened over here previously. We want to make sure that every Test we go into we are picking the right bowlers for the conditions that we are faced with.
“We are lucky that we feel we have a lot of bases covered. It’s up to us to come up with the best combinations to take 20 wickets.”
Paine added: “I have (settled on a team) but I don’t get the final say so we’ll have a team tomorrow at the toss.
“Our quicks that have been here before have learned lessons from being here before. It’s important that we learn from them and put what we’ve learned into practice in this series.”
Paine was instated as Australia Test captain after Steve Smith was stripped of the role for his part in the ball-tampering scandal of last year.
But Paine has just one first-class century in his career and some have questioned his place in the side with the bat.
“No, I do not at all (feel I have to justify my place),” Paine said. “I’m 34 years old, I don’t really care about my place in the side any more. I’m here to do a job.
“I’ve been put in this team to captain and wicket-keep to the best of my ability and I’ve said before at 34 years of age, if you are looking further ahead than the next Test match you are kidding yourself.
“I’m not going to waste time looking over my shoulder. I’m enjoying the job that I’m doing.”
Paine believes his side are capable of being the first Australia team to win the Ashes in England since 2001.
“(The Ashes) means a hell of a lot. Every time you play Test cricket against anyone it’s a real honour to be out there representing your country,” Paine said.
“The history of the Ashes takes that to another level. We are excited, we have an opportunity to come to England and do something that even some of our great teams haven’t managed to do in the last 20 years.
“We have the self-belief that we can do it. Everyone can’t wait.”
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