After what seems an even longer than usual ‘phoney war’, England and Australia will get down to the actual business of contesting the Ashes when the first Test in Cardiff starts on Wednesday.
Australia may have won 5-0 on home soil when they last faced England in a Test series in 2013/14 but it is 14 years since they last tasted Ashes glory in Britain.
Much of the build-up has focused on the vexed issue of ‘sledging’ or verbal abuse of opponents, which is something the International Cricket Council (ICC) are determined to eradicate from the sport.
That Ranjan Madugalle, the ICC’s chief match referee, will be overseeing proceedings in Cardiff, suggests no let-up in the crackdown from the global governing body in what remains cricket’s showpiece series.
Hard-hitting Australia opener David Warner, fined twice by the ICC in the last 18 months, is walking an especially fine line.
“I’m on my last warning (before possible suspension) from the ICC,” Warner said last week. “These rules are being clamped down on now.”If you walk towards a player, the umpires are going to fine you.”
But England director of cricket Andrew Strauss, a former Ashes-winning captain, stressed there was more to being competitive than ‘mouthing off’ at the opposition.
“I think we can over-hype an Ashes series, which maybe puts the players under more pressure to be really aggressive,” Strauss told BBC Radio Five.
“You can be very aggressive with the way you play, you don’t necessarily need to do it, with the way you speak to the opposition.”
For Australia captain Michael Clarke, winning an away Ashes series after three losing tours would fill a gap in his illustrious
Meanwhile for England, in their first series under new Australian coach Trevor Bayliss, the challenge is to see if they can continue to play the aggressive brand of cricket that served them so well during their recent one-day series win over New Zealand — the team that Australia beat in this year’s World Cup final.
Strauss was confident series favourites Australia would not have things all their own way.”I think if Australia do win, they’ll have to play some outstanding cricket to do so,” he said.
Australia had several players who impressed during the2013 Ashes in England, yet they still lost the series 3-0 and Strauss was clear on what both sides needed to do if they were to triumph this time.
“Win the big moments…There are times when you need to grab the game by the scruff of the neck. Pretty simple in theory, in practice a bit more difficult,” added Strauss.
It is one of the truisms of Test cricket that the team with the better fast bowlers usually wins.
A measure of the depth Australia’s pace reserves is that Ryan Harris, who announced his retirement last week because of a persistent knee injury, was by no means a certainty to play at Cardiff.
Left-arm fast bowler Mitchell Starc believes the fact that England’s top order is set to contain seven southpaws could work in his favour and that of fellow ‘lefty’ Mitchell Johnson.
“I have worked a long time for my stock delivery being at a left-hander,” said Starc. “The consistency is getting to where it needs to be and I’m starting to see results.”
When Cardiff staged its first Test, in 2009, England’s last-wicket pair of James Anderson and Monty Panesar clung on to salvage an improbable draw against Australia.
There have been suggestions home groundsmen should prepare lifeless pitches to nullify Australia’s pace threat but England great Ian Botham said: “We don’t want flat wickets.
“If you do, we might as well send the Ashes back now because that’ll play right into Australia’s hands,” the legendary all-rounder added at a sponsor’s event.
With England’s attack set to feature the likes of Durham quick Mark Wood, Botham also urged Cook to be pro-active in the field.
“Teams have worked out England used to sit back with defensive fields and wait for sides to make mistakes,” Botham said.
“Don’t do that now. This Australian team will go at you hard so I think England have got to come back hard.”