It has been a strange build-up to this summer’s Ashes series. There has been excitement, but it has not been palpable like in the past. There are so many new faces involved and the personal rivalry between players is not prevalent in the same way it has been in the past. There is no Anderson v Johnson comparison in this series. Of the 22 players in the squads from the last Australian Ashes, only 7 remain. The country will be abuzz once the game begins on Thursday morning, but the build-up has not been quite the same as I remember it before other series. The Ben Stokes incident has been an unfortunate distraction and the series will be poorer for his absence. From an Australian perspective, all the media discussion has been about who would fill the spots of the opening partner of Warner, number 6, and the wicket-keeper.
Until about 1 month ago I did not realise there was an issue with Matt Renshaw, but now he is out of the team – who knows when he will return – and Cameron Bancroft hit form at the perfect time. It is the other two selections, however, that are the most controversial.
Shaun Marsh – 34-year-old boy wonder with loads of potential and a huge future – has been selected at number 6. It should no longer be controversial when Marsh is selected ahead of a worthier player because it has happened for his entire career. Despite Glenn Maxwell being hard-done-by, I don’t mind the selection as much as I usually would and his recent injury set-back may mean that Maxwell gets to play anyway. . He did play well in India earlier this year, and the number 6 position may take a bit of pressure off and allow him to play with more freedom. Although given Australia’s torrid 4-mid-order collapses in recent times he may be coming in at 4-50, or worse.
But it is the Tim Paine selection that is the strangest. All the weird stats have been thrown around about his record – the coach scoring a more recent First-Class century being the most amusing – but he has been selected solely for his keeping. Not since the days of the insufferable Ian Healy has a keeper been selected only for his glove-work. It was a selection that I am sure England would have welcomed. Their memories of the last Australian summer here must be littered the annoying smile of Brad Haddin – the most important player after Johnson in that series – digging in and grinding the English momentum to a halt before adding valuable runs every time England had the edge.
This current crop of Australian players lacks someone with that hard-nosed edge like Haddin. Beyond Smith and Warner, none will especially concern the English bowlers. And despite having a bowling attack that would strike fear into almost any batting line-up in history, they are unproven as a unit and don’t have the same uber-confidence that people like me grew up thinking was normal. Perhaps that will come with time and – hopefully – sustained success, but right now this line-up does not have a clear identity under Smith.
This is by far Smith’s biggest Australian summer. The Indian series earlier this year was one of the most entertaining series in my memory; Smith and his team took it right up to India and almost climbed the most difficult summit in Australian cricket. Due to it being on Foxtel only a quarter of the country had the chance to watch it. So, Smith’s achievement in rallying his team in that series is perhaps lost on most of the general public and his identity as captain – beyond just making heaps and heaps of runs – is yet to be determined.
Smith is less combative and aggressive than almost all his predecessors in the last 50 years. His immediate predecessor has questioned this in the media recently. Every time Clarke or his buddy Shane Warne comment on Smith and his captaincy, it is hard to not read the sub-text. Warne is one of the most aggressive cricketers in history, and while it worked incredibly well for him, he finds it difficult to accept that others don’t play with some style. It is clear that Steve Smith is not the kind guy who Graeme Smith would say calls you a cunt all day, but Warne and Clarke would prefer it if he was. They may not always mean it, but it seems like they are trying to undermine almost everything he does – particularly when it comes to David Warner.
There has been a clear difference in the way Warner has spoken since Smith became captain. Warner once spoke of England’s scared eyes when facing Johnson, but so reserved has he become that his teammates now call him “The Reverend”. When he did speak up in the lead up to this series of the need to ensure there is a hatred of the opposition, he just as soon came out and apologised for taking it too far.
Despite Warner’s conciliatory tone, Nathan Lyon – the most conciliatory of all Australian players – spoke this week of wanting to end the careers of Englishmen this summer. It was as though you could see the new keeping coach behind him pulling the strings. Or perhaps this is what Lyon is really like, and he has just never felt confident enough to say things like that in public. Maybe Smith has given him a license to do what comes naturally to him. Regardless, mixed messages are coming out of the Australian camp – but this series is the series in which Smith can cement his position in Australian cricket and truly deliver a team in his image. And that may be that players are free to act as they like, and not pretend that they have the confidence of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath.
Despite the lacklustre build up – the day is upon us, and hopefully, a classic series awaits. On day two of the Brisbane Test in the last Ashes series, a series of Mitchell Johnson bouncers whipped up the winds of change that soon swept around the Australian continent. England, who had beaten Australia comprehensively only months earlier, stood no chance in those conditions. This contest looks to be much more even – or perhaps that is just because there are so many newcomers and it is unclear how they will match up. Let’s hope this new team can show the world their identity and usher in a new era of Australian Test cricket.