After a lead-up dominated by off-field scandals and the politics of COVID-19, the focus can finally turn to the action on the field: to selections, strategies and showdowns which fans will be hoping can make the 2021-22 series one to remember.
There are players from both sides set to get their first taste of the game’s richest tradition, but the urn will be decided by storied names who have already added so much to the Ashes tapestry.
Oh captain: England’s Joe Root and Australia’s Pat Cummins.Credit:The Age
For England, captain Joe Root is relying heavily on two men: evergreen pace duo James Anderson and Stuart Broad, for whom this must surely be their final campaign in Australia.
Anderson, 39, earned his Ashes stripes against Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and co. One of his rivals this summer, Cameron Green, was just seven at the time. Broad was a central figure in Australia’s 2010-11 debacle, which had all manner of ramifications for the game in this country.
Back then, Steve Smith, a chubby young batter who could also bowl leg-spin, was brought into the Australian XI literally for hits and giggles, David Warner was considered a Twenty20 specialist who lacked the smarts for Test cricket, and Nathan Lyon was a greenkeeper sitting wide-eyed on a roller at Adelaide Oval unaware of how his life was about to change.
Pat Cummins, Australia’s 47th male Test captain, had yet to be discovered.
The duels between these modern Ashes heroes will go a long way to determining if Cummins’ men can achieve what has become a rite of passage for Australian cricketers by conquering the Old Enemy at home or whether Root’s crew can pull off what only one England side has managed in 25 years and win on foreign soil.
In the first of a series of head-to-head match-ups leading into the first Test, The Age and the Herald preview the battle between the captains.
Pat Cummins v Joe Root
Australian teams have long targeted the opposition captain in the belief that an underperforming skipper would drag a few others down with him. In Joe Root, there is the added bonus for Australia that he is also England’s best batter. The cherry on top would be if the hosts’ newly inaugurated general, Pat Cummins, led the charge.
In the two Ashes series they have locked horns, it is Cummins who has emerged triumphant, claiming Root’s wicket seven times in the equivalent of 48.1 overs at the cost of just 20 apiece. Josh Hazlewood’s ability to challenge Root’s outside edge has also posed problems, but to a lesser scale than Cummins’ precision and speed.
As far as statements go, none are louder or more emphatic than Cummins’ dismissal of a bewildered Root, bowled the top of off-stump first ball late on day four in England’s forlorn fight to save the urn at Old Trafford in 2019 (as you can see below).
Averaging just over 40 against Australia, Root’s Ashes record is more than acceptable but not befitting his status as one of the Big Four batters in the international game, more so when put against Steve Smith’s numbers in world cricket’s longest rivalry.
Australia has not been a happy hunting ground either for Root, who was dropped after a modest series in the 2013-14 whitewash and demoralised in the 4-0 rout of four years ago.
Pat Cummins dismisses Joe Root during the 2019 Ashes.Credit:Channel Nine
The 2021 version of Root is a far more imposing adversary than the man whose membership of world cricket’s Big Four of batting was close to being rescinded due to his inability to convert 50s into game-changing centuries.
In an underperforming team, the diminutive Root has emerged as a giant, plundering 1455 runs at 66 in a red-letter year. Few disagree with the notion that if England are to regain the urn Root’s golden run must continue.
So, what is behind Root’s rise from underperformer to world-beater? After combing through reams of tape during the 2020-21 UK lockdown of each of his dismissals over the previous five years, Root made a technical tweak which has paid major dividends.
A back-leg trigger movement which used to go back and across is now straighter towards the stumps, allowing him to remain more side-on. Because the line of his shoulders and hips is straighter, his hands, and bat, will follow down the ground instead of to mid-on. He is now better positioned to defend deliveries such as that by Cummins at Old Trafford.
The change may be minor but when only inches separate the middle of the bat from the edge every bit counts.
David Saker, the former Australia and England bowling coach now back at the helm of the Melbourne Renegades, observed the difference in his game earlier this year watching Root punish his Sri Lanka attack.
“It’s not as noticeable when he’s facing more spin than fast bowling – he’s gone straighter back,” Saker told The Age and the Herald.
“He still goes across a little bit, but not as much, which makes him not as vulnerable to lb, and he accesses the off-side quite well. The only problem if you stay leg side of the ball a bit you’re a chance to nick it. You got to get out some ways, don’t you?”
The data supports the theory. From 2018-20, a period in which he averaged 39.7, Root was out bowled or lbw in 16 of his 57 dismissals (28.07 per cent), compared to four from 22 (18.18 per cent) this year. His rate of false shots, and plays and misses, have also dropped, according to numbers obtained from stats supplier Opta.
What cannot be measured objectively is the passion that drives a cricketer who has already achieved so much in his career to study hours of footage during lockdown in the pursuit of greatness.
“A lot of his change the last 18 months has been his mindset and hunger to make those 70s into big scores,” Saker said.
“It was very hot in Galle, and he was batting for long periods of time. He didn’t get many decisions wrong. Then he went back and did it again in the English summer.
“He’s going to be their No.1 wicket, isn’t he? They’ve got to get him in early enough to exploit him.”
Next up: David Warner v Stuart Broad
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