By Ian Chappell, Daily Telegraph
THE Australian selectors provided the shock and surprise in the lead-up to the first Ashes Test but the awe may be misplaced.
The shock came in the form of wicket-keeper Tim Paine.
Not considered good enough to keep for Tasmania, this is a gamble because it’s crucial every chance is taken to complement Australia’s potent attack.
If Paine was selected because he’s considered the best gloveman then at least he’s been chosen for the right reason.
The surprise was not the fact that the in-form Cameron Bancroft was included in the side but that he replaced solid opener Matt Renshaw. The time was right for Bancroft’s debut but it was expected his task would be to bolster the much-troubled middle order.
Despite his poor Shield form Renshaw had displayed a good temperament and a desire to improve and he’s unlucky to be discarded after a promising start to his Test career.
These drastic changes are unlikely to frighten England; there’s more likelihood they’ll instil confidence because of the many uncertainties now surrounding Australia in the lead up to the series.
I’m reminded of the sentiments of the first Duke of Wellington who, when asked about his soldiers on the eve of battle, replied; “I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but, by God, they frighten me.”
Despite the unsettling changes, Australia will start favourites to reclaim the urn. That favouritism is based on the strength of their attack. 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.
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. When conditions in Australia are placid there still remains the option of a short-pitched assault to unseat entrenched batsmen. Australia’s fast men are better placed to employ this tactic than their counterparts in the England side.
For their part, England will work on testing the patience of Australia’s aggressive batting line-up. This ploy worked brilliantly for England in their 2010-11 series victory, while Australia successfully unleashed Mitchell Johnson who provided the shock and awe in the 2013-14 Ashes whitewash.
There’s no doubt that the batting of both sides exudes a brittleness that replicates the fragility of the urn for which both teams are competing. Victory may well come to the team that can boast at the conclusion of the series: “Our batting was less brittle than yours.”
Any Australian batting superiority could boil down to the daunting presence of David Warner. The thought of the lethal left-hander ferociously attacking England’s fast-medium new ball bowlers is one that will cause Joe Root fitful sleep.
If Warner has a prolific series it’ll make Australia’s batting line-up so much better. In addition, a successful Warner also makes life easier for Smith the batsman and that spells even more trouble for England. An extended presence at the crease from Smith will ease the tension for those less credentialed batsmen in the middle order.
England’s batting is similarly reliant on Alastair Cook and Root being the mainstays of their line-up. However, there’s one huge difference — Cook is not a dominant batsman like Warner and he won’t take charge of an innings.
England is fortunate there’s a day/night Test in the schedule. If the luck of the toss falls England’s way their talented seam attack could be enhanced by bowling in favourable conditions.
The timing of the day/night Test is also in England’s favour, being the second on the itinerary.
If the Gabba match goes pear-shaped, which is a common occurrence with touring sides, they’ll have the chance to hit back immediately in a contest under lights.
The two captains have a lot in common; they both lead their team’s batting from the number four spot and are capable slip fieldsmen. Both would probably do their side and themselves a favour by batting at three but they prefer the number four slot.
Root has the more difficult job not just because he’s the visiting captain but he’s also lost his best player — Ben Stokes — to a self-inflicted wound. Root will need to be imaginative and innovative as well as patient in seeking wickets.
Smith has the upper-hand heading into the series and he’ll be keen to emphasise that superiority with a good performance at the Gabba fortress.
A win at the Gabba will be a confidence builder, especially for the incoming Australian players, however with a day/night Test following in Adelaide, Smith will need to be constantly wary of England.
Ian Chappell is exclusively managed by The Fordham Company.