Authors: Rio Sports
Joe Root has offered a pointed reminder to Australia’s emboldened players that for all their talk of reopening psychological scars before Thursday’s first Test at the Gabba, it is England who have been the dominant force during recent Ashes encounters.
The buildup to the opener in Brisbane has been awash with macho soundbites emanating chiefly from the home side, who have spoken of targeting players, unleashing bouncers and waging war – all with the whitewash of 2013-14 referenced heavily throughout.
But with the time for such chatter now coming to an end, a slightly bemused Root maintained England remain calm and focused as they look to defend the urn they won in 2015 and show that, even with Ben Stokes not on the tour, Australia can be conquered at home.
“You hear a lot about these scars but [the whitewash] was a series which happened four years ago and we’ve won four of the last five Ashes,” Root said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who have very fond memories of 2015. I don’t know whether they are just trying to brush that under the carpet but for me it’s completely irrelevant what happened four years ago.”
Asked if Steve Smith’s side were perhaps trying to convince themselves more than anything, given they were toppled by South Africa at home last year and sit No5 in the rankings to England’s No3, Root admitted it was possible, while noting that only three of the current squad were part of the 2013-14 team.
It was Nathan Lyon, Australia’s off-spinner then and now, who chimed up at the start of the week by claiming England were scared of Mitchell Johnson four years ago and though the left-arm quick has now retired, a repeat could be inflicted by the similarly pacy Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins. Careers, Lyon said, could once again be ended.
Root, who played grade cricket with Lyon in Adelaide in 2010-11, while England were beating Australia 3-1 that southern summer, responded: “It is a bit bizarre. I think you can sort of see through it a little as well. The more guys talk, the more they put pressure on themselves.”
Nevertheless, Root conceded the Gabba will be intimidating for the six members of his expected side who have yet to play Test cricket in Australia, given the home side’s 28-match unbeaten record there. The away support will be more dispersed among the 40,000-strong crowd too. The key, he said, is to feed off the nerves and be excited by the challenge.
Though Root stopped short of naming his team, the return to fitness of Jake Ball after an ankle sprain means it seems to be settled. One small tweak being considered is for Moeen Ali to bat at No6 ahead of Jonny Bairstow, whose 99 against South Africa at Old Trafford in the summer showed his prowess at shepherding the tail.
Australia have one doubt after David Warner could barely bat in practice on Tuesday owing to a cricked neck suffered when taking a high catch on the outfield. The opener still kept to his pre-arranged media appearance and along with being optimistic about his own fitness, offered some thoughts on the well-documented absence of Stokes.
Warner said: “I think it’s probably disappointing for the England team and the country. He’s let a lot of people down. I would have loved for him to be out here because I know what a competitor he is on the field. At the end of the day, he knows he’s made a mistake and it’s about him getting that respect back from his players and fellow countrymen.”
A return for Stokes at some stage during the series has been mooted in certain sections of the Australian press, something seemingly fuelled by his recent re-emergence on social media, but it ultimately still hinges on the outcome of police investigations into September’s incident in Bristol and England’s disciplinary process thereafter.
On how England will cope in the meantime, and most likely for the entire series, Root said: “It’s very difficult to replace him, so I think it’s more important the guys bring the best version of themselves out there. It’s an opportunity for everyone to step up and do special things like Ben can. We’re all capable, so this week is a chance for someone to go out and do that.”
As Lyon noted in his curious offering, Root was dropped by the end of the last series in Australia and has a gap in an otherwise glowing CV. Asked about this, the 26-year-old replied: “I’m trying to lead a side to do something great – if I score runs it gives us a good chance. But it’s bigger than personal incentives, it’s about coming away with that little urn.”
Ben Stokes, suspended by England pending a police investigation, has re-emerged on social media with two Instagram videos showing him batting and bowling in the nets. Asked about the clips, team-mate Moeen Ali joked: “I sent him a message saying that ball would be hit for six every day. He didn’t get back to me.” As well as demonstrating his fitness after a broken finger, Stokes also took to Twitter in response to Matthew Hayden, the former Australia opener, describing England as a “rabble” with half a team of unknowns. “Hayden says he doesn’t know who half our squad is,” Stokes wrote. “Only 2 from the squad haven’t played at international level... he’s a cricket pundit yeah?”
Mark Wood, the ebullient Durham quick who missed out on an Ashes spot after another summer of injury frustration, was among what seemed a cast of thousands in the Gabba nets on Tuesday as the touring Lions joined in to aid the senior side’s preparations for the first Test. Wood looked sharp in the nets and could push his claims for a recall this series – the pacy wicket at Perth would suit him – when England’s second string take on a Queensland XI in a three-day fixture at Allan Border Field starting on 27 November.
Along with Wood, seamers Saqib Mahmood (Lancashire), Tom Helm (Middlesex), George Garton (Sussex) and Josh Tongue (Worcestershire) also bowled to England’s senior batsmen during the session, with Garton in particular being used to help tune up for the left-arm angle of Mitchell Starc. Jack Leach and Dom Bess (both Somerset) and Amar Virdi (Surrey) all provided a workout against finger spin and had valuable time with Saqlain Mushtaq, the senior side’s specialist consultant.
For Mason Crane, the wrist-spinner in the Ashes squad, this week has seen a reunion with Stuart MacGill. The former leggie, whose Test career was unfortunate to coincide with that of Shane Warne but still returned 208 wickets from 44 caps, is paid to mentor young English county bowlers – currently Delray Delray Rawlins (Sussex), Matt Parkinson (Lancashire) and Matt Critchley (Derbyshire) - during their overseas placements in Sydney grade cricket and was flown up for some work with the Lions. Crane’s rise to prominence owes much to his own time in the scheme last year, where he built up a strong rapport with MacGill and went on to play for New South Wales in the Sheffield Shield.
Usman Khawaja, the Australian No3, apologised on air after calling a local radio host a “wanker” during a live interview when asked about the pressure of maintaining the Test side’s 28-match unbeaten record in Brisbane. The slip was laughed off but as Alastair Cook noted during his press conference, “you wouldn’t want to be the Australian side that does lose at the Gabba”.
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