Back in November 2016, coming off a 3-nil Test whitewash at the hands of Sri Lanka and then 2-nil down to a South Africa team shorn of strike bowlers Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel as well as one of the world’s best batsmen in AB De Villiers, not much was good in the Australian camp.
Fast forward just a couple of months to January 2017 for a 3-nil series thumping of Pakistan to follow the Aussies’ dignity reviving Third Test win over South Africa.
It’s been one hell of a transformation. Much of the credit for the resurrection goes to Steve Smith in particular as well as the coaching staff.
The Australian nation demands a good cricket team; there has never been a middle ground or excuses. It is why we have seen so many great players over the years. Yet when the Hobart Second Test debacle unfolded, Australian cricket had never been at such a low ebb.
Steve Smith’s post-match press conference there was the first step on the road to redemption. He made no excuses on how bad his team was and demanded that everyone involved with the team step up or ship out. Good players were jettisoned, such as Voges, Neville and a Marsh. Bottom line; the changes wrought for the Test after Hobart were a big risk, however necessary they were.
Out of the ashes (excuse the pun) have arrived Messrs.’, Renshaw and Hanscomb in particular, both of whom look right at home on the international stage.
The senior players have upped their game as well. David Warner is in terrifying form, Usman Khawaja has made the grade up from good to world class (except for his dabbing) and Josh Hazelwood is fast becoming a very creditable version of the great Glenn McGrath.
The reality facing the Aussies is that England will surely not be as poor as they were back in 2013/14. They were so dreadful that English cricket was forced to totally change the way they played in all formats.
Out went KP, a man who has divided opinion like no other, at the behest of his nemesis Andrew Strauss and generally English cricket has looked in a better place ever since, despite their recent desperate tour on the spinning tracks of India and Bangladesh.
Crucially, two players have arisen from the horrors of the last Australian trip to become central figures in England’s plot to retain the Ashes – Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes. It is in them that England may just have the wood over Australia, given the batting struggles of Matthew Wade and the lack of a world class all-rounder. Both of these players have the ability to match David Warner’s fireworks at the start of an innings, depending on how England’s notoriously inconsistent top order fires.
English cricket fans wait with keen interest on an upcoming encounter that will be crucial to England’s chances Down Under – the meeting between Andrew Strauss and Alistair Cook.
These two have made a habit of pairing up after a series to discuss Cook’s captaincy future.
There is a growing majority in England’s hierarchy, no matter the loyalty stated in the press, that this is the time to bring in Joe Root to skipper his country. A fresh Alistair Cook, free of captaincy pressures to do what he does best in holding up an end and, crucially, staving off the likes of Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazelwood, could be key to the outcome of the 2017/18 Ashes series.
The last time Cook toured Australia without the skipper’s hat he was named Man of the Series, having piled on 766 runs in England’s 3-1 series victory, their first Ashes series win in Australia for 24 years.
If anointed to succeed Cook as captain, Root will need time to mould his approach. He is not afraid to try things out of the ordinary, though, and his batting form is sublime much like Steve Smith’s.
A seemingly baby face exterior, similar to Smith again, is matched by a fierce competitive nature to win and he will not back down when the battle in the middle heats up.
These are all ifs and buts at this stage. Personally, though, I hope we see Joe Root instated as the captain in time for the English summer season.
Both teams are liable to collapse. In Australia’s case the middle order can struggle, while for England corner it is the top order which is brittle.
England might just have found a couple of rough diamonds to shape in the form of Haseeb Hamed and Keaton Jennings. They both came of age in trying conditions against a dominant Indian team, suggesting that they both have what it takes to thrive at Test level. Time of course will tell when they are on seamer friendly, bouncy wickets.
The same can be said of Matt Renshaw and Peter Handscomb, both of whom have been excellent in the Aussies’ demolition of Pakistan – and could continue to delight those backing them, and equally keen on a punt or two on All Slots Casino.
What makes this year’s Ashes even more exciting is the fact that both skippers’ (let us assume it will be Joe Root from an England viewpoint) form with the bat will be integral to the eventual outcome. Steve Smith is in incredible touch and Root has the ability to match him.
It will be interesting to see how this renewed Australia side fare against the Indians in their upcoming series. If they come out with credit then there will be no doubt that they will hold the psychological advantage going into the First Test in Brisbane in November.
There is perhaps one battle which goes slightly under the radar from the likes of Warner, Root, Smith and Stokes. Josh Hazelwood and Mitchell Starc have blossomed into a fearsome pace attack duo. Their heads-to- heads against Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson will set the tone in the crucial first sessions the Test matches.
This will probably be Broad’s and Anderson’s last Ashes tilt and they will both be desperate to purge the disasters of England’s last visit south.
Starc is the fastest bowler on both sides and can intimidate England’s top order. Hazelwood is on the money every time and will give away very little. Broad has the ability to make something happen when a game is drifting and Anderson is a master of swing. Let’s hope they all stay fit.
There is also a lot of cricket to be played by both sides before the first ball at the Gabba in ten months’ time, but the countdown to the Ashes has begun.
IMAGE: Australia’s Mitchell Starc (Getty images)