Ashes Preview: Ashes Before the Fire?

As international cricket’s foundational rivalry is re-joined, the game itself feels poised at an ever more precarious precipice. Test cricket is assailed from numerous directions by the economic forces currently laying siege to the sport. The Australian domestic scene has never felt more sidelined and fragmented. The possibility of cashed up rival entities challenging the ICC world order has not felt so potently possible since the days of Packer. All past assumptions about the game’s values, context  and meaning increasingly feel open to question in an age that does not seem to reward subtlety.

Amidst this growing volatility, the recent actions of Cricket Australia, and those within its employ, appear beyond curious. Its ham fisted attempts at union busting, during what became a protracted and embarrassing pay dispute with its players, suggested that a Board of Control drastically changed in personnel post-Argus was struggling to differentiate a purely commercial concern from the very different beast that is a national sport. Then just as things seemed to be quieting down, the national selection committee – a body itself under challenge within CA – chose an initial Ashes squad in a manner that serves to further insult an already diminished Shield competition, exacerbating the tensions now evident across Australia’s domestic cricket scene.

Whatever the intent behind these actions, the effect seems likely only to unsettle stakeholder relations and fuel potential combustibility. As if the stakes of an Ashes contest were not already high enough.

If you think this analysis too melodramatic, just consider the consequences of an Australian loss in this upcoming series. Just six years ago an Ashes failure in a home summer saw Don Argus enlisted to review Australia’s cricket operations. An overhaul was enacted with the stated intention of restoring our test fortunes. Where do we think this has led us? Does anyone really think Australia’s first class scene is healthier now than six years ago? And does any cricket follower believe the test side can remain insulated from a declining domestic environment?

Of course, Australia isn’t expecting to lose this summer. In conditions we will control, Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood look a formidable attack. England’s batting seems overly dependent on Root and Cook, largely because so many others are unknown quantities. But there is a fragility about this expected balance of power. So much of it depends on the fitness of Starc and Cummins. Both need to remain intact  for five tests over 46 days. Given their past injury histories, this is a risk. And without James Pattinson as a reserve option, the alternatives look decidedly less potent.

There was a sense of this apprehension about Australia’s selections for the opening tests. Six changes from the Bangladesh tour reflects not only the differing conditions, but an uncertainty over candidates for several spots. As to the choices made? One can only wonder at the questions Australian selectors ask themselves when the answer always seems to be Shaun Marsh. At least Cam Bancroft argued his case through weight of runs.

Much has already been said of the selection of Tim Paine as keeper. This is unfortunate for Paine, who has long been a talented cricketer out of luck due to injury. Whatever his talents, this selection was made with a complete disregard for Shield performance. It sends a clear signal to Peter Neville that he will only be considered with reluctance. This, in the context of a season where several Shield stalwarts have already lost their places to less credentialed younger prospects. It is hard to see how the arbitrary nature of such decisions wouldn’t be straining relationships in dressing rooms across the country. Careers appear to be at the mercy of whims and knee jerk reactions. The perception of preferential treatment for some grows.

England will hardly be oblivious to this predicament. They may well sense an anxiety behind Australia’s usual pre-series bluster. Their Brisbane strategy must surely be to dig in, keep the hosts bowling for extended periods, and look to potentially more conducive conditions in the Adelaide day-nighter. To achieve this they will need their lesser lights to stand up. Currently, only Cook, Root, Anderson and Broad have any record of achievement in Australian conditions. This makes Ben Stokes’ self-imposed absence an even more costly indulgence. England can’t afford his situation to distract them. A poor start could see the series decided before any prospect of him becoming a factor.

So two mediocre teams face off in a contest always laden with historic baggage, still important to the psyche of both nations. The end result will have huge consequence to the careers of many, both on and off the field. James Sutherland may well speak of test cricket’s commercial demise vis a vis T20, but he will not be oblivious to the importance of what beckons. In terms of delivering human drama, test cricket remains the main game in town.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World’s Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has been a Carlton member for more than 30 years.

Comments

  1. Excellent summation JB. It appears none of the stakeholders within Australian cricket are on the same page and the selectors necks are squarely on the chopping board.

    The ‘what if’ Australia’s fast bowlers break down or tire is perhaps the peg on which the series will hang.

    Ultimately Paine’s strange selection probably won’t make a lot of difference. I wonder if they considered Handscomb in the role to open the way for an allrounder or an extra bat or bowler.

  2. John Butler says:

    JD, never has so much been invested in two such unsound physiologies.

    Re selections, whatever the question, just assume the answer is Shaun Marsh.

    Cheers

  3. Test cricket. These days I don’t give a stuff. The Ashes. Embers flicker. Atherton, Haigh and Butler fan the flames. I read a puerile Warner comment headline (again). Decide I was right first time.
    Cowan and Klinger too old for Shield. Too young for Test recall?
    We laughed at South Africa’s positive discrimination policy for black cricketers in the Currie Cup. Ageism and racism – what’s the difference?
    I’m not working tomorrow, but there are a dozen more interesting options than spending long watching the box (sound off – compulsory). Radio will be in the background and I will doubtless catch snippets of vision here and there.
    Tempted to farewell the WACA in a month’s time. But the wicket left long before the cricket did. Sacrificed 3 days of riveting bounce (unknown to modern batsmen) for 5 days of income. Cost and primitive conditions decided against. Maybe Adelaide next year. Pavlov’s dog still slavers for fragments of memory, cricket and places long departed.

  4. John Butler says:

    PB, if we’re reduced to wheeling Nathan Lyon out to deliver the pre-match verbals, we need to consider a different approach. No matter what Boof thinks.

    Enjoy the gardening.

  5. Excellent work, JB, observations.

    Cricket Australia has almost quenched the fire of Test cricket, its meaning and standing. With Channel 9’s help.

    Scheduling is appalling.
    Take a look at the 1990/91 tour schedule. http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci/engine/series/61737.html

    Selection actively reduces interest. Why would I care? Why would I care about Shield cricket? Or about any players?

    The golden goose may be in strife.

  6. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    Nicely done JB,
    Haven’t watched much cricket since the 2009 Ashes in England. If wickets tumble often, I might start to tune in again.

  7. John Butler says:

    Thanks E Reg.

    I think it’s dawning on everyone that more is equating to less when it comes to the fixture. Nothing has a real context anymore. Especially test cricket, which is just caught up in the blur of everything else.

    Cricket, like many other sports, has been seduced by the big money currently on offer from T20. There’s a complacency that all will be well if the money keeps rolling in.

    I don’t know about that. Does the sport look healthier now than 20 years ago? It might be richer, but that’s not the same thing.

  8. John Butler says:

    Phil, given the respective batting lineups, there could be plenty of that on offer in the next few weeks.

    Cheers

  9. We can’t bat but we can bowl. Their bowling looks thin and their batting thinner, but I agree that we are an injury or two away from disaster.

    Bottom line: the least worst batting line up will prevail.

  10. John Butler says:

    Dips, an awful lot will also ride on the batting of the respective captains.

    And much changes if we find some conditions where the ball swings. That would put England right back into it.

    Unless some wires get crossed, I would expect some very flat wickets.

    Cheers

  11. An excellent summary, JB.
    I still cannot believe heads have not rolled following the contract impasse.
    I will leave selection discussion for another day, but expect Australia to win and win well.

    I am not sure Australia’s batting line-up looks fragile. Bancroft is an in form debutante, Warner a flat-track home bully, Khawaja is in form and plays well in Australia, Smith could well end up one of our greatest ever, Handscomb has had a solid start to his elite career. #6 is an issue.
    Keep an eye on Seb Gotch, Victoria’s keeper.

    And a word from the wise: do not mistake pure speed and pace for potency, JB.

  12. John Butler says:

    Smokie, if the track is flat and the ball isn’t swinging then you would fancy Australia’s attack to be the more likely to force a win. Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood are fine bowlers as well as being quick. But what comes after them is a step down in quality. I’m excluding Lyon from this discussion, though his role could be crucial.

    I might be proven wrong, but I have a suspicion England is being underestimated. We’re about to find out about that.

    Cheers

  13. Road. Built for revenue not for cricket. Obviously hasn’t rained for a month in Brisbane.

  14. John Butler says:

    Thought you weren’t going to watch, PB? :)

    You are correct. The pitch won that session. Closely followed by England.

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