Divisive selections spark muted build-up
The editor of The Age in Melbourne assesses the Aussie mood
Last time England arrived in Australia for an Ashes series, the tension, hostility and even the hatred before the first Test at the ‘Gabbatoir’ was palpable.
England had won a bad-tempered series 3-0 less than three months previously and Australia were out for revenge.
Kevin Pietersen and Stuart Broad were public enemies number one and two and the hosts knew they had the measure of number three – experienced England batsman Jonathan Trott.
Pietersen was fighting with journalists on Twitter, Brisbane’s Courier Mail had taken the extraordinary step of refusing to name Broad in its reports, calling him “England’s 27-year-old medium pacer” and photoshopping him out of pictures, while Trott knew he was doomed before he started. He later wrote in his book that the Australians were “circling like hyenas around a dying zebra”.
Four years on and, despite England again holding the Ashes, it seems there are so few targets for hostility in the tourists’ line-up that the Australians have had to turn on each other in a bid to get their competitive juices flowing.
There’s no Pietersen and no Ben Stokes to pick on, while Broad is now quite well liked on these shores, especially by the Courier Mail.
There’s also no Mitchell Johnson, who destroyed England with 37 wickets as Australia won that 2013-14 series 5-0.
Shane Warne laments that England won’t fear this Australian team, that the selection of at least two of the players in Australia’s first Test line-up is confusing, and that England are in better shape going into the series.
But to be fair, Australia won’t be quaking at the thought of facing this England team either, with several unfamiliar and unproven faces in the line-up, particularly among the batsmen.
The selection of wicket-keeper Tim Paine and Shaun Marsh to bat at number six for the home team has genuinely upset several of the current and past Australian players.
Paine is not even first-choice wicketkeeper for Tasmania, and coach Darren Lehmann himself has a more recent first-class century to his name. Paine’s last first-class ton was in 2006.
Paine replaces Matthew Wade – a regular behind the stumps for Tasmania – who was told he had not batted well enough in the Sheffield Shield to date to justify selection.
And the man originally tipped to replace Wade, New South Wales keeper Peter Nevill, is said to be furious because he has been racking up the runs, with three first-class centuries last season and a decent opening to this one.
Marsh’s inclusion at the age of 34 seems to have riled virtually everybody.
That includes incumbent Glenn Maxwell, who had played in the past four Tests at number six, scored a century in India and averaged 37 in that time.
And it also includes younger players such as Hilton Cartwright, Ashton Agar and Nic Maddinson, who think they have more of a future than Marsh, while the older players who have been overlooked feel there is no consistency in selection.
Fortunately, there is less argument about in-form opener Cameron Bancroft replacing Matt Renshaw at the top of the order.
The selection backlash has prompted Lehmann to call for past and present players to get behind the team rather than undermine it.
“I’d just like all our players, ex-players to be really positive about the Australian cricket team. That would be the way to go,” he said (or begged).
That was too late to stop former skipper Michael Clarke questioning whether current captain Steve Smith and his deputy David Warner were on the same page when it comes to how aggressive the Australians should be in the field.
There’s little doubt which camp Clarke is in, given he was the one who told James Anderson to “get ready for a broken f***ing arm” in 2013.
Warner is not as vocal as he used to be, but still described the Ashes series as “war” and the need to “get some hatred” towards the opposition players to “find that spark”.
The killer instinct seems to come less naturally to Smith and the skipper and his deputy were not exactly singing from the same songsheet during the prolonged pay dispute that at one stage threatened to jeopardise this series going ahead at all.
The question is whether Australia can find another Trott to terrorise and create the much-needed spark the series so badly needs.
“A few players were out here for that last tour, and hopefully we can get them thinking the same way,” said Smith recently.
“Open a few of those scars, get them thinking, ‘oh no, not this again’.”
If there is a bowler capable of inflicting Johnson-like pain on the tourists, it’s most likely to be Mitchell Starc. He will have good support from Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummings, who make up a balanced and impressive three-pronged fast-bowling attack.
If they don’t fire up quickly, England may be able to ease themselves into the series and Joe Root’s team could quickly look like good value at 7-2 to win the series.
Fearsome fast men may not dethrone Lyon king
With both batting line-ups seemingly relying on a couple of stars and some mostly untried or inexperienced back-ups, it would be fair to assume that ball will dominate bat in this series.
With that in mind, Australia’s most destructive and fearsome bowler Mitchell Starc makes plenty of appeal as the man of the series for the hotly fancied hosts, although serially underrated spinner Nathan Lyon looks overpriced at 5-1 to take most wickets for Australia and 10-1 to take the most of any bowler in the series.
Lyon has been most successful in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh but is no slouch at home, taking 23 wickets against India in a four-Test series in 2014 and averaging four wickets per Test in the past five home series – only marginally fewer than Starc.
If Lyon was a betting man himself, though, he’d have his cash on Josh Hazlewood, who he has declared is the “best fast bowler in the world by a long way”.
Leaving aside favourites Steve Smith and David Warner, Peter Handscomb is the unassuming dangerman with the bat for the Aussies.
He has a great attitude, sound technique and has made an excellent start to his Test career, averaging well over 50 in ten Tests.
He could be the surprise package of the series and is worth a look in all top runscorer markets.
The biggest bets that Australia's Tabcorp have had on the series include $16,000 on Smith scoring more runs than Warner at 4-5 and $5,400 on Australia to win the series at 2-5. Tabcorp say if Ben Stokes had made the trip, Australia would be 3-5 shots.
Tabcorp have seen interest in a triple century to be scored at 16-1, England failing to score 400 in any innings has firmed from 3-1 to 2-1, while Alastair Cook failing to score a fifty in the series has attracted support at 4-1.
Follow us on Twitter @racingpostsport
Like us on Facebook RacingPostSport