Cricket in the English winter is an interesting spectacle. Devoid of any home action, badgers like me turn our attention overseas. There’s plenty to watch. World cups provide a thrilling contest, alongside the seemingly endless supply of white-ball bilateral series. Franchise cricket also offers an exciting watch with its gallery of international stars mixing and matching in neon kits. Test cricket too, is alive and kicking in the winter months: England’s blistering Bazball approach gave many a reason to smile on cold, dark, December mornings this winter.
Yet, something’s not quite right. Entertaining as it can be, winter cricket has always seemed a bit off-key and missing something. Stirring as it was, the majority were asleep for most of England’s triumph over Pakistan. The same goes for the Australian Test summer and the three lions’ on-going series against the Kiwis. I love ODI and T20 cricket, but the seemingly endless conveyor belt of bi-lateral series leaves the affair feeling a little meaningless. And, fun as it may be, it can get a tad tiresome of watching Jos Butler, donned in pink, dispatching young leg spinners into row Z. For as fun as winter cricket can be, it doesn’t hold a candle to the prospect of an English summer. Specifically, an English Test summer.
But despair not, a faint ray of light lies at the end of this dreary tunnel. Hard as it may be to picture on this drab February morning, in just under 4 months’ time, whisper it quietly, the Ashes are back. England and Australia’s time-old battle for the earn resumes. And this year’s contest promises to be particularly enthralling.
The Aussies are fresh off a near perfect home summer – bulldozing the West Indies and South Africa to win four out of their five Tests, only missing out on the full set due to the typical Sydney rain. Smith, Labuschagne, Khawaja, Warner, Head and Carey have all smashed tons this winter, four of them being doubles. The bowling attack that wiped out England in the last Ashes remains just as threatening. Scott Boland with a Dukes ball is a terrifying prospect.
Yet, England too are on the warpath. The Bazball revolution has ushered in an unprecedented turn – victories in 8 of 9 Tests in the McCullum / Stokes era. Their ultra-attacking ethos has made the world sit up and take notice, especially after their mind-boggling clean sweep over Pakistan. The three lions scored a breath-taking 5.5 runs per over during the momentous series and, perhaps most shockingly, managed to take 60 wickets on what were essentially roads.
The Ashes therefore promises to be an engrossing affair. Two class teams, worlds apart in style, going head-to-head in the toughest of contests. Enthralling as it may be, however, one particular battle catches the eye more than most: Australia’s lean, mean wicket-taking machine, Pat Cummins, against England’s greatest modern batter, Joe Root.
So far, it’s been a one-sided affair: in their 14 encounters, Root’s been dismissed by the six-foot-three Australian a staggering eight times. England’s talisman averages an abysmal 23.8 against the Aussie skipper – a far cry from the 49.44 he boasts overall. Indeed, no bowler has consistently had the wood over the world class Root as much as Pat Cummins.
To make matters worse, England’s former skipper has no discernible specific weakness against the Australian. Of his eight dismissals, two have been LBW, two bowled, two caught in the outfield, and two caught behind. Cummins has dominated him on all fronts.
Yet, perhaps Cummins’ most lethal weapon is the mental edge he appears to have over the Englishman. The pair’s first meeting was the perfect example – the Gabba, day one of the 2017/18 Ashes series. England’s then captain walked to the crease late in the day when Australia’s fearsome quicks had their tails up.
Just two down, Root’s side were comfortable but not yet in a position of any real dominance. Looking to steady the ship, Root was patient, leaving anything wide of his off stump. But this is where Cummins came in. After three overs of out-swingers – three overs of leaves that dragged Root across his stumps – Cummins finally went for it and delivered a booming inswinger that caught Root off-guard and smashed into his front pad. Joe was on his way LBW for 15. “One of the most satisfying wickets of my career” boasted Pat in a 2018 interview.
Cummins has been on top ever since this dismissal – winning nine out of the fourteen Tests that the two have played in. There have, of course, been exceptions to this general rule. Root soaked up the pressure to post a fighting fifty in the famous Headingley Test of 2019. The dogged knock teed up Ben Stokes for his historic century. There have been a couple of notable knocks down under too, but none of any real substance or importance.
This has to change if England want to win the Ashes. Not only is Root England’s best player; he’s also often been their only good player. Over the past decade, the golden boy of English cricket has broken record after record on the way to becoming a modern great. Take his astonishing 2021 for example: in a year where England lost more matches than they ever had before, Root stood tall scoring 1,708 runs at an average of 61.00 in his 15 matches – a majestic return, especially considering just how woeful his teammates were. After Root, England’s next best run scorer was Rory Burns, who limped to a feeble 530 runs at an average of 27.89. Unbelievably, Joe notched 27.98 percent of England’s runs in 2021.
Things have obviously picked up a little since. England aren’t as reliant on Root as they once were. A stellar resurgence from Johnny Bairstow as well as the rise of young players like Harry Brook and Ollie Pope has certainly eased the burden. Yet should he be on song, Root could certainly be the difference between the two sides come June.
There are, of course, other crucial matchups. Ben Stokes has shown a particular disdain for spin in his short tenure as captain. How he tackles Australia’s ‘goat’, Nathan Lyon, will be particularly interesting. The languid off-spinner has snagged Stokes nine times in his career, although Stokes has had his moments – Headingley in 2019 obviously springs to mind.
Anderson versus Smith is a similarly mouth-watering prospect, too. While Anderson has got Smith’s wicket eight times, it’s the Australian who’s often delivered the knockout blow, averaging 50.2 against England’s grizzled old-timer. Both should be in decent form this time around: Jimmy has defied the odds for the millionth time this winter while Smith demolished the West Indian and South African attacks disdainfully down under, although he’s currently finding runs harder to come by in India.
How David Warner fairs against his arch-nemesis, Stuart Broad, will also be a fun watch. After a heap of criticism from the Australian media, Warner regained his touch with a sparkling double-ton against South Africa this winter. The pair’s last meeting on English shores was about as one-sided an affair as one can imagine – Broad demolishing the disgraced opener to claim his wicket in seven out of the ten innings he played. Warner averaged an agonising 9.5 that summer, scoring just sixty-one runs in the five Tests. Broad will be licking his lips once more.
However, of all the individual contests, the Root versus Cummins battle feels like the most crucial. England will need their best player in form and firing but Cummins will try to spoil the party. Who’s your money on?