England captain Joe Root has declared himself ready for an Ashes series that he admitted would “define my captaincy”.
Statistically Root is already his country’s most successful Test leader, overtaking mentor Michael Vaughan in the summer when he oversaw a 27th victory over India at Headingley. But he has yet to get the better of Australia, having suffered a 4-0 defeat in his previous campaign down under followed by a 2-2 draw in 2019 which saw the tourists retain the urn.
So when Root steps out for the first Test at The Gabba on Wednesday, he knows his reputation is on the line.
“Of course it will define my captaincy, I’m not naive enough to think it won’t,” he said at a series launch that saw him come to face-to-face with his opposite number, Pat Cummins.
“If you look how hard it’s been for English captains and English teams [towin in Australia] over the years, it has been something which doesn’t happen very often. But what a great opportunity. I’m very excited about it and can’t wait for the series to get going.”
The numbers do make uneasy reading. England have triumphed just once behind enemy lines in the past eight trips, losing nine of their past 10 Tests and drawing the other.
The success of 2010-11, when Sir Andrew Strauss led a famous 3-1 win, accounts for half of their Test victories in Australia over the past 30 years. For Root, that historical adversity is the perfect backdrop to do something special – not just for him as a captain but for each of his team-mates.
Asked if his squad had what it takes to meet the challenge ahead, he said: “What better stage to really grab a series and make an announcement on the international stage? To say, ‘I’m an Ashes player and I want to live in the history of this great rivalry’. That carrot is there for everyone.”
Meanwhile, England head coach Chris Silverwood declared Ben Stokes fit and ready for an Ashes return at the Gabba, after an eight-month break from Test cricket, and admitted it is a “massive” lift to have their champion all-rounder back.
Stokes has not played Test cricket since March or appeared for England in any format since July due to a combination of a badly broken finger and mental exhaustion.
He was a late addition to the tour squad after making a quicker than expected recovery from a second operation on his left index finger, but has made the most of England’s haphazard preparation by taking wickets and scoring runs in their rain-affected intra-squad match last week.
Asked if he expected Stokes to be fit, Silverwood said: “He has definitely not told me any different and from the noises I’m hearing I should imagine he’ll be coming in and telling me he’s ready.”
Stokes commands enormous respect from the Australians after his Headingley heroics in 2019 and just his sheer presence inspires his team-mates to feel more confident. That includes the head coach.
“I think it is massive, really. We felt a lift when his name came back into the hat for being on tour in the first place,” said Silverwood. “We love having him around, not just from his cricket point of view. But him as a person gives us a lift. He is a leader in his own right.
“From a cricketing point of view, we’ve seen how devastating he is. Certainly, that knock at Headingley will be hurting the Australians, so they will be wary of him as a cricketer. They know he can take anybody down.”
Head and Starc in Australia team for first Ashes Test match
By Nick Hoult
Pat Cummins started his captaincy of Australia in confident mood by naming his starting XI for the first Ashes Test a full three days before the series is due to start.
It was an unusually bold move to show his hand so early and England are unlikely to follow suit, partly because the management want to keep Australia guessing until the toss and also due to the fact they have more selection dilemmas to solve.
Cummins announced his team at the official Ashes launch at the Gabba, replete with a giant inflatable urn and fireworks, and stood by Mitchell Starc, who was under pressure for his place from rising young bowler Jhye Richardson. The selectors also opted for Travis Head to bat at five ahead of the more experienced Usman Khawaja.
Head has been picked on promise, Starc selected on past glories. Head struggled against the moving ball in England in 2019 and averaged just 18 for Sussex this summer. But he was picked over Khawaja to bat at five after a solid Sheffield Shield season in which he averages 49.25. At Test level Head’s record is chequered. He averages 39 from 19 matches and by edging out Khawaja, the in-form batsman in domestic cricket, he has to repay the faith of the selectors by ensuring this is his breakthrough series.
There is fragility to Australia’s batting. David Warner had a horrible Ashes series in 2019, his partner Marcus Harris has a very patchy Test record and Head is under significant pressure to fulfil his potential. The first reserve, Khawaja, will not strike fear into the England attack either, but they know the dangers of Steve Smith, Marnus Labuschagne and a David Warner looking for one last hurrah.
“It was a tight one, obviously the selectors made the call,” Cummins said. “Both really good options, really strong form. I think experience is great from Uzzy, and we’re lucky to have that in the squad. But Trav’s been playing a lot for us the last couple of years, and he’s gone away and churned out runs over in England and here in Australia, and we feel like he’s ready to go.”
Cummins confirmed he will give Starc and Josh Hazlewood the new ball, keeping himself back as first change. It is not a surprise Starc was backed and the selectors ignored Shane Warne, a regular critic of his in recent times. It keeps together the three quicks and Nathan Lyon, who took all the wickets in the last Ashes series in Australia.
Warne said last week it was time for Australia to move on from Starc. “He [Starc] is bowling mid 130s [kph] and not swinging it. He averaged 70 per wicket last summer to the top six. Plus his recent World Cup form was horrible. He went for 60 runs in four overs. Richardson must play.”
By going so early with their team, Australia have given clarity to their players and shown they understand conditions at the Gabba. England will consult weather patterns and watch closely how the pitch is prepared over the next couple of days as they mull over whether to pick an all-seam attack, choose between Ollie Pope or Jonny Bairstow at five and decide which, or both, of Stuart Broad or James Anderson plays the in the first of five consecutive Tests in six weeks.