BRISBANE: The war of words that has added spice to the lead-up to cricket’s oldest enduring Test series will give way to genuine hostilities on Thursday when bitter Ashes rivals Australia and England march out in front of a packed crowd at the Gabba.
A temporary ceasefire was called on Wednesday as Australia captain Steve Smith and his England counterpart Joe Root paused for photos under a blinding blue sky at the Brisbane stadium, but both captains have been looking to land a psychological blow on the eve of the first Test.
The customary photo opportunity may have been the only chance to get a clear image from the entire day, with smoke and mirrors employed liberally by the captains during the pre-match media conferences.
Root steadfastly declined to name his side but the element of surprise was lost some four hours later when the England and Wales Cricket Board released the team on its website, with Nottingham bowler Jake Ball beating out Craig Overton as the fourth seamer.
Ball, who has played three Tests, will join Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes in the pace attack. Moeen Ali, the spin-bowling all-rounder, is expected to bat at No. 7.
Smith had earlier thrown a curve-ball by saying David Warner, his vice-captain, opener and best batsman, remained in doubt for the Test as he battles to recover from a neck strain.
Compounding the drama, Cricket Australia later revealed batsman Shaun Marsh had suffered a back strain at training on Wednesday and was also uncertain for the match.
As to how Australia would deal with Warner’s absence, Smith gave no answer.
The board later said all-rounder Glenn Maxwell had been rushed to Brisbane in readiness to slot in if Warner failed to prove his fitness.
Quite how Marsh’s potential absence would be covered remains up in the air.
Before the Marsh news broke, Root had said Warner’s injury would do nothing to change his team’s preparations.
Root has seemed impervious to the pressure of leading a team regarded skeptically by cricket media in both countries, and he has played a straight bat to the usual provocations from Australia’s pundits and players.
Having taken one on the chin for England after a clash with Warner at a Birmingham bar in 2013, Root has gladly stuck it out again on the tour Down Under.
Yet as calmly as he praised his players for refusing to rise to Australia’s bait, his voice strayed briefly from its dependable monotone as he chided the home side’s spinner Nathan Lyon for an attack on the team.
Taking no prisoners, Lyon said on Tuesday that England’s former wicket-keeper Matt Prior had wanted to fly home early during the 2013-14 series, which the tourists lost 5-0.
He also joked that he wanted to see Root, who was omitted for the Sydney Test during that series, ‘dropped again’.
“That’s not how I’d want my players to go about things but that’s up to him to come out and say that,” Root said in response, a hint of a frown crossing the 26-year-old’s face.
“I think it’s slightly out of character. I know Nathan from playing club cricket but it doesn’t seem very real.”
The threat from Australia’s pace trio of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood on a juicy Gabba deck is very real, however.
Paceman Mitchell Johnson destroyed England with nine wickets at the Gabba four years ago, setting the tone for a miserable series for the tourists. Another left-armer in Starc looms as England’s possible bogeyman this time round.
“It has been exciting watching them in the nets,” Smith said of Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood.
“Compared to 2013-14 when Mitchell was bowling in the nets, these guys are just as nasty, if not more nasty to be perfectly honest.”
Root’s batting average is 53.76 in 60 Tests, but his average in Australia is 27.42. He’s confident the experience he got three years ago will set him on a better path.
“It will be quite hostile and potentially slightly intimidating,” he said. “But it shouldn’t scare you.”
AUSTRALIA: David Warner, Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja, Steve Smith (captain), Peter Handscomb, Shaun Marsh, Tim Paine, Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood.
ENGLAND: Alastair Cook, Mark Stoneman, James Vince, Joe Root (captain), Dawid Malan, Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes, Stuart Broad, James Anderson, Jake Ball.
Published in Dawn, November 23rd, 2017