Ian Bell vs. Mitchell Johnson
If, as plenty including Unibet’s own Graeme Swann believe, the England XI for the opening match in Cardiff and beyond is to be identical to the one we saw in both Tests against New Zealand, then Ian Bell might think he’s rather fortunate.
Scores of 1, 29, 12 and 1 at Lord’s and Headingley hardly served as confidence boosters ahead of this series, especially given that he was dismissed for a pair in his previous Test match against the West Indies in Bridgetown.
A quickfire 90 in the T20 Blast at Durham and a County Championship century at Worcester in the last month will have improved his mood somewhat, but although he’s hardly the callow youngster we saw in 2005 there will be a perception amongst the Australian camp that he’s not the player who stood up to them impressively in 2010/11 and was man of the series in 2013.
Enter Mitchell Johnson, a man who will seek to press home any perceived advantage he can find in a bid to mask his own failings in England.
If Johnson can get on top of Bell early in the series then he might see a weak spot he can continue to exploit for the rest of the summer, and his team could build from there.
Stuart Broad vs. Steven Smith
We all know how much the pre-Ashes trash talk can be taken out of context, but the regularity with which Stuart Broad mentioned that this series would be played with a Dukes ball during a recent interview could be taken as his first attempt to get under Steven Smith’s skin.
The Dukes ball – with its prominent seam – could give Smith problems early on, and by repeating that belief loudly and without abandon, Broad was perhaps seeking to plant a seed of doubt in the mind of a player who has excelled recently.
Smith’s development and rise to become the No. 1 Test batsmen in the world has been as wonderful to watch as it has perhaps been surprising to some people, but with plenty including Broad seemingly doubting his ability to bat at No. 3 in England, just how he fares could be one of the most fascinating aspects of the series.
Ben Stokes vs. Brad Haddin
As he showed with that remarkable fastest ever Test century at Lord’s in May, there is an element of ‘wind him up and watch him go’ about Ben Stokes, with the recent incident with Marlon Samuels in the West Indies another example of his fiery nature.
Arch-sledger Brad Haddin might have to choose his words carefully if he starts chuntering away to Stokes from behind the stumps, then, with a few words out of place perhaps giving Stokes the ammunition to impress with both bat and ball.
Haddin has seen and done it all before of course, and he won’t see the mental challenge as anything different to the ones he’s undertaken in his career, but with an Ashes series in England always seemingly desperate for a summer romance with an all-rounder Stokes could be that man, and he won’t exactly need any extra motivation to be.
Mark Wood vs. Josh Hazlewood
Ryan Harris’s retirement has stripped Australia of one of their most dependable performers, and a strangely underrated bowler who knows how to compete in English conditions.
But Josh Hazlewood is both of those things too, and the 24-year-old could use this series to really showcase himself as the effective replacement for Harris – something that Swann has suggested that he certainly can be in Cardiff.
A year older at 25, England’s Mark Wood is nonetheless less experienced in the Test arena than his opposite number, and after a quietly impressive start against New Zealand he’s about to be pitted into the type of battle he’ll have dreamed of facing all his life.
How he reacts is going to be crucial.
Alastair Cook vs. Michael Clarke
The two men who this could all come down to, however, are the two men who make everything happen.
Whether it is bowling changes, altering the batting order or ‘funky fields’, both Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke go into the summer with reputations on the line. Both know what losing an Ashes series is like and neither want to experience that pain again.
Given that both are arguably the most gifted batsmen in their respective teams, though, it could be that their personal performances come to define this most gruelling of team efforts.
And if it does, what a series we’re in for.
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