Australia and England go head to head in the Ashes, starting this Thursday at the Gabba – but what are the key battles that will decide the fate of the urn this time around?
England hold the Ashes after their 3-2 win in 2015, but Joe Root’s side face a tough test to retain the urn Down Under with Australia desperate to avenge that defeat.
With the help of Sky Sports Cricket’s Nasser Hussain, we take a look at the head-to-head battles which could have a major say on the outcome of the series, and up next it’s the battle of the captains – Steve Smith v Joe Root…
Test records… Steve Smith – Australia
- Matches: 56
- Runs: 5,370
- Highest score: 215
- Average: 59.66
- Hundreds: 20
- Fifties: 21
Joe Root – England
- Matches: 60
- Runs: 5,323
- Highest score: 254
- Average: 53.76
- Hundreds: 13
- Fifties: 32
This will be the first time we see Smith against Root as captains of their respective sides.
They first came up against each other in 2013. Their stats for the series were very evenly matched with Root, who opened the batting, scoring 339 runs at 37, while Smith hit 345 runs at 38 and they both recorded one century apiece. Despite their similar records, it was Root that got his hands on the urn for the first time as England secured the Ashes with a 3-0 victory on home soil.
Smith didn’t have to wait long for his revenge though because of back-to-back Ashes series. He tasted his first Ashes victory after an excellent series in Australia, scoring 327 runs at 40 with two hundreds as the Aussies thrashed England 5-0. On the other hand, it wasn’t a good experience for Root, who scored only 192 runs in the series and was dropped for the final Test in Sydney.
The 2015 series was the last time they came up against each other and this time Smith was Australia’s captain. Again, their stats were very similar. Root racked up 460 runs at an average of 57 on his way to England’s player of the series award and the Compton-Miller medal, while Smith hit 508 runs at 56. They both hit two hundreds apiece and those scores came in wins for their sides.
In the first Test at Cardiff, Root’s 134 led to an England win by 169 runs, while Smith’s 215 at Lord’s helped the Aussies to a 405-run victory. With England winning the third Test in Birmingham, it was then Root’s turn to go big again, scoring 130 at Trent Bridge as the hosts won the Ashes with an eight-wicket win. With the series decided, Australia put some respectability on the score with victory by an innings and 46 runs, Smith scoring 143. So the blueprint for that series was when Smith goes big Australia win big and when Root weighed in with big runs England won comfortably. Could we see more of the same in the upcoming series?
“It’s a big challenge for Root because of the conditions. What he had in the summer in England playing against South Africa and West Indies with that Duke ball was a ball that moved around 80 per cent of the time. One of the only times it didn’t was on the final day at Headingley against the West Indies and England were found wanting a bit. England’s biggest challenge – and it’s always been the case – is when there’s no lateral movement what is their plan B. That will be Root’s biggest test as a skipper on this tour. After 12 overs and the Kookaburra’s stopped swinging, David Warner’s off to a flier and the Aussies at 40-0, that’s what’s going to test Root’s captaincy.
“In the summer Root did well but it wasn’t really a massive test for him. What he did show is that he has a capacity to learn and you can see that from his use of DRS. At the start of the summer they looked a bit clueless with DRS but by the end of it they had a procedure in place and it worked much better for them. It’s a small thing but it shows he has a real capacity to learn, ask people about certain things and soak all the information he needs to succeed.
“Often a side will start to reflect its captain so the biggest thing Root can bring to the side is runs. One thing he has been guilty of, and it’s a nice problem to have, is getting out in between 50 and a 100. If he can go out there and bring some ruthlessness to his batting to get big hundreds it could filter through the team and it could go a long way to England being successful in this series.
“Smith’s advantage is that he knows the conditions well. He’s been brought up in the conditions so he knows when to sit in and when to attack. He also knows his game inside out. He’s got a phenomenal record and a phenomenal record in Australia. On the other hand, Root had a bit of a struggle in Australia a few years ago. It wasn’t an absolute shocker but it was a battle for him and something he will have to overcome this time around.
“But for Smith, he has nothing to prove as a captain or a player in Australia. At times he can get a bit rattled but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. At times you can see him losing the plot and that’s something England should try and work on. If they can ask questions of Australia and get Smith waving his arms around, looking flustered then you know you’re on top of him, but one thing is for sure, he’s a seriously good player.
“I firmly believe a captain is only as good as his bowling attack. It’s also about how the captain works with that bowling attack. If England can keep Australia in the field long enough and the likes of Josh Hazelwood, Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins start to snap then it could be difficult for Smith. With the likes of James Pattinson and Nathan Coulter-Nile injured there’s not a lot of depth in the Aussie pace stocks. You can be an absolute genius like Mike Brearley as a captain but with second and third string seamers you are going to struggle. It’s the same with England, who have already had a couple of injuries. If one or two more go down then you are left scratching your head a bit about who comes in. Captaincy is all about how you think and thinking outside the box a bit. It’s especially important to do that out in Australia.”
Smith on the upcoming series… Root responds…
Lehmann on Smith…
Australia coach DARREN LEHMANN praises Smith after Australia’s tour of India earlier this year: “Behind the scenes, he’s into it every day, making sure everyone is okay. He’s a different leader to Michael [Clarke], to Ricky, to Taylor, to Waugh. And he’s working out his own identity as a captain. Everyone is proud of him. So pleased with where he is going. He’ll just get better and better.”
Smith’s record in Australia
- Matches: 24
- Runs: 2,403
- Highest score: 192
- Average: 68.65
- Hundreds: 10
- Fifties: 8
Root’s record in Australia
- Matches: 4
- Runs: 192
- Highest score: 87
- Average: 27.42
- Hundreds: 0
- Fifties: 1
England coach TREVOR BAYLISS thinks the battle between Smith and Root could end up deciding the fate of the Ashes: “They’re both fairly positive types. I wouldn’t say they were exactly the same. Both have their little quirks and are magnificent players and it’ll be an interesting battle this year.”