Venue: Gabba, Brisbane (Queensland)
Date: 21-25 November 2013
Time: Midnight (GMT)
One of the cricket’s great theaters is the scene for the first Ashes test match of the southern hemisphere summer, where actions will finally supplant words. Three years ago Peter Siddle set the series alight on the first day with a rare Ashes hat-trick, and while the odds are against him repeating the trick this time around the contest should still be a memorable one. Michael Clarke will be out for revenge after suffering a 3-0 reverse during the summer, while Alistair Cook knows that an England win will cement his place in three lions history after just twelve months in charge. The stage is set, the phony war is over and the Barmy Army have touched down in Brisbane. Whether they have anything to cheer remains to be seen.
Australia will be pleased to have some semblance of stability heading into the series, a far cry from the mess they found themselves in before the return series in England earlier this year. With Darren Lehmann well entrenched as coach, not to mention well liked by the players, the uncertainty that followed Mickey Arthur’s sacking is a thing of the past. David Warner is certain to open the batting alongside Chris Rogers, something he was unable to do for the first two tests of the summer after he was suspended following the Walkabout incident involving England’s Joe Root. Shane Watson will bat at three although concerns remain over his ability to bowl owing to a hamstring strain. Further down the lineup Twenty20 captain George Bailey looks likely to make his test debut at number six. Mitchell Johnson will lead the Australian attack despite being dropped for last summer’s series, while Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris will join him in the pace attack. The only decision to be made is between spinner Nathan Lyon and fast bowling all-rounder James Faulkner. While it would be a surprise to see the hosts enter the game without a front-line spinner Steve Smith can turn his arm over and if Watson is deemed not fit enough to bowl left-armer Faulkner could be included as a fourth seam option.
Likely team: Rogers, Warner, Watson, Clarke (c), Smith, Bailey, Haddin (wk), Johnson, Siddle, Harris, Lyon
England have a few more selection headaches heading into the opening test down under than they did in 2010/11, when they were so settled they were able to send their first choice bowling attack ahead to Brisbane a week before the test began. On this occasion the identity of the third seamer behind James Anderson and Stuart Broad remains a mystery, with Chris Tremlett the slight favourite to beat Boyd Rankin and Steven Finn to the role. Matt Prior remains questionable with an injured calf, but having come through three straight training sessions unscathed he looks likely to play ahead of his understudy Jonny Bairtstow. Joe Root will drop down to six to accommodate Hampshire’s Michael Carberry, who’ll add to the solitary test cap he picked up in Bangladesh back in early 2010.
Pitch and weather
All of the talk coming out of the Australian camp is of a quick and bouncy wicket at the Gabba. After the docile surfaces prepared in England this summer a substantial layer of grass is also likely to be left on the pitch to help assist Australia’s seam bowlers, which should encourage a result. Nonetheless the pitch won’t differ too much from a typical Gabba wicket, meaning whoever wins the toss would be wise to bat first (I’ll resist making a Nasser Hussain joke here).
The weather forecast looks mixed for the test, with the first day set to provide plenty of sun and temperatures of up to 28c before the weather progressively cools through to Sunday when there’s a chance of tropical showers. Thankfully the Gabba, like most grounds in Australia, has a fantastic drainage system to enable sports such as rugby and Aussie Rules to be played on a lush outfield and delays should be reduced to a minimum.
Aleem Dar and Kumar Dharmasena (third umpire Marais Erasmus)
Although England are on paper the stronger team and favourites they have started recent series in notoriously slow fashion. A flat if slightly sporting wicket should aid the batsman once the shine wears off the Kookaburra ball, and combined with some time likely being lost to rain a draw is probably the early favourite for this test. However that can all change with a brilliant spell from one of either sides bowlers, of which the likes of Stuart Broad and Mitchell Johnson are more than capable. This helps to make this one of the more unpredictable series in recent memory.