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Ashes on the mind ahead of key clash

Australia needs to lift itself after dismal warm-up against India, while English concerns remain over one-paced batting

Ashes on the mind ahead of key clash - Cricket News
All the pressure is on England when they face Australia.
So often limited-overs cricket desperately searches for meaningful context. Often that search can be forlorn like the futile quest for a lost pair of spectacles. But England against Australia is a contest that is never played in a vacuum and this opening Group A match at Edgbaston on Saturday (June 8) is rich with sub-plots.  

The last time the Champions Trophy came to England in 2004, England met Australia on the same ground in the semifinal. England won comfortably, ending a run of 14 straight one-day defeats against Australia. The modest crowd (blamed on the identity of the participants being known only 72 hours before the game) and countless other interested observers around the UK dared to believe this was a portent for the Ashes that was still ten months away. The players tried to avoid doing the same.  

The latest edition of Test cricket’s most ancient Ashes is considerably closer on the horizon – just a month away – but the same rules apply. Supporters want to see their side make an early statement while the captains, in their pre-match media conferences, do their best to let Ashes questions pass outside the off stump.  

George Bailey, Australia’s acting captain in the absence of Michael Clarke, smiled at the first verbal delivery about the Ashes while his counterpart Alastair Cook offered a slightly weary poker face.  

“I think it’s important just to start well for this tournament,” said Bailey. “As for the summer, I'm sure the team that wins would like to think that that takes a little momentum forward. But there are so many games I can't see it having a big bearing on how the rest of the summer goes.”  

Cook said, “Clearly playing Australia in the first game with the Ashes coming up, everyone's going to talk about that. But I think both sides will see it as needing to get the tournament off to a good start rather than anything else.”  

The fact remains this is the first of 26 England-Australia fixtures across all formats in the next eight months and every act has a consequence. For example, it has not escaped the notice of Mickey Arthur, Australia’s coach, and his team of scrutineers that Cook has been dismissed by left-arm seam in eight of his past 15 innings – all against New Zealand – in both Test and 50-over formats. At Trent Bridge in the third One-Day International on Monday, Cook was trapped lbw by Mitchell McClenaghan for a nine-ball duck. If Mitchell Starc has similar success against Cook at Edgbaston, you can bet that Australia will not be reticent about sowing the seeds of doubt.  

The official line on Clarke’s recurring back injury is that Australia hopes he will be fit for their next Champions Trophy match against New Zealand, also at Edgbaston, next Wednesday. But there is no way that the management are prepared to risk the possibility of him missing the Ashes. Victory over England would reduce the temptation to rush him back.  

Cook, predictably, dismissed the relevance of Australia’s 65 all out warm-up debacle against India earlier in the week while Bailey described it as “not an ideal preparation” with considerable understatement.  

Australia may have won the last two editions of this soon-to-be-defunct tournament but no one – least of all themselves – is really expecting them to complete a hat-trick. Bailey’s own version of the current global cricketing landscape is that there is no outstanding team, meaning that Australia has as good a chance as anyone else. But he also acknowledges that the gap between Australia’s best and worst performances in recent times has been too large.  

All the pressure is on England, though, with an expectant full-house home crowd at a ground they favour and supporters who are renowned for their full-throated partisan support. Their one-paced, Pietersen-free batting order continues to divide opinion and there is a large hero-shaped hole waiting to be filled. Keeper-batsman Jos Buttler auditioned impressively with a 16-ball 47 in the third one-dayer against New Zealand.  

England’s preference for batting specialists in the top order leaves it with an ongoing selection dilemma between the batting all-rounder Ravi Bopara and the bowling all-rounder Tim Bresnan. Bopara played in the last one-dayer against New Zealand. Bresnan is anxiously waiting for his wife to give birth.  

For Australia, Clarke’s absence may give an opportunity to all-rounder Mitchell Marsh to play his second ODI, more than 18 months after his first since when a lack of off-field discipline has stifled his progress. The choice for Australia is between Marsh and the off-spinning, big-hitting all-rounder Glenn Maxwell. Should they choose Marsh then they will likely pick Xavier Doherty as their spin option.

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