“What do you think?” grinned Harry Brook, when asked how he planned to play Nathan Lyon when they meet for the first time in Test cricket.
The subtext was clear, even if the answer eventually found some nuance. “If he bowls a good ball, I’m going to respect him,” Brook explained. “Other than that, I’m going to try to take him on… If it is a bad ball I’m going to try to hit it for four or six.”
Herein lies the essence of England’s expected approach to Lyon. Australia have a series of outstanding seamers who will be difficult to get away, so why not pick on the humble finger-spinner?
Australia expect just that. An hour or so after Brook spoke, Lyon was bowling in the nets at Matt Renshaw and Josh Inglis, reserve batsmen in Australia’s squad. Both are adept T20 players, and had been told to slog as if their life depended on it. They attacked Lyon relentlessly.
England’s plan plays to their strengths. The trouble is that Australians call Lyon ‘the GOAT’ for a reason: this humble finger-spinner has flowered so spectacularly that he has 487 Test wickets at an average just north of 31, despite playing more than half of his 120 matches in Australia, traditionally a graveyard for bowlers of his type. That means he does not bowl too many of these hittable bad balls.
In a nutshell, the “Bazball” revolution is about to face its ultimate test in more ways than one. Under captain Ben Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum, whose nickname is “Baz,” England have gone on all-out attack and won 12 of their last 17 Tests. Always chasing a win — even at the risk of losing — England have not been defeated in a series over the past year.
But the message from the Australians, who beat India in the World Test Championship final at The Oval on Sunday, is clear: Bring it on.
Australia had reclaimed the Ashes in 2018 with a 4-0 home win, retained them with a 2-2 draw in England in 2019 before another 4-0 home rout in 2021. What will happen this time? Nobody knows. It is probably the most-awaited Ashes since the 2005 edition which England had won.
While England will be fighting to take back the Ashes, Australia will be on a quest for a first series win in England since 2001.
“...there’s added excitement this time around. That’s because of the brand and style of cricket this England side are playing. There’s that question we all have: can they turn up and do to Australia what they have done to every other side they’ve come up against?” former England skipper Nasser Hussain wondered.
It will not be easy against the bowling attack of Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Scott Boland and, of course, Lyon. One of Starc, Hazlewood and Boland will miss out from the final XI, but even then it will be an attack that will be better than most international sides. And while the focus is on the pacers in England’s seaming conditions, it’s Lyon who might be Australia’s trump card.
Justin Langer, the former Australia coach, is sceptical about England’s plans. “You hear ‘they are just going to smash Nathan Lyon’,” he told the Vaughany and Tuffers Cricket Club Podcast this week.
“But I was watching the World Test Championship final and Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Virat Kohli are facing him... it’s not that easy to do. I think he could be the difference in the series. England don’t have a world-class spinner. That’s no disrespect to Moeen Ali. He’s a good offie, but he’s not Nathan Lyon.”
For the record, at Edgbaston four years ago, Lyon took six wickets in the second innings and nine in the match to bowl Australia to victory.
With inputs fromThe Daily Telegraph in London
England vs Australia, Day I of first Test, 3.30pm IST, live on Sony Sports Network
Ponting bets on Aussie bowlers
London: England’s bowling attack will struggle to bowl out Australia in the Ashes if they prepare flat wickets for their radical ‘Bazball’ approach, former Australian captain Ricky Ponting has said.
The conventional norms of cricket have been overturned by England coach Brendon ‘Baz’ McCullum and captain Ben Stokes, who have orchestrated an impressive streak of 11 wins in 13 Test matches with an aggressive and high-risk, high-reward style.
Ponting said England’s bowling attack is already on the backfoot having lost fast bowler Jofra Archer and spinner Jack Leach to injuries.
“If England want to play the style that they’ve been playing, I actually think they probably need to have some flattish-type wickets,” Ponting told The Times, London.
“I’ve heard that they want flat wickets, I’ve heard they want the boundaries brought in. But I think if they do have these flatter wickets, I’d be worried about how they’re going to get 20 Australian wickets a game.
“With Jofra Archer not being there, without their No.1 spinner being there, if they’re flat, will Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Robinson be able to have a huge impact on the series?”
Ponting said he was worried about the Australian batting line-up but predicted the bowlers would deliver.
“The records of some of our top-order batters are not as good here in the UK, but the bowling numbers are all pretty good,” he said.