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Pink balls, stress and Stokes

LONDON: One of the oldest battles in sport gets underway tomorrow in Brisbane. The Ashes rarely fails to serve up anything short of sporting drama and excitement at its very best. Here are the five things that will shape the series over the next month and a half.
The Woolloongabba “Fighting ground” is an Australian cricket citadel. It’s no coincidence that most high-profile series begin there. Australia’s game plan is fairly simple — ambush the opposition at the Gabba and then widen the scars opened up throughout the rest of the series. Lose at the Gabba, as England did by 381 runs in 2013, and you can almost kiss the storied urn goodbye. Only three teams have drawn a Test at the venue in the past 15 years. England (2010) and South Africa (2012) went on to win the series. India (2003) almost did, denied only by Steve Waugh’s last stand. If you discount the win in 1978, when Australia’s finest were playing in Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, England have won just once at the Gabba since the days of Sir Donald Bradman. And that was in 1986.
Once, the picturesque Oval was where batsmen went with a spring in the step. With the harsh southern sun bleaching the pitch blonde, the surface was invariably full of runs over the first three days. Now, with the redesigned Oval being shared with Aussie rules football and a drop-in pitch being used under floodlights, it’s the bowlers that hold sway. Australia have beaten both New Zealand and South Africa in day-night Tests there, but with the pink ball very amenable to swing, their line-up will face a tough examination against Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. Anderson, in particular, can be unplayable when there’s appreciable movement in the air, or off the pitch. Josh Hazlewood has taken 15 wickets in those two pink-ball Tests though, and England’s batsmen are also unlikely to fancy a trial by swing-and-seam.
With the exception of the old firm of Anderson and Broad, only three of the English contingent have played in Australia before. Alastair Cook has failed twice, either side of a stellar series in 2010-11 — 766 runs, with three hundreds. Joe Root managed just 192 runs in four Tests in 2013, while Jonny Bairstow’s two outings fetched him only 49 runs. The Australians won’t just be mouthy on the field. The tabloids will have their barrels trained on England, and every slip will be magnified, while the rowdy crowds will not be shy of telling the tourists what they think of them. Many have wilted under the scrutiny. Others, like Virat Kohli and Graeme Smith, used the fear and loathing to motivate themselves. England will soon discover just how many in the squad have the appetite for a scrap.
From the time he made his Test debut, picking up seven wickets and hitting the winning runs at The Wanderers in November 2011, it was obvious that Pat Cummins was a once-in-a-generation talent. Sadly, injuries have kept him to just four Tests since then — two in India and two in Bangladesh earlier this year. He has never taken on a workload anything like as intense as an Ashes series. Mitchell Starc, who made his debut a fortnight after Cummins, has had his share of injury woes too, featuring in only 36 of the 68 matches Australia have played since then. On the other side, Anderson, after years of being the bionic man, has had his share of niggles and serious injury during the past 12 months. Neither side has back-up options of the same quality, so the onus will very much be on the physios and trainers to earn their corn.
This week ended his Twitter hiatus to query Matthew Hayden’s description of England’s squad as a “rabble,” but there’s still no clarity on whether he will play any part in the Ashes. When Mitchell Johnson’s searing pace destroyed England in 2013-14, Stokes was one of the few silver linings, scoring a belligerent century and taking 15 wickets. Tom Harrison, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) chief executive, has spoken of “rehabilitation,” but first the police must complete their investigation into the case of alleged assault. “We have to get that balance between censure and support absolutely right,” said Harrison. “I think cricket’s response to this will show the value of the game in the best light.” For now, Stokes is hitting the nets in Durham, waiting for his chance to influence one of sport’s oldest feuds.