Australia defying expectations and Starc’s ‘ball of the century’

If something that encapsulates the current Ashes’ outcome, it is the ball bowled by Mitchell Starc to James Vince on the fourth day of Perth test. A peach of the delivery bowled from round the stump pitching on middle stump, straightened up to castle Vince’s off stump leaving a bewildered Vince just stare at the pitch in shock. On any normal this ball would have been played for an easy single on leg-side but the ball produced the most unexpected result. Same is the case for this series.

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Ashes is the oldest rivalry in cricket history. Australia and England are the pioneers of cricket. Ashes series started in 1884. The series got its name as a result of sarcastic obituary of England cricket published in the newspaper following England’s humiliating defeat at Oval in 1882. The headline was ‘’English cricket died at oval and the ashes taken to Australia.’’ The trophy of Ashes is a small symbolic urn which holds the ashes of a bail.

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Ashes 2017/18 is only into its 4th test but the series outcome is decided with Australia securing an emphatic victory in the third test.

This Ashes isn’t the most fiercely fought but the outcome has surprised many. Rooting for England, experts were certain that Australia will be an easy escape for the in-form England and their claim was substantiated too. Australia’s ashes campaign was surrounded with controversies and lean form. The thing that caused the most furore was the contentious selections of Tim Paine and Shaun Marsh. With the regular keeper Mathew Wade dropped after a consistently poor run, Peter Handscomb took the keeping gloves in Australia’s last series against India.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 22: Tim Paine prepares to bat during an Australian nets session at The Gabba on November 22, 2017 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)
BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 22: Tim Paine prepares to bat during an Australian nets session at The Gabba on November 22, 2017 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Selectors opted to go for a regular wicketkeeper for the series and selected Tim Paine who last played in 2010 and had not scored a first-class hundred since 2006.Paine has been a glove-man in just three Shield games in the past two years. He was regarded as the ‘’best glove-man in the country’’ by chief selector Trevor Hohns. Him being recalled ahead of Peter Nevill and Mathew Wade raised censure. The selection of Shaun Marsh was seen as another recall of a failed batsman who had been given numerous chances. Australian media lambasted the selection procedure before Ashes. Australia’s form was also a concern, winning just 2 of the last 6tests and losing 3. Moreover, Australia had won only one of its last 4 series that too against a tentative Pakistan team at home.

The English squad was more settled despite having made some selection gambles selecting Garry Balance and James Vince but, the squad looked better, certainly when compared with Australia.

So it’s very normal if you also thought that England will retain the urn. But, as things stand only after 3 tests, the victor is decided. Australia regained the Ashes defying all odds and refuting all expectations. England was outplayed and outperformed in all three departments in all three tests. They were out batted, out bowled and out fielded. The Patriarch of the Australian triumph has to be Steven Smith. His century made sure that Australia recovers from a precarious position of 76-4 in reply of England’s 302 in the first innings of Brisbane test. He scored a cumbersome 141 of 326 balls, his slowest test century to ensure that Australia ends up with a lead in the first inning. In reply, England stumbled to 195 all out as Starc and Hazlewood’s pace was too hot to handle for English batsmen. Australia eased to a 10 wickets win; a perfect start to their Ashes campaign.

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The victory in the 2nd test was more of a respite for Australian selectors as two of their gambles saved the game for Australia. An unbeaten century by Shaun Marsh and a fifty by Tim Paine put Australia in a dominant position at 442/8 in the first inning. England got out under 250 in both innings to hand Aussies a second win by 120 runs.

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Now Australia’s chances looked realistic, one blow and they’ll have the invaluable urn. If you had any doubt as to who is the best batsman in the longest format currently, Steve Smith cleared those doubts. His flawless and perfectly crafted double ton buried England’s chances –if any- to bounce back in the series. He looked at completed ease throughout his marathon inning and toiled the English bowlers and deflated England’s secure position at the end of first inning. His immaculate display saw him getting to his 22nd test century.

Smith now has 22 hundreds, 14 of them in 29 Tests as captain. Bradman had 14 in 13 Tests as captain. Nobody else comes close. Smith’s career average is 62, but 74 as captain. He is the main protagonist of this improbable win for Australia. Smith (945) has the second best rating in the history equalling Len Hutton (945). He might as well top the best rated Donald Bradman (961) by the time this series ends.

All these stats speak volumes of his current dominance in the game.

There are myriad of reasons for the weight of this victory and defeat. First of all, England painfully missed the services of Ben Stokes whose all round abilities could have fared in favor of England.

Second among them is that in the conditions, Australia have the better team. They had seamers who relied more on pace. Hazlewood had a combination of swing and pace while Cummins and Starc clocked 140 kph regularly. England relied on scarce seam movement which didn’t help them much.

Australians had a fair idea of condition while England, apart from Anderson and Broad hadn’t had a seasoned seamer. English seamers got no support from the sole spinner Moeen Ali which left them with a lot of work to do, and often tired, they didn’t produce any significant result.

On the batting front, England’s hoped were pinned on veteran Alaister Cook, but, they weren’t materialized as the former captain scored only 83 runs in 6 innings. Captain Root –rated among the best young batsmen of the generation- failed to imitate the success of his counterpart. With a crumbling top order, England failed to gain the advantage of its strong lower middle order.

At the moment, England are left with a lot to ponder while Australia has a lot to celebrated. They played out of their abilities to gain this unlikely victory under their captain. England, if able to avoid white wash, it’ll be a big respite.

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