When the two teams, England and Australia, take the field at Edgbaston on August 1 for the first Test of the 2019 Ashes series, it will be a momentous occasion. It will mark the beginning of a new era in Test cricket as the World Test Championship also gets underway with this rubber.
It will also be a new era of sorts for the England team as they have achieved that one goal which they strove for since 2015 – becoming ODI world champions. Now that they have earned that long sought-after distinction, it remains to be seen whether they can refocus their energies and change their mind-set to suit the longest format.
It is hard to predict who would win this series, though the hosts are clearly the favourites. But we can certainly identify the few factors that will determine who wins this series. Let's look at these factors in brief.
Form of Smith and Warner
The eviction of Steve Smith and David Warner from the Test team heralded an era of pain and anguish for Australia as their battling line-up became extremely vulnerable. With two world-class batsmen out, the rest of the batting looked incapable of putting up big scores against quality bowling. Now that the two are back, they are expected to lift the level of their team's batting to new heights. But these two are yet to prove themselves as dangerous in English conditions as they are in others. Will they emerge triumphant amidst the boos of the crowd? Whether they do or not could be the deciding factor in the series. If they score big, the very competent Australian bowling would be dangerous. If they don't, more pain ensues for the visitors.
Last year, England triumphed over India 4-1 while playing in swing-friendly conditions. With the Australians also used to batting on flat tracks these days and technically not the most sound, England would definitely want green-tops again. If such pitches are indeed served up, both bowling attacks would be happy. But with the English batting a little stronger and a lot more used to such conditions, they may just have an edge over their rivals.
Form of Mitchell Starc
Since the ball-tampering scandal, one man whose form suffered a nosedive was Mitchell Starc. This led to whispers that his prolificacy earlier was more the result of Australia's ingenious handling of the ball and not the left-arm pacer's skills. But in the recently-concluded World Cup, Starc was back to his best. But can he replicate his form in the longest format. A lot would depend on it. It was the inefficacy of his bowling that proved a vital ingredient in his team's embarrassing loss to India at home. Also, with James Pattinson back in the side, he cannot take his place for granted.
Will England's top order be resolute?
If there is one thing that has remained constant with the English Test team, it's been the vulnerability of their top order. Again and again, the English batsmen have shown a tendency to be not able to play proper Test cricket and throw their wickets away with loose shots. This has produced innumerable collapses in the last three years –against New Zealand, West Indies and even Ireland recently. It has been surmised that it was due to the excessive influence of the aggressive brand of ODI cricket that the team was playing. If England continue to suffer from this problem in the coming series, winning would be extremely difficult. Whether the English top-order tightens up and plays in a responsible manner would be a big factor in deciding the outcome of this series.
Interestingly, both teams are struggling to find a stable opening combination for some time. While Australia have the luxury of having at least one established opener in David Warner, England are searching for two. Marcus Harris has shown glimpses of talent but needs to deliver more. Cameron Bancroft succeeded in county circuit but Ashes would be a whole new challenge. On the English side, Rory Burns too has given reasons for optimism but this would be a tough Test for him. As it would be for whoever bats with him – Jason Roy or Joe Denly.
Battle of offies
Lastly, a lot would also depend on the kind of support that the pacers get from their spin bowling teammate. This is where the battle between Nathan Lyon and Moeen Ali would become prominent. Both Ali and Lyon have emerged as genuine wicket-takers and have made orthodox off-spin bowling effective again. Whoever is more successful from these two would give their team a huge advantage as he would allow the fast bowlers to have some rest time. That is also why, both may be targeted as well by the opposition batsmen.