When Michael Clarke’s side toured the West Indies in 2015 ahead of their trip to England, it was the rule inside the camp – from captain to coach to the ranks – never to engage with a question about the Ashes that awaited them.
Any number of confected deflections were utilised to avoid the appearance of over-indexing on the Old Enemy. In the best tradition of robotic football coaches, the cliché of “taking it one game at a time” on high rotation.
It made Tim Paine’s answer to a question about his side’s Ashes campaign of August and September this year stand out. “About six months ago,” he said in response to being asked when his mind would turn to Edgbaston and beyond.
“I’ve been dreaming about it actually. I’m happy now that we’ve got this out of the way, I can put everything into it because every Australian cricketer can’t wait to go and play an Ashes series and particularly in England.”
Acknowledging that it could have been a fraction more diplomatic about the Sri Lanka visit, the answer reinforced that with the Australian skipper – a proper grown-up with all the trimmings – if you ask him a question, he will say what he actually thinks; a disposition that wins him many admirers.
While there may be plenty of cricket in various formats to come, his side’s 366-run win over the mismatched tourists in Canberra, after an innings thrashing in Brisbane, are the final Tests they will play before fronting up to Jimmy and Co.
A fortnight ago, any ambition Paine had to be an Ashes-winning leader on British soil was admirable but laughable. After all, Australia has won only three live Tests there since 2001 with much more experienced sides that weren’t coming off their annus horribilis.
Throw in the hooping Dukes ball on spicy pitches and they were easy to write off. Indeed, that logic suggested if India were towelled up 4-1 last summer, there was nothing to suggest England couldn’t go one better and execute an Ashes whitewash of their own for the first time ever.
But then, as Australia ended their summer of existential crisis, as Geoff Lemon described it, on this high note by filling their boots and singing their song, Joe Root’s charges were capitulating in the Caribbean, losing a wicket every 32 deliveries to the West Indian seam battery. Sure enough, this was must-see TV in the hotel rooms of Paine’s men each night at stumps. “I’ve been watching England,” Paine smiled, “keeping a really close eye on them.”
As England themselves showed in Sri Lanka last year, and India in Australia over the Southern summer, a key ingredient to winning away is an open mind at the selection table, playing to one’s strengths rather than trying to paper over shortcomings. Based on what he has observed in Barbados and Antigua this is where Paine’s mind should start to turn: how can Australia exploit England’s fragile batting list? In short: by blasting them out.
Admirable as Australia’s efforts were in Canberra, the four centuries their batsmen compiled came after being
30-3 both times against a very gentle Sri Lankan attack missing all four of their first-choice seamers. Even allowing
for Steve Smith and David Warner’s automatic inclusion, it is hard to see many days where their bats
dominate the England bowlers.
But that’s okay, provided it is the same story when England are at the crease, helped by accepting from this point forward that the series will more than likely turn into a race to who can take their 20 wickets first and hoping whatever can be scrapped together with the bat will be enough. Sure, don’t expect any Tests to reach the fifth day, but then again, none did in this corresponding series in 2015 in any case. Make this series all about the wickets.
One available option for Paine’s side to press ahead in this arms race by playing one more genuine quick than is conventional, and provided James Pattinson can get through the second half of the Sheffield Shield season unscathed, he is the perfect candidate. Forever injured but seldom forgotten, the Victorian has never lost the ability to swing the ball at 95mph. His last sustained stint at first-class level reaped 58 wickets at 14 in Australia and for Nottinghamshire.
When speaking to The Cricket Paper during that 2017 County Championship stint, Pattinson said he saw himself as a Test No.7 with the blade; a genuine dual-threat. With 441 runs at 40 (including four half-centuries) across that aforementioned period, the left-hander was making that case ahead of the 2017-18 Ashes, only for major back surgery to put him out of the game once more.
With Paine the current No.7 and Pat Cummins showing across the last 18 months that he is equally capable of batting there, what Australia could do is bat their three No.7s at six, seven and eight. Would a specialist sixth batsman or an all-rounder make more runs than Paine in the position? Perhaps. But would the wickets Pattinson inevitably hoover up in a turbo-charged four-pronged battery (alongside Nathan Lyon) help win this race to 20? Certainly.
It has long been a dream of the top brass of Australian cricket to turn out Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Cummins and Pattinson in the same Test XI.
Throwing Jhye Richardson into the mix, the young Dale Steyn-alike, makes a pace attack to swoon over. For the unique task of winning in England, especially for a side as fragile and inexperienced as Paine’s, a calculated punt is required. There is no better time to play them all and let ’em rip.