Ideal Time

Stuff that matters

It wouldn’t be an Ashes tour without England players getting chirped by the locals but the latest example left Jack Leach wondering whether the joke might be on Australia.

“I was having some food the other day in Brisbane with Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad and some guy came over afterwards and started saying: ‘Hey guys, I just want to wish you the worst of luck at the Gabba.’ So that was quite funny,” Leach recalls.

“He said to us: ‘It’s going to be a green-seamer at the Gabba’ and I was thinking: ‘I’m not sure that’s the best sledge to two of the greatest bowlers that England have ever had.’ So I think they were pretty pleased about that.”

Certainly the wet weather in Queensland during the buildup period could result in two ring-rusty teams facing off in the first Test on 8 December and on a pitch that is similarly underprepared; the chief curator at the Gabba, David Sandurski, needs the torrential rains to stop if he is to deliver the bounce that Australia’s pace attack crave.

Though a green-top still feels unlikely, the La Nina weather system that is currently buffeting the east coast and likely to roll into next week could still turn English thoughts to an all-pace attack; this, despite Ben Stokes returning from his recent hiatus and, in theory, as the fourth seamer, helping to accommodate a spinner in the final XI.

Leach did not play a Test all summer while Stokes was absent but hopes Joe Root and Chris Silverwood, captain and head coach respectively, note how other left-armers have performed against Australia, not least Keshav Maharaj when South Africa won away in 2016 and at home in 2018. Keeping an end tight was the primary role, but Maharaj also accounted for Steve Smith three times among his 21 wickets.

Another muse for Leach is Nathan Lyon who, though a right-armer, has picked up 200 of his 399 Test wickets at home and shown that finger-spinners can prosper on harder Australian surfaces and with the Kookaburra ball’s less prominent seam.

“For years I’ve watched Nathan Lyon and he’s very impressive,” says Leach, whose own experiences in Australia include two stints in grade cricket and a Lions tour in 2017-18.

“Just how strong his stock ball is and on wickets that don’t necessarily offer a lot spin-wise, he’s found ways to extract extra bounce, dip and all the other things. They’re the kind of things that I’ve been trying to add in but still sticking to my strengths as well.”

So far on tour Leach has been restricted to bowling in the nets or in front of the mirror in his hotel room. When England’s warm-up match against the Lions was washed out for the second successive day on Wednesday, they had played only 29 overs of cricket out in the middle since arriving in Queensland and before Jos Buttler, Mark Wood, Chris Woakes and Dawid Malan had cleared quarantine after the recent T20 World Cup.

The concerns here centre chiefly around the seam bowlers, not least those longer in the tooth. While the batters can still groove themselves in the indoor nets to some extent, the likes of Anderson and Broad must get miles in their legs before their return at the Gabba. The former is 39, while the latter, 35, is coming off the back of a calf injury that wrecked his home series against India and followed a lack of competitive cricket beforehand.

Both veterans have been out to buy tennis shoes so they can bowl indoors but Phil Scott, England’s strength and conditioning coach, has also prescribed a series of long walks around Brisbane for all the seamers. To break up the monotony of this, these scenic yomps apparently include a series of cryptic clues to answer en route.

More vexing than this treasure hunt is the fate of a tour that faces potential logistical disruption due to the emergence of the Omicron variant of Covid-19. Both sets of players have grown weary of bubble life and it is understood the Australian team have already told Cricket Australia they would push back against any further restrictions.

As such, there appears little chance of the fifth Test taking place in Perth after Western Australia’s state premier, Mark McGowan, insisted that players, support staff and the various broadcasters would first have to undergo 14 days of hard quarantine.

This has led to New South Wales and Victoria jostling to host a second Test match in the series. Cricket Tasmania is also keen to stage what would be a first ever Ashes match in Hobart but appears to be an outsider, with international fixtures at the Bellerive Oval bringing in a fraction of the revenues made at either the SCG or MCG.

Whichever ground wins, the finale would probably become a day-night Test as a result, ensuring the same primetime evening TV audience on the eastern seaboard as a match in Perth. Like the joke about a possible green top in Brisbane, England won’t mind dodging the bouncier soil of WA and playing a second pink-ball match in the series.