Ashes 2015: If either team think they can expose a mental frailty with a bit of sledging, they are right to try

England's Ben Stokes appears to enjoy the altercations and it seems to bring the best out of him

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The Independent Online

Job description for the England coach before the New Zealand series: to regenerate public goodwill towards the team by attitude and performance. Job description for the England coach after the New Zealand series: to maintain public support, win the Ashes or ensure the team don’t lose heavily.

The England management now has some stability after the appointment of Trevor Bayliss as coach, though much credit must go to Paul Farbrace, the interim coach, for initiating the process.

So England enter this Ashes series with a highly regarded coach, a captain back in form and a team that virtually picks itself. There will always be a player under scrutiny in the media and Gary Ballance is, for now, that man. He, though, has the character to prove critics wrong and make a successful return to form.

Australia arrived here as formidable opponents a couple of weeks ago, having thrashed the West Indies in the recent Test series. The team appear well-placed with two good victories in their warm-up games. Players and fans on both sides have much cause for optimism, though Australia will start as favourites.

Such is the magnitude of an Ashes series that inevitably the war of words occupies the build-up. We’re through that now and the actions on the pitch will do the talking, or at least they should do. Players on both sides will be tested both physically and, perhaps more importantly, mentally over the next couple of months. It will be fascinating to see how they deal with and react to sledging.

Let there be no doubt here – words will be exchanged. This is Test cricket, the ultimate challenge. If teams feel they can expose a mental frailty they will – and so they should.

 

However, this series has to be remembered for the cricket action, not monotonous and boorish in-your-face finger wagging. It is fine to exchange a couple of words and move on. Subtle, not obvious chat can often be more effective. Players will naturally deal with this differently. Understandably, the public probably like to see a player show his emotions outwardly as it portrays his passion, determination and fight. He would appear then a player of character, someone not to take a backward step.

Ben Stokes might be a good example of this. Australia may target Stokes and see how he reacts. It could also bring the best out of him. He should, and will, know the mental state he needs to be in to perform to his best. This will certainly be a subplot worth following in the next couple of months. From what we’ve seen of Stokes, he enjoys the altercations and they seem to bring the best out of him.

Others will smile and walk away. It can be easy to perceive those as in some way weaker, not prepared to get involved. My experience suggests otherwise, actually. Michael Atherton was generally such a player, very assured and unaffected. More often than not he would say nothing and walk away knowing it was purely an attempt to undermine him – and perhaps taking it as a compliment rather than an insult.

A stronger character on a cricket field you would struggle to find. Obvious outward shows of emotions can sometimes hide insecurities, which opponents will continue to try and exploit. As a general rule England would do well not to get involved and let their actions do the talking. The manner in which both sets of players conducted themselves in the recent New Zealand series was a pleasure to watch.

If England are to upset the odds in this series Mark Wood may just be the surprise package. He has genuine pace and if he can stay fit and play in most of the games, he could unsettle the Australians.

Moeen Ali’s inclusion as the front-line spinner continues to polarise opinion, but it is worth bearing in mind that with the likelihood of the opposition playing two left-arm seamers, there will be plenty of rough for him to bowl into outside the right-hander’s off-stump as the game moves on.

Moeen and Stokes’ ability to contain the Australian batting line-up may prove a decisive factor. They cannot afford to leak runs regularly. Expect Australia to go after them. And, of course, that might result in wicket-taking potential.

So on Wednesday morning in Cardiff it will be Alastair Cook with Michael Clarke, not Eoin Morgan with Brendon McCullum, at the toss. Let us hope we all reflect on this Ashes series with the same degree of fun and fondness that we have for the New Zealand series – even though there is much more at stake.

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