Ashes November 22, 2006

Head to head: The key Ashes battles

Andrew Miller takes a look at seven of the most important match-ups of the 2006-07 Ashes

by Andrew Miller

As both captains have said, it's time for the talking to stop. Tomorrow's eagerly anticipated first Test contains a number of head-to-heads that could prove pivotal in the destination of the Ashes. Here, Cricinfo takes a look at seven of the most important match-ups

Ricky Ponting v Andrew Flintoff
The most successful England captain in Australia in recent years was rugby's Martin Johnson, which is why Flintoff's door-frame-filling captaincy could yet prove to be a masterstroke. He has the skill and popularity to lead from the front, and a sturdy brains trust to guide him in the big decisions, but he will only be truly tested if and when England fall behind. That's when Ponting, older and wiser after his mauling at the hands of Michael Vaughan in 2005, could come into his own. He has proved himself as a batsman annually but, ultimately, he's going to be judged on his captaincy.

Shane Warne v Kevin Pietersen
In any other circumstances, Pietersen's move to No. 5 in the order would be seen as retrogressive, as Warne himself was suggesting only this week. But then again, who better to appear at three-down in the mid-afternoon session, with the ball going soft and the spinners beginning to take hold? Only Pietersen has the eye and the chutzpah to beat Warne at his own ultra-attacking game and, as the Australians themselves have pointed out in the past, he can be a notoriously slow starter against the quicks.

Adam Gilchrist v Geraint Jones
Warne's none too impressed with Jones's reinstatement either. Nevertheless, he did what he had to do in 2005, clinging on to the catches that really mattered, and combining with Flintoff superbly in the pivotal partnership at Trent Bridge. Moreover, the pacy pitches will suit his cross-batted game. As for Gilchrist, it's a question of hunger as much as anything. By his own admission, his struggles from round the wicket were mental as much as technical. If he atones for 2005 with one of his typical Ashes performances, the battle will be more than half won.

Matthew Hayden v Matthew Hoggard
Here's an interesting decider. Round one, in 2002-03, went emphatically in favour of Hayden, who bullied a young and insecure Hoggard into utter submission, cashing in on his undisciplined inswinging line to deposit him over midwicket at every opportunity. Last summer, however, it was an entirely different scenario. Aided by some cunning field placings, Hoggard swung rings around his nemesis, reducing him to a leaden-footed shell of a batsman. Hayden has since reinvented his game, stripping it of much of its former bombast. But the scars could still be there to be picked at.

Justin Langer v Steve Harmison
On the last opening morning of the Ashes, a vicious rising delivery from Harmison clanged into Langer's elbow, and thus ignited a never-to-be-forgotten contest. And once again, this battle of the openers promises to be a microcosm of the summer's action, for each man embodies the strange fragility that lies beneath the surface of each camp. If Harmison is off-colour, England could be hung out to dry. But Langer was 36 yesterday and is arguably one serious blow from retirement. Something similar could be said for most of his team-mates.

Glenn McGrath v Ian Bell
There was a moment in Jaipur during the Champions Trophy that summed up Bell's new improved attitude to the game. Peeved at his lack of success, McGrath picked up in his follow-through and winged the ball at the batsman. Instead of flinching, Bell stood tall and looked his opponent up and down with wry amusement. How different the scene had been at The Oval last summer, when McGrath dismissed him first-ball on that fretful final morning to deliver a miserable pair. The youth has gained experience, but Mr Experience can't regain his youth.

Brett Lee v Andrew Strauss
Is this the match-up that could decide the Ashes? Quite conceivably. None of England's top seven has played an Ashes Test in Australia before, but Strauss excelled on the bouncy wickets of South Africa two winters ago, and in the absence of Marcus Trescothick, it is up to him to blunt Australia's sharpest tool. Lee is now 30 and knows that this is his time. Expect a plethora of cuts and pulls and high-octane action, because as England know from experience, attack is the best means of defence against the Aussies.

George Binoy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo