BRISBANE (Reuters) - The war of words that has added spice to the lead-up to cricket’s oldest enduring test series will give way to genuine hostilities on Thursday when bitter Ashes rivals Australia and England march out in front of a packed crowd at the Gabba.
A temporary ceasefire was called on Wednesday as Australia captain Steve Smith and his England counterpart Joe Root paused for photos under a blinding blue sky at the Brisbane stadium, but both captains have been looking to land a psychological blow on the eve of the first test.
The customary photo opportunity may have been the only chance to get a clear image from the entire day, with smoke and mirrors employed liberally by the captains during the pre-match media conferences.
While Root steadfastly declined to name his team, Smith threw a curve-ball by saying David Warner, his vice-captain, opener and best batsman, remained in doubt for the test as he battles to recover from a neck strain.
As to how Australia would deal with such a hammer blow as Warner’s absence, Smith gave no answer.
It took the national board to clarify the situation, with Cricket Australia later revealing that all-rounder Glenn Maxwell had been rushed to Brisbane in readiness to slot in if Warner failed to prove his fitness.
Whether bluff or brewing crisis, Root was having none of it and said it would do nothing to change his team’s preparations.
Root has seemed impervious to the pressure of leading a team regarded sceptically by cricket media in both countries, and he has played a straight bat to the usual provocations from Australia’s pundits and players.
Having taken one on the chin for England after a clash with Warner at a Birmingham bar in 2013, Root has gladly stuck it out again on the tour Down Under.
Yet as calmly as he praised his players for refusing to rise to Australia’s bait, his voice strayed briefly from its dependable monotone as he chided the home side’s spinner Nathan Lyon for an attack on the team.
Taking no prisoners, Lyon said on Tuesday that England’s former wicketkeeper Matt Prior had wanted to fly home early during the 2013/14 series, which the tourists lost 5-0.
He also joked that he wanted to see Root, who was omitted for the Sydney test during that series, “dropped again”.
“That’s not how I’d want my players to go about things but that’s up to him to come out and say that,” Root said in response, a hint of a frown crossing the 26-year-old’s face.
“I think it’s slightly out of character. I know Nathan from playing club cricket but it doesn’t seen very real.”
The threat from Australia’s pace trio of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood on a juicy Gabba deck is very real, however.
Paceman Mitchell Johnson destroyed England with nine wickets at the Gabba four years ago, setting the tone for a miserable series for the tourists. Another left-armer in Starc looms as England’s possible bogeyman this time round.
“It has been exciting watching them in the nets,” Smith said of Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood.
“(Compared) to 2013-14 when Mitchell was bowling in the nets, these guys are just as nasty, if not more nasty to be perfectly honest.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford