Alex Carey throws the ball before it hit the stumps to run out Jonny Bairstow. | RYAN PIERSE / GETTY IMAGES

SPORT AND POLITICS, it’s often said, don’t mix. Try telling that to a prime minister amid an Ashes controversy that’s dominating headlines, airwaves, social media feeds and indeed, the cultural conversation. 

This week both Australian PM Anthony Albanese and his British counterpart, Rishi Sunak, took turns to offer their views on the controversial stumping of English batsman Jonny Bairstow by Australian wicketkeeper Alex Carey in the second Ashes Test at Lord’s. A spokesperson for Sunak said, “The prime minister agrees with (England captain) Ben Stokes who said he simply wouldn’t want to win a game in the manner that Australia did”. Albanese responded by tweeting that he was proud of both the Australian men’s and women’s teams and finished with: “Same old Aussies, always winning”.

You couldn’t blame either leader for wanting to get involved. Politicians, whatever their stripe, never miss a chance to drum up patriotism and nationalistic fervour while showing they’re down with the common man or woman. The idea that sport and politics are not compatible bedfellows is as naive as the notion that players should be guided by the so-called ‘spirit of the game’, rather than its rules. 

Indeed, the conflict between those two ideas didn’t just draw political commentary — it invited philosophical musings and moral judgment. Bairstow’s dismissal was either ‘just not cricket’ or ‘just cricket’, though it must be said where you landed had a lot to do with who you were rooting for — patriotism, as it often does, trumps intellectual interrogation. 

In any case, the fallout from Bairstow’s dismissal has certainly made the Ashes the topic of conversation this week, earning the ancient contest the prized double of being both front and back-page news, while trending on Twitter and Google. The game’s administrators must be beside themselves and again, you can hardly blame them. Test cricket, an anachronistic 19th century game whose demise has been predicted more often than the melting of the polar ice caps, can use all the controversy it can handle. In the entertainment game, which sport is certainly a part of, the battle for eyeballs is fierce. In that context, the controversy surrounding Bairstow’s dismissal was a godsend.

It’s certainly made the third Ashes Test at Headingly, which England must win to stay alive in the series, a mouth-watering prospect. The Aussies are expected to get a similar reception to the booing and jeering they received at Lords. Security is being beefed up. Players and coaches have exchanged jibes — if you want to get an idea of the ill feeling between the sides there’s even been talk that they won’t share a beer at the end of the series. It’s must-watch TV, and for Test cricket and the Ashes, that is a good thing.

So let’s have a look at the battles that could help decide the third Test:

Ben Stokes vs the Australian bowlers

Amid all the hullaballoo, it’s been somewhat forgotten that Stokes’ 155 at Lords, featuring 9 sixes and 9 fours, was one of the great innings in Ashes history. Esteemed cricket journal Wisden once described a Viv Richards century at the same ground as “an innings of cultured violence”. Stokes marauding of the Aussie bowlers, particularly his savage attack on poor Cameron Green, had nothing “cultured” about it. With the normally genteel Lords crowd reduced to Colosseum-level baying and booing after the Bairstow dismissal, each mighty smite from Stokes’ blade sent the packed house into hysteria. And now we return to Headingly, where in 2019 the England captain scored a 135 not out as his team chased down a fourth innings total of 359 with 1 wicket to spare. As commentators used to say back in the day about Botham, “surely even he can’t do it again”. Can he?


Stuart Broad vs the Australian fielders

When he hangs up his boots, the England quick has a career as a panto villain waiting for him. His exaggerated grounding of his bat and infuriating enquiries to Carey and the rest of the Aussie fielders as to whether the ball was dead at the end of each over were delicious, all the more so coming from a man who refused to walk after knicking a delivery to freakin’ first slip back in the 2013 series. Expect more shenanigans from Broad at Headingly.

Batsmen vs the Short Ball

The lifeless nature of the Lords pitch saw both teams resort to short-pitch bowling with defensive fields, a tactic that worked with both Australian and English batsmen out hooking and pulling. At one stage on the fourth day at Lords a staggering 98 per cent of the balls bowled by England’s bowlers were short of a length. A livelier pitch at Headingly should see a return to more traditional tactics but if those aren’t working it will be interesting to see if bowlers on both sides again resort to chin music in hopes of a breakthrough. 

Bazball vs Talent

The talent gap between these two sides is large. Of the England 11, only Stokes and Joe Root could confidently command a place in the Australian side. The Aussie pace bowling line-up is hostile, disciplined and collectively at least 10-km/h quicker than England’s bowlers. And in Steve Smith, Australia possesses the best batsman on English soil since Bradman. And yet both matches so far have been close affairs in which the Poms have had chances to win. Part of that is due to home-ground advantage, but you can also credit England’s much-talked about tactics. The bottom line is that Bazball has put them in positions to win games. After Bairstow’s dismissal at Lords, previous England sides might very well have shut up shop and played for a draw. Instead Stokes went ballistic and produced some of the most thrilling hitting ever seen at the home of cricket. The worst thing England could do now is abandon the game plan that has made them competitive in this series.


Related: Why is no one talking about the Australian cricket team?