Head gets nod over Khawaja and Starc avoids Australia axe for Ashes opener

By Sports Desk December 05, 2021

Australia have opted for Travis Head over Usman Khawaja as captain Pat Cummins confirmed the starting XI to face England in the opening Ashes Test at the Gabba.

It was between Head and Khawaja in the race to bat at number five in Wednesday's opener in Brisbane and Australia stuck with the former.

Head, who played in four of the 2019 Ashes Tests and top-scored with 51 at an average of 27.28 before sitting out the final match, has made 394 runs – including two centuries – at 49.25 this Sheffield Shield season.

His overall Test record also stands at an average of 39.75 from 19 matches, including two tons.

Khawaja – without an international appearance in the longest format of cricket since the third Ashes Test in 2019 – also had a pair of hundreds as part of a 460-run haul at 65.71 in the Sheffield Shield.

But new Australia skipper Cummins and selectors preferred Head as they bid to retain the urn, though England are yet to confirm their XI.

"It was a tight one. Both really good options, really strong form," said Cummins on Sunday.

"Experience is great from Uzzie and we feel really lucky to have that in the squad, but Trav's been playing a lot for us the last couple of years.

"He's gone away and he's churned out runs in England, here in Australia, and we feel like he's really ready to go."

Australia quick Mitchell Starc avoided the axe, selectors keeping faith with the paceman alongside fellow pace bowlers Cummins and Josh Hazlewood.

Starc's position was under threat due to his form and the rise of Jhye Richardson, who had taken 15 wickets in his past two Sheffield Shield matches.

England captain Joe Root declined to announce his team during Sunday's series launch, telling reporters: "We've got all the options on the table [but] we're not going to name a team just yet.

"We'll have to see the closer forecase and how that pitch changes over the next couple of days.

"But it's a great place to play spin. It's something we'll weigh up and consider, but we're not in a position to make that call right now."

 

Australian XI: David Warner, Marcus Harris, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Travis Head, Cameron Green, Alex Carey, Pat Cummins (c), Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc.

England: Joe Root (c), James Anderson, Jonathan Bairstow, Dom Bess, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Zak Crawley, Haseeb Hameed, Dan Lawrence, Jack Leach, Dawid Malan, Craig Overton, Ollie Pope, Ollie Robinson, Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood.

Related items

  • USA qualify for Super 8s as Pakistan are eliminated USA qualify for Super 8s as Pakistan are eliminated

    The United States have qualified for the Super 8s after their T20 World Cup match with Ireland in Florida was abandoned without a ball being bowled.

    Only an Ireland victory over tournament co-hosts USA could have prevented the Americans' progress to the next round, but no play was possible on Friday amid a flash-flood emergency in the region.

    There were multiple pitch inspections, but the umpires ultimately concluded no play was possible due to the wet outfield.

    USA secured a win over Canada in the opening match of the tournament before pulling off an almighty upset to beat Pakistan, who are now eliminated because of the washout, as are Canada.

    The outcome also means Ireland are out, although their hopes had already looked slim after losses to India and Canada.

    India are expected to finish top of Group A, having beaten USA in their last match to secure a third successive victory. 

    Rohit Sharma's side will do battle with Australia, Afghanistan and a team from Group D – most likely to be Bangladesh – in the next round, though they still have one more pool match to play against Canada on Saturday.

    USA are poised to enter Group 2 of the Super 8s along with fellow hosts West Indies and South Africa. The final spot in that section will be filled by either England or Scotland, depending on who progresses from Group B.

    As a result of reaching the Super 8s in this competition, Monank Patel's USA team are also now guaranteed qualification to the 2026 T20 World Cup, which will be held in India and Sri Lanka.

  • Super Eight fixtures beginning to take shape as T20 World Cup Group Stage reaches final stretch Super Eight fixtures beginning to take shape as T20 World Cup Group Stage reaches final stretch

    As the group stage of the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup 2024 comes to a close, the action will move to the next chapter in the event, the Super Eights, which will see eight remaining teams battle it out for four semi-final spots.

    India (Group A), Australia (Group B), Afghanistan (Group C), West Indies (Group C), and South Africa (Group D) are the five teams who have qualified for the second round thus far.

    India, Australia, and Afghanistan will feature in Group 1 of the next round, whereas West Indies and South Africa will feature in Group 2.

    All of these sides have been unbeaten in their respective groups, and are shaping well ahead of the next round.

    The second round commences in Antigua on June 19.

    The following day will see the unbeaten India and Afghanistan face-off in Barbados in what looms as a crucial fixture prior to the knockout stages of the tournament. This will also be the first occasion on this tournament that India will play a contest in the Caribbean.

    The rampant Afghans will look to make amends for their close loss to Australia at last year's ICC Men's Cricket World Cup when the two sides meet on June 22 in St Vincent. Back-to-back games against formidable opponents can overwhelm most sides but Rashid Khan’s team have shown an indomitable fighting spirit in the tournament thus far.

    More crucial fixtures follow up in coming dates: with co-hosts West Indies taking on South Africa in their final Group 2 clash on June 23 in Antigua.

    The Proteas have historically dominated the West Indies, but the tables were turned last month when the Men in Maroon swept the three-game T20I series between the two sides at home.

    Another Men’s Cricket World Cup-centric encounter takes place in St Lucia, where finalists India will clash against the eventual winners Australia on June 24.

    Antigua, Barbados, St Lucia, and St Vincent will host all 12 games in this round.

    Fixtures

    19 June: A2 v South Africa, North Sound, Antigua

    19 June: B1 v West Indies, Gros Islet, St Lucia

    20 June: Afghanistan v India, Bridgetown, Barbados

    20 June: Australia v D2, North Sound, Antigua

    21 June: B1 v South Africa, Gros Islet, St Lucia

    21 June: A2 v West Indies, Bridgetown, Barbados

    22 June: India v D2, North Sound, Antigua

    22 June: Afghanistan v Australia, Arnos Vale, St Vincent

    23 June: A2 v B1, Bridgetown, Barbados

    23 June: West Indies v South Africa, North Sound, Antigua

    24 June: Australia v India, Gros Islet, St Lucia

    24 June: Afghanistan v D2, Arnos Vale, St Vincent

     

     

     

  • The Numbers Game: Three Lions target winning start against Serbia The Numbers Game: Three Lions target winning start against Serbia

    Looking to end 58 years of hurt, England get their Euro 2024 campaign under way against Serbia on Sunday.

    Three Lions boss Gareth Southgate has suggested it may be a case of all or nothing as he enters his fourth – and potentially final – major tournament at the helm.

    Southgate has transformed England from perennial underachievers to genuine contenders, overseeing a surprise fourth-place finish at the 2018 World Cup, then seeing the nation's old nemesis – the penalty spot – haunt them in the Euro 2020 final versus Italy and a 2022 World Cup quarter-final against France.

    Penalty shoot-outs excluded, the Three Lions have only lost one of their last 18 games at the Euros (10 wins, seven draws), going down by a 2-1 scoreline in an infamous last-16 clash with Iceland in 2016.

    Despite the same opponents inflicting another defeat upon England in their final pre-Euros friendly last week, the Opta supercomputer makes them tournament favourites.

    They lift the trophy in 19.9 per cent of competition simulations, just ahead of France (19.1 per cent).

    Serbia, however, will be looking to throw a spanner in the works on their first Euros appearance as an independent nation, with the presence of several capable attackers leading some to tout them as a potential surprise package.

    Here, we delve into the Opta data to preview Sunday's game.

    What's expected?   

    England have started all three of their major tournaments under Southgate with a victory, and the Opta supercomputer is backing them to do so again in Germany.

    They are given a 62.1 per cent chance of a win, with Serbia only triumphing in 16 per cent of scenarios and the spoils being shared in 21.9 per cent.

     

    In the supercomputer's Group C predictions, the Three Lions are given a huge 95.4 per cent chance of reaching the last 16, finishing top in 66 per cent of simulations. 

    Serbia advance in 56.2 per cent of projections, fewer than Denmark (69.2 per cent) but more than Slovenia (42.1 per cent). However, they are only given a 12 per cent chance of topping the pool.

    This will be England and Serbia's first encounter since the latter re-emerged as an independent state in 2006. In fact, since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, England have only faced Serbia and Montenegro once, winning 2-1 in a 2003 friendly.

    The Three Lions are, though, unbeaten in their last six matches against Serbia or Yugoslavia, winning each of the last four.

    Their most recent defeat to them was a particularly notable one, though, as Alf Ramsey's world champions lost 2-1 in the semi-finals of Euro 1968, a four-team competition that saw Yugoslavia finish as runners-up.

    Attack the best form of defence for Serbia

    With Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka, Cole Palmer, Jarrod Bowen, Anthony Gordon and Eberechi Eze competing to support Harry Kane, England's firepower is not in question.

    Their ability to keep things tight at the back, though, just might be.

    With Harry Maguire sidelined by a calf injury and Luke Shaw not yet ready to feature after recovering from a hamstring issue, Southgate will be forced to field a new-look backline on Sunday. 

    Marc Guehi is expected to partner John Stones, and England need to recapture the solidity they displayed at previous tournaments under Southgate. 

    Across the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and Euro 2020, England conceded just 0.59 goals per game and allowed opponents a paltry 0.72 expected goals (xG) per match – a figure only bettered by France (0.67) among the leading European teams to make each tournament. 

    Should they fall short of those standards in Gelsenkirchen, the likes of Aleksandar Mitrovic, Dusan Vlahovic and Dusan Tadic are well-equipped to punish them.

    Serbia have only managed five clean sheets in 25 competitive outings under Dragan Stojkovic, who took over in 2021.

    However, they have only failed to score on two of those outings, against Norway (0-1 in the Nations League) and Brazil (0-2 at the 2022 World Cup).

    Generally using a 3-5-2 shape and looking to isolate Mitrovic and Vlahovic against their markers, Serbia will pose a real physical test. They scored one third (five of 15) of their goals in Euro 2024 qualifying via headers, the highest percentage of any team to reach Germany.

    The Three Lions must be prepared to withstand an aerial bombardment. 

    Can Alexander-Arnold solve midfield conundrum?

    Aside from Maguire's replacement, the main talking point in the build-up to England's opener has been the identity of Declan Rice's midfield partner.

    Manchester United's Kobbie Mainoo looked to be in pole position at the end of the domestic season, but reports now suggest Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold – who will don the number eight shirt – will start as first-choice.  

    Alexander-Arnold has played a total of 25,078 minutes of competitive football for Liverpool, and only one per cent of those have come in central midfield, so playing the position at a major tournament could represent something of a baptism of fire.

    However, Alexander-Arnold – who is accustomed to inverting into central areas at club level – could prove a useful asset as England look to prise open low blocks.

     

    He ranked eighth among all outfielders for accurate long balls (147) in the Premier League last season and third for switches of play (32). If he can help to get the likes of Foden and Saka isolated against Serbia's wing-backs on Sunday, that could be key to opening the door.

    Meanwhile, England are well aware of the importance of dead balls at major tournaments. They ranked either first or joint-first for goals from set-pieces at the 2018 World Cup (six goals), Euro 2020 (three) and the 2022 World Cup (two).

    Since making his Premier League debut in December 2016, Alexander-Arnold leads all players in the division for set-play assists (20) and ranks joint-third for chances created from such scenarios (184). 

    Maguire may be absent, but if Alexander-Arnold brings his dead-ball prowess to Germany, England will be a force to be reckoned with from corners and free-kicks.  

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    Serbia – Aleksandar Mitrovic

    Mitrovic, who is Serbia's all-time leading scorer with 58 goals in 91 matches, still looks sharp despite swapping the Premier League for the Saudi Pro League last year.

    The former Fulham man plundered 28 goals in 28 league games for Al-Hilal in 2023-24, with only Cristiano Ronaldo – with 35 strikes in 31 matches – topping him in the scoring charts.

    Under Stojkovic, Mitrovic has 21 goals in 23 competitive appearances for his country, with the majority of his goals coming via headers (52 per cent).

    England – Harry Kane 

    If England are to go all the way, they will need Kane to deliver in his new home country, after he saw a 44-goal debut season with Bayern Munich go unrewarded in terms of silverware.

     

    Kane is also a proven operator on the international stage, scoring 12 goals across the last three major international tournaments – six at the 2018 World Cup, four at Euro 2020 and two at the 2022 World Cup. 

    No European player has bettered that tally, with only France's Kylian Mbappe matching it.

    He also scored or assisted on all seven of his starts in qualifying (eight goals, two assists), including a brace in an impressive 3-1 win over European champions Italy last October.

© 2023 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.