The Ashes: Key contests in the battle for the urn
Who will step up and make themselves a hero? We assess the key battles as Australia and England fight it out for Ashes glory.
The time for talking is almost at an end, as Australia and England prepare to engage in the latest eagerly awaited showdown for The Ashes.
There is little love lost between the two proud cricketing nations, and soon the off-field mind games will turn to the skill, passion and undoubted sledging on the pitch.
Such a hotly contested series produces memorable moments, and heroes among mere mortals.
Here, we look at the head-to-head battles that are likely to prove key in the tussle for the little urn.
STEVE SMITH v JOE ROOT
In what will be a fiercely fought series, both teams will be looking to their captains to keep their cool in the pressure cooker atmosphere to make the right calls at crucial times.
In Steve Smith and Joe Root, Australia and England have two men that will look to lead by example with the bat. Smith has 5,370 Test runs at an average of just under 60. He made centuries in Perth and Sydney in the last home Ashes, but endured a mixed series in England two years ago – scores of 215 and 143 at Lord's and The Oval respectively leading Australia to their two victories and helping him finish as the leading run-scorer. But failures in the other three contests proved costly, as England regained the urn.
For Root, this is the biggest challenge in his infant captaincy. The Yorkshireman will feel he has a point to prove after being dropped for the Sydney finale of the previous tour, as England suffered an embarrassing whitewash. With 460 runs in the 2015 series, Root was comfortably England's highest scorer and, in the absence of influential all-rounder Ben Stokes, he will need to be heavily among the runs again.
The captain @root66 looks in good nick pic.twitter.com/ESfvgFRFIP
— England Cricket (@englandcricket) November 14, 2017
JAMES ANDERSON v DAVID WARNER
With England's batting line-up the subject of intense scrutiny - softened slightly by centuries for Mark Stoneman and Dawid Malan in the final warm-up match against a Cricket Australia XI - the role of Anderson may be crucial to their success. The seamer is England's record Test wicket-taker and has proven himself as one of the most skilful bowlers in his country's history.
A veteran of six Ashes series already, Anderson has the added responsibility of the vice-captaincy this series and his tussle with the big-hitting Warner is sure to be a fierce one.
Anderson has dismissed Warner seven times in Tests, but the Aussie opener is a man that revels in the big occasions. Australia will look to the left-hander to set the tone and, as proved by his declaration that facing England is a "war", he will not shy from the task.
MITCHELL STARC v ALASTAIR COOK
Another likely crucial contest will be between Australia's pace-ace Mitchell Starc and England's run-machine, and former captain, Alastair Cook.
If Australia have Starc, whose fitness with a left-foot injury sustained in June has been one of the key talking points in the build-up, firing on all cylinders, then England's batsmen are in for a torrid time. Starc's frightening pace has proved problematic for England in the past, and he has dismissed both Cook and Root on four occasions each in Tests. Only Stuart Broad took more wickets that Starc's 18 during an excellent individual series in England two years ago, and with Cook low on runs in tour matches, he may prove the key weapon for Australia.
But Cook will be desperate to avenge the ignominy of captaining England during their humiliating 5-0 whitewash four years ago, which led to infighting, back-biting and the end of Kevin Pietersen's Test career. England's opening batsman quandary has been well documented, but Cook – his country's leading run scorer – has been an irreplaceable cog in England's wheel and he will aim to set the standard with the bat.
Right onto the bat #Ashes pic.twitter.com/3JDXFjZu36
— cricket.com.au (@CricketAus) November 15, 2017
JAMES VINCE v USMAN KHAWAJA
The number three role looks set to be important for both teams and for very different reasons.
Usman Khawaja has a stunning record in Tests in Australia, an overall average of 45.47 soaring up to 63.73 when played on home soil. That record is something Khawaja will look to exploit when the hosts aim to dig in and build partnerships against the skill of Anderson and Australia's public enemy number one Stuart Broad.
James Vince appears the most likely candidate to fill England's tricky number three spot. Vince was a contentious selection in the tourists' squad, having scored just 212 runs, with a high score of 42, in seven Tests during a debut year in 2016. His tendency to edge, on Australian pitches noted for the high volume of wickets that fall caught behind, may be problematic for Root's men. A score of 82 in the opening tour match offered promise, but Vince has struggled for runs since.