Following Australia’s announcement of their squad for the First Ashes Test in Brisbane, coupled with Michael Clarke’s very helpful and in no way mind-game motivated disclosure of England’s XI for the same match (apparently Alastair Cook told him at the Remembrance Day service – unless he himself was indulging in a spot of double-bluff), we now know (probably) who will be walking out at the Gabba come the 21st November, for the start of the most eagerly awaited Ashes series since July. So, the cry goes out, how is the series going to go?
It’s strange how in some quarters (mainly those near Mr S Warne) Australia came out of this summer’s series in England with a moral victory, despite losing 3-0. This is to some extent based on Antipodean wishful thinking and the inbuilt inability of any Australian former cricketer to acknowledge English superiority, but at the back of each England fan’s mind is the nagging feeling that it might be fair. England’s batting over the summer always seemed to be one Ian Bell masterclass away from abject failure; the bowlers, rather than bowling as a unit as in previous series seemed to be relying on someone having a blinding day to bowl the Aussies out; and several what-if moments seemed to go England’s way – what if Stuart Broad had slightly less chutzpah? What if England had used all their reviews when Brad Haddin nicked one of James Anderson? What if Haddin had bothered to attempt to snaffle Joe Root’s edge at Lord’s? What if Manchester wasn’t so rainy?
The flip side to this is that England won 3 Tests because they are a side that over the last few years has learnt how to win in tricky situations, while Australia’s poor record means they haven’t got the know-how or confidence to push on for victory. Their collapse from an undoubtedly winning position at Durham was the most obvious example of this, and Michael Clarke’s declaration at the Oval, while it gave the final day crowd some entertainment, was a desperate act by a captain unsure of where his team’s next win will come from. There are those who argue that there is little difference between losing a series 3-0 and 4-0, but surely defeat after dominating the Test would have dented his team’s fragile confidence even more
Yet Australia have cause for optimism. They have some excellent fast bowlers, and if/when Ryan Harris or Mitchell Johnson get injured, there are a large number of potential replacements to call on. Their batsmen seem to be running into form at just the right moment – Michael Clarke is and always will be a class act, but David Warner, Chris Rogers and Steve Smith have been in the runs recently. Crucially, they seem to have worked out how to stymie one of England’s most dependable run machines, Jonathan Trott – put in two short mid-wickets, bowl at his legs, stop him scoring in his favourite area, then pitch one up outside off stump, and accept the resulting edge. Or just bounce him out.
What of England? In contrast to the Australian top order, their batsman are mainly in poor form. Alastair Cook is once again struggling with what to leave outside the off stump, Joe Root looks susceptible to the moving ball and is too easy to pin on the back foot, Trott we have discussed, and Matt Prior suddenly can barely buy a run. It’s impossible to tell whether Kevin Pietersen is in form or not, as he is a one-off who can produce a sparkling innings from nowhere, but it must be worry that he can only play with his knee swimming in cortisone (which according to KP himself is not a problem, a view not shared by most others). Michael Carberry, Cook’s probably opening partner for the First Test, has played beautifully in the warm-up games, against admittedly pretty mediocre bowling, but any player, no matter how experienced, is going to be nervous in only their second Test. As for the bowling, Clarke seems to think that Chris Tremlett will get the nod as the third seamer. I must admit, having seen Tremlett bowl a little over the summer I’m not convinced. His pace is significantly down compared with when he previously toured Australia and, while his control and consistency are admirable, he also looks innocuous. However, he may be the best of a relatively mediocre bunch of improbably tall men. Steve Finn is the opposite of Tremlett – expensive, but always liable to take wickets, while Boyd Rankin’s length is too inconsistent. His natural length is slightly too short, but when he does try and pitch it up, he tends to float it in the manner of Andrew Caddick, and bowls too many half-volleys. The question on many people’s lips is ‘where is Graham Onions?’ The Durham man looks like he may be this generation’s Martin Bicknell – unplayable in county cricket, but destined to be forever ignored by England. To be fair to the selectors, I can see why they have their reservations – he bowled like a drain in the tour matches in New Zealand earlier this year, and his injury record makes Darren Anderton appear the picture of health, but surely some variety in the bowling attack is required. I would be inclined to go with Tremlett simply because he can be relied on to keep an end dry, whereas I suspect the Australian batsman would be inclined to target either Finn or Rankin. Tim Bresnan is, of course, on tour as well, but is unlikely to play in at least the first two Tests, and then may be wary of bowling flat out so soon after injury.
Despite England’s recent hold over Australia, I spent my formative cricket-watching years in the 90s, and can’t quite get used to the idea of an England cricket team being expected to win the Ashes. Whereas the preparation 3 years ago screamed professionalism, this time round things aren’t going as smoothly. There have been injuries; other than Broad and Anderson, the bowlers have looked poor; most of the batsmen haven’t had much of an innings; and then there’s the 82-page England cricket recipe book, which is either an indication of the meticulous preparation that has gone into this tour, or a sign that the team has gone so far up its own arse it’s tickling its tonsils.
There are still plenty of question marks over the Australian team. Chris Rogers, David Warner and Steve Smith are still relatively callow at this level, and Smith’s technique is still a potential matter of concern if he loses confidence. George Bailey, who will be making his Test debut, has been selected thanks to his form in the one-day matches, but averages only 18 over the last year in first-class cricket. A good one-day player does not a good Test player make (Michael Bevan). Mitchell Johnson, likewise, has been picked thanks to good performances in one-day cricket, but let’s not forget his previous performances against England. When he gets it right, he is probably the most devastating bowler in world cricket (even including Dale Steyn), as seen at Perth last time around. If he gets it wrong, as at Lord’s in 2009 or at Melbourne in 2010, then he’s a passenger in the side. There has been talk about how his bowling action has improved, how his bowling arm is now much higher, but, after a cursory trawl through YouTube, it looks pretty similar to me. If England (and the Barmy Army) can get under his skin, then he could once again prove a liability. There are fitness concerns over both the remarkable Ryan Harris and Shane Watson, and losing either of them would be a real blow to the Aussies.
It’s a tricky series to call. Since there has been such a small gap between the end of the last series and the beginning of this one, there hasn’t been much of a build-up. Logic suggests that England should win, but I can’t help but feel that while England are a team on the way down, Australia are a team on the way up. I’ll go for a 2-2 draw, but very much fear the Aussies could sneak it.