On the eve of the Ashes, the anticipation has reached fever pitch. The narrative has been set: England are in the ascendancy - confident and in sparkling form; Australia are faltering, a team in disarray with a captain under fire. We assess England’s chances ahead of the first test in Brisbane: Can the Poms win in Australia for the first time since 1986/87 and retain that precious urn?
The Case For
England were unbeaten in the tour games; winning two of them, with every member of the squad getting valuable game-time. So encouraging were the displays that Team Director Andy Flower sent the first-choice bowling attack to Brisbane early to adapt to those conditions. Bell, Strauss, Cook and Collingwood all racked up scores of note, with Bell’s superlative 192 certainly underlining his credentials in his battle with Eoin Morgan to bat at number six. England’s strike attack worked well as a unit, reaping rewards from the bouncy Australian pitches. England’s back up quartet of Panesar, Tremlett, Shahzad and Bresnan proved they could provide ample cover, emphasising claims of strength in depth. The success of England’s preparation contrasts that of the 2006/07 series, where England went into the first test raw and woefully out of form; chalk and cheese to the brutal efficiency of Australia who subsequently completed a 5-0 whitewash.
One of the foremost reasons why England are seen as posing as great a threat as ever is talisman, jester and spin king Graeme Swann. Since his test debut in December 2008, Swann has established himself as the best spin bowler currently in world cricket. England have long been terrorised by the legendary Shane Warne, but in the first series in which he will not be involved in 20 years, England finally have the spin advantage. Swann’s variations, irrepressible confidence and penchant for taking a wicket in the first over of his spell should ensure that he will pose the Australian batsmen serious questions. Even when not taking wickets, Swann’s parsimonious tendencies may exasperate the Australian batsmen who look to dominate bowlers, no more so than on home turf.
Undoubtedly the Strauss/Flower partnership has borne fruit. Having risen from the ashes of Peter Moores’ incompetent tenure, the stoic duo have stabilised and supplied direction to the England set-up after the Moores/Pietersen struggle. Strauss has led by example, proving reliable both as captain and with the bat. Andy Flower is the reputable figure of stature that Moores was not: his coaching team of Graham Gooch, David Saker and Mushtaq Ahmed have overseen the progression of young players seen as integral to England’s future, such as Stuart Broad, Eoin Morgan and more recently Steven Finn. Such has been the improvement, England even have a competitive one day and T20 team now.
And while England’s position looks flowery, Australia’s record since the last Ashes series has been abysmal. Seven defeats in a row to India and Sri Lanka has plunged them into the depths of despair. The mood around the Australian camp is unusually deflated and defensive; indeed so dire is the situation, Glenn McGrath has refrained from offering his traditional 5-0 prediction in favour of Australia. England aren’t coming up against the Australia of old, whose uninhibited self-belief, swagger and tenacity permeated from the baggy green atop their heads. McGrath, Warne, Langer, Hayden and Gilchrist are long gone, as is the aura of invincibility that surrounded them. Witness India snatching victory from the jaws of defeat recently against an Australia who had reduced them to 124-8, needing 92 more to win. A side once famed for its ruthlessness, Australia has resembled a side drowning in its own sense of mortality over the last few years.
Over the years, Australia have often drawn inspiration from their heroic captain Ricky Ponting. One of the finest batsmen of all time, injuries and poor form has impaired his march to the 40 test centuries we once assumed to be a formality in his 2006 pomp. Ponting’s signature shot – the pull – has repeatedly failed him and he is more susceptible to losing focus during an innings. But the most pertinent concern to Australian supporters is his captaincy. Since the retirement of the golden generation, his lack of tactical aptitude has been regularly exposed and magnified by the media. The prospect of being the only captain to lose three Ashes series must keep him awake at night - England may well be able to profit from this inner turmoil as a defeat could result in him losing his captaincy.
The Australian Cricket Board’s initial 17 man squad epitomised both the poor form of the first eleven and on closer examination a lack of real strength in depth. Usman Khawaja, Steve Smith and Xavier Doherty are hardly names to strike fear into the hearts of the England team. In bygone series Ponting had the luxury of throwing the ball to McGrath, Lee or Warne when the critical breakthrough eluded Australia. He is now forced to rely on the inconsistent Mitchell Johnson and the dependable but hardly formidable Hilfenhaus. The gulf in class for example between Warne and the contemporary spin crop of Xavier Doherty, Nathan Hauritz and Steve Smith is an illustration of the quandary in which the Australians find themselves.
The Case Against
In light of their recent away defeats, it would be remiss to forget that Australia remain a formidable prospect at home. Australia have suffered a solitary series defeat at home to South Africa despite their ongoing decline. The combination of partisan home support, illustrated best by the hostile 100,000 MCG crowd, bouncy pitches and the Kookaburra ball are a fearsome proposition for any touring party – let alone the English, whose record down under leaves little to be desired.
Amidst the joy of the Pakistan series victory, there remains a concern that the English batting line-up has a weak underbelly. Asif and Aamir were able to dismiss the top order with consummate ease, such that had it not been for Pakistani antics and dreadful batting they could have posed a real challenge in that series. Cook has for a while looked technically frail against the new ball – only the good grace that no suitable replacement is to be found in county cricket has preserved his place. Bell has a poor record against the Aussies and has garnered the unfortunate reputation of allowing sledging to affect him, a speciality of this particular opposition. Kevin Pietersen, the mainstay of the middle order, may point to his average of over 50 against Australia as cause not to worry. However, he is going into the series in the middle of a long run-drought. His technique has looked all at sea, especially against the most harmless left-arm spinners (surely the reason for Doherty’s call-up). Pietersen has even admitted he is not the player he was before losing the captaincy. Unless his confidence returns immediately, the rest of the top order will be imposed with the burden of carrying an outrageously gifted but misfiring batsman.
For all the songs of praise about the English bowling attack, James Anderson – the sole member of the main quartet with experience touring Australia – had a torrid time there, with a return of five wickets at 82.60 in the 2006/07 debacle. As Ian Chappell has noted, this is hardly promising from the man who is charged with leading the attack. The Australian sun and Kookaburra ball negates his main weapon of swing. Steven Finn’s test experience consists of eight games against the mediocre Bangladeshis and Pakistanis and is therefore surely being thrown in at the deep end in this series. And as for Broad, his issue is his tendency to bowl a line too short of a length: if he cannot abstain from this, he will prove cannon fodder for the back-foot specialists of the Australian top order. And for all the hype bestowed on Graeme Swann, it is hardly justified by his average of 40.50 for 14 wickets in the 2009 Ashes. His overall record is superlative, but a whole new challenge awaits him now. He will be trusted to bowl lengthy spells in the Australian heat against seasoned players of spin such as Ponting and Clarke. He needs to rise to the occasion if England are to retain the Ashes.
The final concern for England is Strauss’ inherently negative tactical approach. As South Africa’s victory shows, winning in Australia requires the seizing of the initiative at key junctures of the game. Many commentators feel that Strauss lacks the requisite tactical aggression and panache to hammer home the advantage. These commentators will look to a bold approach with regards to field placings, bowling changes and batting strategy. If Strauss can curb his defensive instincts and adopt a more proactive style, such as following on when possible rather than batting again, England will be able to win matches and take the series.
AG: England have the better players, the better captain and most importantly will walk out onto Brisbane with self-confidence and a winning mentality. If England can avoid defeat – even avoid a Steven Harmison moment - in the first test they can assert themselves in the series and go on to win outright. England 2 – 1 Australia.
AS: The first game in Brisbane will be of paramount importance. If England can avoid their traditionally awful starts at the Gabba they have a good chance. Australia appear to be staring into the abyss but out of adversity can come strength. I predict a 2-2 draw and thus England will keep the Ashes.