Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Does A Phoenix Rise From These Ashes?

Returning from a sabbatical which has included attention paid to the business of being a poet, much has happened since I was gone and most of it good. England have prepared well but with an air which has the sniff of complacency, whilst Australia have shown their desperation. The Ashes, after all, are the sole focus of Australia's players and officials. All series in between are simply preparation.

Both teams arrive at Trent Bridge in good nick and with their best to choose from. England, perhaps smarting from their loss in the Champions Trophy, will have had no trouble fixing their eyes on what appears to be a vulnerable Australian batting line up. The recent back to back series against New Zealand proved more for the Kiwis trying to secure and keep black caps than it did for the English, although the thrashing they delivered in the home leg was most convincing.

Australia - thrashed in India as much through inexperience as low team morale and poor management - played ineffective cricket in the Champions Trophy but have played the longer games leading up to the first test with skill and determination. The Australia A tour of the nether regions of the north and west, where cricket is played out of curiosity and the chance to meet Australians, pitted hopefuls and likelys against next to no one. Steve Smith and Brad Haddin were two who raked off profits: Smith gaining a late inclusion to touring party and Haddin bristling with the leadership profile Michael Clarke needs supporting him. The foppish distance that was Shane Watson's contribution to team directions is replaced by Haddin's refusal to let you die wondering.

This first Test may prove an anti-climax. The weather will be warm and dry and the pitch is waiting to be mined of runs but such is the generosity enshrined here, it won't be hard work for the batsmen. 400 each on the first innings looks a reasonable prospect.

The Australian batting will be re-structured. Chris Rodgers will hope to bring the many thousands of English first class runs he has dispatched to boundaries the length and breadth of the Old Dart, into the Test arena. He was banished after his only Test which happened a long time ago and he has done little else but score quality runs at home and in England since. Its why he was included in the touring party. A right cross is why he's in the team. Shane Watson was the new coach's first announcement, two weeks before the first ball was bowled and he has responded by looking like the Watto of old in the two matches since. Dave Warner and Ed Cowan are gone, although Cowan only as far as three. To be fair, only Clarke was better than Cowan in India and he's looked the goods since he arrived in England, so three is a good solution for Cowan, especially as it allows Phil Hughes to drop down the order. thecricketragics still maintains Hughes is not a Test batsman but at five he will be less exposed on off stump, even though just as susceptible to a leg stump yorker.

Will Usman Khawaja  get Boof's nod?
The largest and as yet unsettled question remains who will bat at six. The talk about Warner playing there has some attractions but a middle order of attacking left handers may be playing far to easily into Graeme Swann's hands. The hot and cold offie blows very hot against cacky handers, something Darren Lehmann would not have missed. This leaves Matt Wade, Steve Smith and Usman Khawaja. Smith has been full of runs in England and has a better technique than when he appeared to want to blaze a few seasons back. His responsibility on limited showing in India would also have impressed. Wade is a good enough bat but is lacking in runs and confidence. Khawaja is the smokey, favoured by this coach for Queensland and IPL duties to date. No one has doubted his class, just his attitude and if there's a left hander to take on Swann successfully, Khawaja is the man.

Clarke is Australia's best and on him will lie the burden of keeping hold of all the loose strings that this batting order may well have flapping in the breeze. It remains to be seen how heavily the events of the last month will weigh on his personal performance. Lehmann's approach and style are just about the opposite of Clarke's and having sided so heavily with Mickey Arthur, he has some difficult bridge building to do with his team mates. Being the headmaster's head prefect has had an affect on the other students. Early in his captaincy, Clarke showed a natural ebullience and daring-do on the field which disappeared late in the last Australian summer and was non-existent against India. Despite his back injury, the decision to leave the team in India could not have done more to set him apart from a shattered team, disillusioned by homeworkgate.

The bowling chooses itself. A dry Trent Bridge pitch demands a spinner so Nathan Lyon must play. Peter Siddle and James Pattinson are more certain picks than most of the batsmen and Mitchell Starc has become a favoured son, mostly because of the implied threat he offers to Alastair Cook. Jackson Bird is the glaring omission and will play by the third Test unless Starc delivers. The rest will only play if Australia is flogged.

Joe Root
England have committed their own gambles. Despite the strength of a batting line-up which includes Cook, Jonathan Trott, Ian Bell, Matt Prior and the bowler killer, Kevin Pietersen they are exposed at the top and bottom of the order. Joe Root, spectacular in the middle order against New Zealand, has been asked to take on a task opening which will be hard work for the young man. He's already shown he can take one for the team and there is no doubting his verbal ability in a joust. There seemed hardly enough evidence to convict Nick Compton, especially as his form was on the improve but it boiled down to the selectors wanting to plan both Root and Jonny Bairstow. Bairstow is yet to deliver at Test level but has been persevered with as the skipper and selectors see a long term Test cricketer. This series may require him to put up or move on.

Its a batting line up which looks far more potent than Australia's top six. Even before the series starts, a combined side would contain only Clarke and Haddin in the top seven.

England's attack remains settled, with the only choice being between Tim Bresnan and Steve Finn for the third seamer's spot. James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann are automatic selections. Their control and ability to bowl equally well at all stages of the game, regardless of conditions, will mount pressure on an Australian batting line up which has fractured when there was no escape in the last eighteen months. Its not always about bowling wicket taking balls. When runs dry up, inexperienced batsmen start looking for balls to hit and usually make mistakes. All but Clarke, Smith and Haddin have this habit and Smith is only a recent convert.

Swann, as previously stated, kills left handers.

Brad Haddin returns to the Ashes
In examining players who will make a difference, only Clarke and Haddin come to mind for the Australians, where as Cook, Pietersen, Anderson and Swann all readily make a case for their importance.

At a push, I'd name Haddin as Australia's game breaker, for his leadership and attitude as much as his aggressive batting. He is the form batsman in the Australian side and brings back some good, old fashioned values. He goes too far sometimes but right now, Australia needs his fierce devotion to the Baggy Green and his dislike of his opponent.

For England, none will be more dangerous than Pietersen. Always with something to prove, at least once this series he'll destroy the bowling and win a Test match. Apart from Shiv Chanderpaul, he has the ugliest technique in Test cricket but is by far the most potent and feared batsman by bowlers.

As Spock would surely say, "fascinating".

England 3-1