Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The Ashes Preview 2015

The biggest Test series on the international calendar starts at Cardiff tomorrow. Australia v England is the oldest and always the most intriguing of Test series, if for no other reason that it is one of the few series left that have more than three matches but also because its trophy is unique.

No big shield or silverware named for famous players but instead, a tiny little urn reputably full of the burned remains of a bail and given for the first time in order to instigate a romance. Even before it came into existence, it was wished alive by the whimsy and disappointment of a journalist who printed a mock obituary in a London newspaper when the bold men of England were beaten for the first time on their own soil by the same number of mad colonials ... "and the ashes were taken to Australia."

Australia hold the urn, thanks to a massive flogging handed to England the last time they came down under. Other sides have lost all five Tests of a series and yet been competitive. Individuals have stood up among the beaten, their own efforts enough to be proud of despite the humiliation of complete defeat. Not so in 2013-14. England weren't just beaten, they were demoralised and thrashed from one end of Australia to the other. Their team fell apart, with Graeme Swan retiring and leaving the tour after Adelaide, Jonathan Trott going home after the first Test in Brisbane with severe depression, their leader of the smart mouthing pack, Jimmy "The Lip" Anderson, being put so firmly in his box in Brisbane he never came out again and the rest spending more time bickering than playing the cricket which they had famed themselves for. Kevin Pietersen, who topped the batting for England and has never played again, was widely recognised as the stirrer with the biggest wooden spoon when skipper Alastair Cook gave the selectors an ultimatum ... either he goes or I do. The final wave goodbye to KP was given him by an even more former skipper and subject of his twitterfeed, Andrew Strauss, then performing his first act as Director of England Test Cricket. Services not required so go and make money with Chris Gayle.

The loss of the Ashes, which England had held easily for seven years and three consecutive series, was a debacle.

Of course, that was eighteen months ago. A lot happens in international cricket in eighteen months ...

... or does it?

Since then, England have won less than half of the twelve Tests they have played, have won only one of the four series and recently drew series: away to the lowly West Indies and then stumbled through a home series earlier in the summer against New Zealand. The only highlight was a series win against India last home summer, especially after their poor showing in losing the second Test at Lords. Joe Root and Gary Balance were their batting heroes and Stuart Broad and Anderson bowled their side to Test victories. However, before it was series loss at home to Sri Lanka.

They are a mixed bad this England. The Pietersen saga hangs about them like a pair of rotten socks forgotten in the bottom of a lazy player's kit bag, despite the decisive action by Strauss: partially because of the larger than life nature of Pietersen but mostly because there are others who remain in the team whose egos still come into the room before their bodies do. Joe Root, however, is the real deal and he'll captain England next. His Yorkshire training and temperament will brook no modern notions of man management.

Cook has returned to form
Individually, England appear more frail than the Australians. The good news has been a return to form of Cook, with runs against the West Indies away and New Zealand at home. His batting has always been the best part of his captaincy, with the daring decision-making of his youth team captaincy well behind him. He leads by the principal of safety by numbers and often loses the plot in the field. It will be interesting to see what zest new coach Trevor Bayliss can instil in him and if he can change his conservative field placings and bowling changes.

Of the batsmen, only Root has been consistent in recent series. Balance lost his way against NewZealand and some facts of his recent innings will not have escaped either Darren Lehmann or bowling coach Craig McDermott, for the England number three has lost his castle five times in his last eight Test innings and in all, one in four of his innings have ended thus. Note please Mr Mitchell Starc, owner of the best late swinging yorker in the game. Ian Bell, the longest serving English player, has been short of runs of late. After his 143 in Antigua, his last eight innings have netted just 55 runs and 29 of them were at Lords against the Kiwis, whilst five innings were 1 or lower, including a pair at Barbados. Adam Lyth is new, with a hundred in his second Test and Ben Stokes, now batting at six, scored heavily at Lords against NZ, mostly from short or over-pitched bowling. Australia, particularly Josh Hazelwood, are unlikely to allow to many free hits to Stokes and it is a controlled length just outside off stump with seldom used, well directed bouncers over the off, which will provide more temptation than he is likely to resist. Wicket keeper Jos Butler is a bonus with runs and neat work behind the stumps.

England's bowling strengths are also its weaknesses. Much lies in the combined baskets of Anderson and Broad, who can be match winners when they pour through batting cracks, both capable of taking bags of wickets quickly but their consistency is the question ... that and their dislike of being attacked. Stokes is an honest lad but whilst he might take Botham-like wickets - mostly from rubbish - he'll cost far too much in the doing. Moen Ali is an off spinning all rounder more likely to contain than rout and beyond that, only Root offers much in the way of difference but any side troubled by his David Boon like slow bowling would need to take a long hard look at themselves. England are at their best with the ball when they are cocky and at their worst when they are attacked ...

... and attack is what they will face from an Australian batting line up which is deep and dangerous. Apart from the more conservative Chris Rogers at the top of the order, the Australians play in the old way of men with the Baggy Green. They come at bowlers, prepared to take risks to attack and dominate. Warner may not be as dangerous on seaming pitches but you cant keep him quiet for all ten innings of an Ashes series and if he only succeeds once, it will win you a Test match. Michael Clarke has been playing within himself, slowly batting himself back to his best while conserving his body. He wants this series, if for no other reason than to do something his mentor Ricky Ponting couldn't. Adam Voges seized his opportunity in the West Indies and knows these conditions and is unknown at this level, although no doubt Bayliss will have the good oil on him.

Steve Smith ... the unconventional
Of course, then there is Steve Smith. The man with the unconventional technique has taken all before him in the last twelve months - five hundreds in six Tests speak fairly loudly for themselves - but English conditions have sorted out unconventional techniques before. Reference KD Walters if you need an example. However, don't make the mistake Stuart Broad has and underestimate this lad. He loves a scrap. His biggest problems will be his trigger movement across to off stump and his need to take the attack up to bowlers. The latter has been attended to in recent first class innings. His batting at Roseau, Kingston and Canterbury was measured, calculated and contained long periods of patience. This is a dangerous sign for an England that needs him in a more impetuous frame of mind to have a chance. That said, a moving ball and a batsman moving before it is bowled is not a comforting thought when the ball is a Duke.

Smith's battle with Anderson and Broad will likely decide the series.

Whether Shane Watson or Mitch Marsh fills the allrounder role at six probably makes little difference. Marsh is by far the better batsman - aggressive, powerful and full of confidence after hundreds in both of the warm up games. Watson has shown improved form with the bat, but that has happened before and not put fruit on the tree. He's the better bowler but can his body last?

Beyond all these are a tail order which just continues to score heavily.

Micthell Johnson, Josh Hazelwood and Mitchell Starc are the better new ball attack of the two sides, both on form and on potency. Starc will disturb the Englishmen and Hazelwood will control them. Johnson still has them checking their underpants after an innings, following the psychological scaring he pained them with in Australia and although conditions won't allow that sort of pace or bounce, it won't make much difference. Stokes and Root will stand strong but the others will find the wobbly boots on their feet. The shortfall is Nathan Lyon. He went to water again at Chelmsford when Westley and Bopara took to him, finishing with 1-201 off just 34 overs. Clarke will need much better from him across five Tests. He bowled very well in the Caribbean because he gave the ball air but under fire, he reverts to flat balls at leg stump. He can't do that in England.

The Bendemeer Bomber
Apart from all that which is positive with their bowling, there won't be a contribution from Ryan Harris and that is a problem. For as good as Starc and Hazelwood were in the West Indies, it took two of them to replace Harris. His strike rate, one of the two lowest among Australian bowlers who have taken more than 100 Test wickets - the other is Johnson - has been his great contribution to the team. His ability to breakthough, particularly to breakthrough the top four, has made him Australia's most valuable bowler. His batting has been a revelation to those that don't remember that he started as a batsman but its his infectious determination and easy going wit which will make an unexpected hole in the dressing room.

Australia have won three of their four Test series since they finished off England at Sydney in early 2014, beating South Africa, India and West Indies when their batting fired spectacularly and losing to Pakistan in their UAE stronghold when it didn't. They have only once failed to make 350 in their last six Tests, making five hundred or more in each game of the four Tests at home to India. Their form could  not be better leading into Cardiff. They ticked every box against the West Indies and again in their two first class games which started this venture to Blighty. Its a form guide England can't even come close to emulating.

On paper, Australia should win the series at least 3-0, if we expect one Test to be lost to rain. With Manchester not on the itinerary, perhaps rain won't be a factor. Its hard to see an English victory but not because the likes of Cook or Root couldn't bat well enough to set up a victory but more because the English bowling doesn't look like it can rip a side, as audacious as these Australians, out twice in a game unless they surrender to the bait that England will offer.

England must be desperate to change the team ethos and smooth over the cracks KP left in the infrastructure. Why else would you let Ian Botham loose on you team if not to distract their thinking away from being a loose canon of sporadic shots across an Australian bow? Botham will invoke 1981 no doubt but as none of the current English team were alive when Headingley hosted Beefy's miracle, his words will have to rely on history books as a reference or perhaps the warm glow of daddies who remember the day when England was really full of Kings who looked and sounded like peasants.

One thing is sure, it won't be a drawn series. Australia hasn't played a drawn series in their last eleven and their approach will preclude it happening here.

The first at Cardiff is a place of unfinished business for the Australians. They should have started what ended as a failed 2009 campaign with a win here but couldn't remove the England tail, with even Monty Panesar batting for three quarters of an hour to save the game. Lords, was until 2009, virtually a home game for the Aussies having not lost there since 1934 but they have lost at their last two outings. Birmingham has been a ground catering for all results with Ashes victories, losses and draws equally prevalent and maybe that's where a rain draw might come. There are more draws than any other result at Trent Bridge but Australian wins more than England there, despite the hosts having won the last two in 2005 and 2013. Australia won the final Test at The Oval in 1972 to draw the Ashes series and rebirth the Australian game under Ian Chappell but they have only one once there since and that was fifteen years ago, so let's concede it to England.

Tallying that up, victories to Australia at Cardiff, Lords and Trent Bridge, a draw at Edgbaston and a lone English victory after it's all too late at The Oval. Of course, it will be a long seven weeks of Test match cricket and interest and support for their team is stronger among the English than in many a season in the old country.

Give me this bloke everytime
One last say for the most important and pivotal aspect of the series. All things being equal and heroes rising and falling, across a long five Test series, its the quality of the captains that has the strongest influence on the outcome of a series. In this one aspect, there is no comparison. Michael Clarke, with his rugged, inspiring on field mix of unexpected and unprogrammed changes of field and bowlers and his reluctance to hold his players emotions back, makes him the mover and shaker who will more likely prevail over the far more conservative and insular Alastair Cook. When controversies arise, you want someone who will look their opponent hard in the eye and who will scrap with the best, not run to the sheds and speak in measured tones and polite sentences. Punch Clarke and then duck. Punch Cook and he'll tell you that was jolly-well not fair.

I know which I would rather captain me.