At 11:00 on the 10th July in Nottingham, England and Australia will lock horns again in the first of two back to back Ashes series. The first series in England will feature 5 test matches at Trent Bridge, Lord’s, Old Trafford, Durham and the Oval. The last series was won in Australia by England, when England were very much the better side. They had a better attack and a better batting line up with a captain who made some wonderful decisions. Not only did they retain the Urn, they won a series in Australia for the first time in 24 years.
However, since that victory, how have both teams fared in Test cricket? The first of my three previews will look at results since then and the relevance to this summer.
England started the 2011 season in third place, with their sights clearly set on reaching that number one slot. The only way to achieve that before the 2011 season ended would be to beat both Sri Lanka and India without losing a match. It started well with a 1-0 win (out of 3 tests) over Sri Lanka thanks to an incredible collapse in Cardiff watched by virtually no-one. Two draws followed (as an aside – England played the tallest ever Test attack in Lords with Broad, Tremlett and Finn) to leave England needing a 4-0 whitewash of India to get to the number one spot. The series against India was the highlight of the time between the Ashes down under and now. A 4-0 victory followed with Strauss and Flower’s tactics shining through, Pietersen, Bell and Cook showing their true class, Broad finding form again by bowling full, and two innings victories in 4 dominant performances. Add in that England had Tendulkar’s number when bowling and by the end of the summer England were the best test side in the world and no-one could say they didn’t deserve it.
But then the wheels started to fall off. England were showed up against spin in UAE with a whitewash 3-0 series loss to Pakistan, followed by a 1-1 draw in Sri Lanka with England being outplayed in that series with only Pietersen and Cook offering resistance in the final test match. Major questions began to be asked about a few things in the England line up: first of all, Saeed Ajmal showed England up against spin – they looked totally bamboozled by it and secondly, could England bat when Pietersen and Cook weren’t in form? It was a tough winter for England going into 2012 but it wasn’t fatal – they were still ranked number 1.
For the first time in his captaincy regime, questions were beginning to be asked about Strauss ahead of another massive summer with series against West Indies and South Africa to come. The South Africa series saw the best two teams in the world come together but with only three test matches, worries about the quality were already surfacing. Strauss started the summer in fantastic form with two centuries against the West Indies in a 2-0 series win but England bowlers toiled in the rain-affected final test match, which included a 90-odd score for a number 11 batter (Tino Best). Rather than be the low point of the summer, this turned out to be a sign of things to come. Against South Africa, England collapsed. They lost the three match series 2-0, but that was just the surface. Pietersen left the England side over debates about the IPL and texts to South Africa team about Strauss, England’s batsmen struggled and their bowlers couldn’t buy a wicket. Amla made a triple century in the first test match and had a partnership of 377 runs with Kallis that destroyed England’s confidence for the whole series. It was a total disaster; England lost both their number one ranking and their captain. Strauss had been an amazing servant for England and deserved more than to leave the cricket stage like that.
Alastair Cook took over after impressing as One Day captain and his first series was away in India, somewhere England hadn’t won since 1984-85 and it didn’t start well with a comprehensive loss in Ahmedabad. However, England turned it around in the next two matches and managed to draw the final match to win the series 2-1. The series win feel good factor was aided by Pietersen being “re-integrated” successfully into the side. This was an impressive start for Cook, who became the first captain of all time to score 5 centuries in his first 5 matches as a Test captain (he scored 2 when captaining in Bangladesh in 09-10), he became the youngest person to score 7000 test runs and the first English batsman to 23 Test centuries. When he scored a century in the first test match after the India series, in Dunedin, New Zealand, he completed the set of scoring centuries against every test side. These proved that Cook is well on the way to becoming the greatest English Test Batsman of all time. That series against New Zealand finished in a 0-0 draw, a disappointing result for England but considering that they could have lost 2-0 it may be seen as a positive result.
The overall record in that time is 10 wins, 8 draws and 7 losses which is a win record of 40% and included 4 series wins. It hasn’t been a bad period for England, although 2012 was the lowest point in the Flower regime. How significant will the summer of 2012 be this summer? It might have mental repercussions; fans remember it and the players will too. This winter has told England that their batting in the first innings of test series needs to improve as well as the bowling attack being poor in conditions that should have suited them in New Zealand. On the other hand Cook and Pietersen have shown themselves to be two of the best batsmen in the world while Anderson has continued his march to being England’s highest wicket taker in history. Also, England’s batting against spin improved dramatically in India – one of the weakest points addressed. England have given debuts to 5 new players in this time, to various degrees of success – although none have taken the world by storm.
The first thing that Australia changed after losing that series was their captain. Ricky Ponting stepped down with Michael Clarke taking over. This has been the most effective captain change there has been since Graeme Smith took over South Africa. They have also changed their bowling line up many times and have messed around with the top order batting, giving debuts to 14 new players in total.
The first test series after the Ashes was an away one in Sri Lanka, which they won 1-0 from 3 matches. Michael Hussey was as usual the star of the show for Australia, scoring 463 runs. Then they had their first tough series under Michael Clarke, in South Africa. The two match series finished 1-1 which was a sign of how much Australia were already beginning to improve. Clarke showed his class, and demonstrated that captaincy wasn’t stopping him from scoring runs. On the bowling side, Pat Cummins announced himself on the international stage, including taking 6/79 in the second test match. Shane Watson impressed in the first innings of South Africa’s batting in the first test match but in Australia’s second innings they were bowled out for 47. This was the first sign of potential batting weaknesses that would be exposed further a few series later. Having said that, this South African team were about to become the world’s best test side and to get anything there was an incredible result for Australia.
The next two series were both at home for Australia and started off with a 1-1 draw with New Zealand. Not a terrible result but not a great one either, however they more than made up for it with the next series. They too beat India 4-0 on home soil with two innings victories. Australian batsmen scored runs galore, with Clarke getting a triple century, Ponting a double one and David Warner chipped in with a century. Clarke ended the series with over 600 runs and the batting problems that I mentioned seemed to be just a myth. Ben Hilfenhaus bowled well too, collecting 27 wickets.
They started 2012 with a 2-0 victory in the West Indies. Michael Hussey scored the most runs and Nathan Lyon took the most wickets, the batting was mainly held up by Hussey, Ponting and Clarke but Shane Watson and Matthew Wade chipped in with important knocks in the first and third test matches. After that was a very strange period as they played no test matches during the whole of the Northern hemisphere summer, instead having one day tours of England and the UAE playing Pakistan. However they played two test matches through the English winter at home to South Africa and Sri Lanka. They lost the three match series to South Africa 1-0. Weaknesses were shown in the third test match batting wise but until then, it had been a solid series for Australia. Michael Clarke was again impressive, proving that he is the best batsman in the world right now. The series against Sri Lanka was much easier, with Australia winning 3-0. This was a simple series for Australia but it became an important one when Michael Hussey announced his retirement from international cricket, meaning there was a massive hole to plug in the batting department. Peter Siddle proved he could still do a job in international cricket being the leading wicket taker on either side with 15.
Their most recent series was in India and in stark contrast to England’s series there, Australia lost 4-0. Australian batsmen struggled against spin, with only Michael Clarke offering any sort of resistance to it. The bowling wasn’t great either, with their spin attack being shown to be not good enough for sub-continent conditions and India ran away with the series. Also, their squad was left in slight disarray after four players were found to have a breach of discipline for not filing a report on Australia’s failing.
Overall there were 12 wins, 7 losses and only 3 draws. This gave them a win percentage of 55% and had 4 series victories as well. It’s a better win percentage than England’s but the same number of series victories. It’s difficult to say how this means they will fare in the summer. The batting looked frail without Michael Hussey but they have a pace attack as good as any in the world. With the ball swinging they should have enough bowling to get 20 wickets a test match yet the question still remains, do they have enough batting to post challenging totals? One advantage England have is the spin bowling department as even in India, Australia’s spin bowling looked too weak.