Note: My first preview can be found at: https://hardmansthoughts.wordpress.com/2013/04/10/ashes-preview-part-1-of-3-recent-test-series/
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 by England in Australia, 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.
My second preview is going to look at the players that both teams possess to ask the question: do the advantages that England had in 2010/11 still exist? I will be using the squad that Australia have named and players who may be in the frame for England.
England – Alastair Cook (opener)
Australia – Michael Clarke (middle-order)
Both Michael Clarke and Alastair Cook are world class batsmen, arguably the best in the world at the moment and both have averages either side of 50, Cook with 49 and Clarke with 52. The figures between the two are remarkably similar. Clarke has 23 100’s, whereas Cook has 25 – Clarke has 26 50’s and Cook has 29. Both are relatively new to the job of captaining their nation and so one of the main questions before this series needs to be, has the job of captaincy affected either of their batting? Cook has thrived with captaincy. He has scored 1311 runs at an average of 69 from 21 innings including 7 centuries and every score above 50 being converted into a century. He was the first captain to score 5 centuries in his first 5 test matches and in his first two series as captain he led England to 2 victories in sub continent countries (albeit one was Bangladesh). Clarke has had more innings, 41, scoring 2578 runs with 9 centuries at an average of 68. Yet again, the numbers between the two are incredibly similar. Clarke has a better strike rate, as you would expect from a middle order batter, with a higher top score. In fact, his overall test high score of 329* has come during his reign of captaincy, Cook hasn’t made a double century since taking the reign.
Both have had impressive wins in series as captain, both have the ability to take the game away from any opposition. They can both bat well against any attack in any condition and neither have gaping flaws in their technique. England haven’t lost a series with Cook as captain whereas Australia lost 4-0 in India, the important thing to mention from this is that the Indian experience won’t affect Australia in England (or at least it shouldn’t!).
A captains role is more than just batting though and both need to show that they can make brave tactical decisions on and off the field to help win this series. It is possible that Clarke’s greater experience at this level may shine through this summer, he is also more aggressive than Cook. Cook is a great believer in taking time and that eventually a batsman will make a mistake if you bowl good lines and length at him, much like his predecessor Strauss. This mentality is fine, as long as there is no rain about – something which is far from being guaranteed in England! However, this strategy has worked for a number of years with only one exception, Amla and Kallis dug in and England had no ideas on how to get them out last summer. Do Australia have batters who can do that? I’m not so sure!
The battle between the two captains is almost certainly going to be the most important battle this summer; they are most definitely the key men for both sides. Overall: TIED (possibly swinging towards Australia)
England (from): Cook, Compton, Trott, Pietersen, Bell, Root, Bairstow, Prior
Australia (from): Cowan, Warner, Watson, Hughes, Khawaja, Rogers, Clarke, Haddin, Wade, Smith
Looking at those two lists it has to be said that England have the stronger batting line up. Beyond Clarke, Australia don’t have much consistency. Sure, Warner and Watson are good batters but I personally feel that neither of them can score the weight of runs needed to be quality test match batsman at this stage in their careers. With Warner’s disciplinary record, it is unclear whether he will even feature in this series. If he doesn’t then I would imagine Khawaja will be his replacement, pushing Watson or Hughes up to open. I admit to having only seen Khawaja once and while he looked ok on test debut, I didn’t see much to suggest he will frustrate English bowlers this summer. Phil Hughes is a strange cricketer. He has all the shots to succeed, especially in one day cricket yet he didn’t make his one day debut until earlier this year! He struggled in both Ashes series he has played in, and so England shouldn’t fear him although he is now 24 and this may be the year when he finally fulfils his promise. Haddin and Wade are both aggressive wicket-keepers who will score quickly, an important job in England – both play freely and keep wicket well so either of them will do a good job. Is it possible they play both given Warner is both suspended and out of form? Yeah, it is although I don’t expect it. I haven’t seen much of Ed Cowan so I’m looking forward to seeing whether he can hack it in English conditions. I’ve heard he is more of a traditional batsman, something which Australia lack in the top order and so will be very important in setting platforms.
The two names I haven’t mentioned in detail are Shane Watson and Chris Rogers. I think that Rogers is a brilliant pick by the Australian selectors. He knows English conditions better than any other Australian player in the squad and is experienced enough to succeed in this series. Watson is the stand out name behind Clarke but he has a massive problem in converting scores. He can get to 50 a lot, but has only converted 2 of those scores into centuries. With Watson you almost feel that you can almost give him 25-30 runs as he is likely to start making mistakes after that. I’ve always felt that Watson is hindered by his bowling. Australia’s attack is good enough to survive without him and allowing him to focus on his batting might well turn him into a batsman as good as like likes of Clarke, Cook and Amla. The truth is, Australia without Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey look very weak in the batting department.
Moving onto England, and Australia will highlight the possible weakness in the top 3. Cook, Compton and Trott are excellent batsmen but there is a view that they bat too slowly – therefore putting pressure on the middle order. It is very plausible that Australia’s bowlers will restrict these 3 and frustrate them, therefore forcing them to make mistakes. That being said, it is equally as possible that Cook and Trott will pile on the runs at the top – making it easier for Pietersen and Bell to score runs quicker down the order. England’s injection of pace into the innings will come mainly from these two, with Pietersen being the batter able to take the game away from the opposition in a session. Root has proved himself to be more than capable at international level and I’m expecting a big series from him batting at 6. Matt Prior is the greatest test wicket-keeper-batsman and more often than not he will score you big runs at an unselfish pace. With Bairstow and possibly Bopara/Taylor/Morgan as replacements, England can be sure to set big totals this series.
Australia need to target the pace of the top three as I’ve mentioned as well as Ian Bell. Bell is my favourite English batsman to watch yet his form is dreadful and Australia have had his number in the past. Bell needs to pick his form up as the number 5 position is a vital one in test cricket, and I don’t believe England have replaced Paul Collingwood well enough yet. When Collingwood was playing, Bell batted at 6 and enjoyed his best period in the English test side. Is it foreseeable that England swap Bell and Root? Yes, but England changing something that they’ve stuck with for a year is very unlikely. Overall: England
England (from): Anderson, Broad, Finn, Bresnan, Onions, Swann, Panesar
Australia (from): Watson, Faulkner, Harris, Siddle, Pattinson, Starc, Bird, Lyon, Smith, Agar
Looking at those bowling line ups, one thing is for sure: some of the best bowlers in the world will be gracing this Ashes series. Both sides are packed with match winners – Anderson, Broad, Finn, Starc, Siddle and Pattinson being the main ones. Jimmy Anderson has to be the key man for England, he is the best swing bowler in the world and relishes English conditions. He can bowl genuine out swing, in swing and reverse swing which means he picks up wickets with both the new ball and the old ball. He can bowl long spells as he has a gentle run in and easy, smooth action. He is no longer inconsistent; he will get wickets in any conditions on any pitch on any day. But that isn’t to say that England are too reliant on him – they aren’t. Broad, Finn and possibly Tremlett if fit provide something that Jimmy doesn’t – pace and bounce. Batting against these bowlers is a trial in everything that seam bowling could be. Broad, especially, has developed into a world class bowler. He can pitch it up to a Yorker length, he can bowl bouncers and he usually bowls a good test match length, all to a high quality level. Finn can blow hot or cold but when he is on form, there are few better at what he does in the world. He’s been a bit out of form recently but having been left out of England’s Champions Trophy XI, I expect him to be fired up going into this series. Bresnan and Onions are reliable swing bowling back-ups, with Bresnan offering something with the bat as well. Moving onto spin bowling, it is no longer an absurd suggestion that England have the best spinners in the world. Swann and Panesar looked better in India then the Indian spinners did and have both proved in the past that they can win matches in England. Swann will be the main spinner, but it isn’t out of the question that there will be a spinning wicket in England given that a dry winter has left dry pitches and some wickets, such as Old Trafford, have catered a lot of spin recently so Panesar may have a defining impact on this series.
One thing that Australia have that England don’t is an all rounder, although as I’ve stated above I’m not sure Watson’s bowling will be needed much. They do have a brilliant pace attack – Siddle is a hit the pitch hard bowler who has always impressed me, Harris is a genuine swing man and Starc is a very talented swing bowler too. What I’ve seen of Faulkner, in the IPL, has shown me that he can pick up wickets with good line and length medium fast bowling. I think Faulkner will do well in England, his bowling style suits the conditions and pitches we have here. Harris has struggled with injuries in the past but when he is fit, he can trouble the best batters in the world. Starc has an advantage over the other Australian bowlers – that being that he has bowled in English conditions. Last summer he spent time with Yorkshire and impressed everyone there and those that played against him. That time spent in the north of the country will prove invaluable during this summer. James Pattinson’s brother played a test match for England and for Nottinghamshire so that could be interesting if Pattinson plays the first test at Trent Bridge. He has made quite an impact since making his test debut against New Zealand, taking 40 wickets at an average of 23 in 10 matches. A right arm fast bowler means he is something different to the medium pace from the rest of the attack, he could be the key member of the Australian attack this summer. Jackson Bird got into the squad ahead of Mitchell Johnson and Ben Hilfenhaus (who bowled incredibly well last time the Australian’s were here) so he must have something special, or at least the selectors think he do. I admit to have not seeing him bowl so I am intrigued to see what kind of bowler he is. I have a theory that the pitches will spin this summer and so it will be interesting to see whether Lyon can become a spinner that the Australians can rely on. I’ve not seen much of him but I know that he isn’t on the level of Swann and Panesar and I expect England to exploit him. Overall: Seam bowling Tie, spin bowling England.
This would suggest that I expect England to retain the Ashes, and I do but it won’t be easy. The Australian attack is more than capable of getting 20 wickets and Australian’s always play their best when they need it so consequently England will need to be at their best to win this.