Ten Tests of Ashes within six months: an overkill? Not for any Test cricket fan. There will certainly be one team wanting revenge when the latter half of five Tests commence in Australia: there will have been some heads rolled, many new, fresh faces introduced (esp. in Australian terms, given the muddle they have been in during the past couple of years, combined now with Ponting and Hussey exits), and the world of cricket much richer. A chance to dream if Root can be the poster boy of English cricket: he will certainly be if he does well in an Ashes. A chance to watch if it is only negative thoughts and ill-confidence that have been ailing Australia: or is it plain mediocrity? On the evidence of their Champions Trophy one-day match vs. England, it certainly seemed the former to me. English bowling, which has been a worry now to me since some time and will continue to be so all throughout the Ashes, wasn't anything out of the decent: and yet Bailey's side played as gingerly as if they had never seen a cricket ball in their lives. Lehmann's dramatic appointment as coach will certainly bring fresh energy and some missing attitude to Aussie players: which can only be good, as one wants to see two evenly matched sides in action, at least as far as possible. However, in the long term, I am not sure if this is a good move: this team is now Lehmann's team, and Clarke, quite an arrogant man in general, wouldn't like it one whit. He doesn't have too much of a say right now, after the India fiasco and his own troubled back, plus his known history of getting good players (Katich, for one) ousted just because he doesn't get along with them doesn't help him: if Australia start winning, all will be good, issues will be swept under the carpet, but if they don't - then I don't expect the Clarke-Lehmann combo to be comfortable. Clarke is an authoritarian, and he was comfortable with Arthur, a middle-management person: what Australia needs is someone like Kirsten or Moody, who is not as weak or bereft of ideas as Arthur, nor as attention-hogging as Lehmann, rather gelling in with Clarke, let his team be his, but slipping in good management, good advice and good consultations almost unnoticed.
Let's move on to the Ashes itself. The game is this time primarily between Aussie bowlers and English batsmen: so let's review the weaknesses first, English bowling and Aussie batting. There's not much going on for English bowling now since some time, except for the top-class Anderson and Swann. Broad is an overrated bowler who might chime in with some destructive spell at some point of time, but is otherwise too profligate and nothing to worry about; Finn is yet to develop, and has somehow lost his hostility, though he does have a golden arm, it must be said; Bresnan is no bowler at all, rather just continues the now-ages-old English policy of bits-and-pieces cricketers who don't contribute neither a bit nor a piece when it matters; conservative England under Flower hasn't tried Topley, Meaker and Rankin so far in Tests, which they should have had in New Zealand; Tremlett might find himself on the plane to Australia, but right now it's too soon to call him back in; Onions is a decent bowler, and if cloud cover and other conditions assist swing, I would select him over Broad, but would the conservative duo of Flower and Cook do that? I doubt that. Swann himself is a bit of worry for me: he has not been in great form in the last couple of years (yes, he bowled well in India even with that lack of form: that just shows how good he is), plus now he's got this surgery done. Fingers crossed if he continues to be the good spinner with a very good control that he has been. The only positive for England on the bowling front is that in Joe Root they have discovered a very good part-time bowler and potential golden arm: in some years' time, Root might be even as useful as Gayle/Samuels are for West Indies (largely in one-dayers), or maybe even more, but that has to wait. If in these couple of Ashes, he just picks up a wicket or two, breaks some bedded partnership, then all of us would be more than happy: of course, there are no expectations of him on the bowling front. If he doesn't, well, he doesn't. He is just a Samuels-type wicket-to-wicket bowler, Bopara in spin version. My four bowlers would be in fact Anderson, Finn/Broad, Onions/Broad (if conditions assist swing, the former), and Swann. I would keep Rankin in the squad, to keep Broad and Finn interested: if these two fail, get in Rankin, and Tremlett if he's doing well on the county circuit. Or even Topley. But, please, no Bresnan anywhere near the team. Please, no!
What is the mitigating factor here for England is that for Aussies, it is their batting that is the main problem: they are susceptible to huge collapses, especially when Clarke does not fire. They are over-dependent on Clarke; I like the new coach's move of moving up Watson in opening, and giving him Rogers as partner, with Cowan coming one-drop. That does inspire a lot more confidence than what the Warner-Cowan duo did. However, if two wickets fall early, which could happen easily in English conditions, then it gets much trickier: both Khwaja and Hughes are simply not Test quality, and I do not expect Clarke to keep churning out double hundreds as he did in the last year. Simply put, there is no more Michael Hussey in the Australian side. What they have is Khawaja, Hughes, Wade, Smith, Haddin and tailenders like Starc who can bat: all of these to cover up for one man, Michael Hussey, and I am afraid all of these combined won't be as good as the man. A middle order comes rarely as spineless as this one: and this is where England's advantage lies. However, since it is the England bowling that is the weak link to English defence of the urn, this is where the fascinating battle lies: can England find bowlers outside of Anderson and Swann to expose this mediocre Australian middle and late order?
On the other hand, the English batting order does inspire loads of confidence. They have Cook, they have Root, they have Pietersen. What more can any team in the world ask? If these are not enough to inspire visions of 500+ totals and innings wins, then there is Trott, the ideal run machine (and good though Australian bowlers are in general, the likes of Starc keep straying on the legside every single over: Trott will love it so, so much!). So, among the 7 batsmen, we already have 4 solid run machines (with one of them, KP, a real murderous, game-changing, come-to-watch-just-me man, and I fear would be at his best - seems finally matured), all 4 hard to dislodge; plus Prior, the busy, attacking keeper, a 5th bat. The only debate is about the remaining 2 bats: I would personally prefer to have Compton as opener, at least for this Ashes and then think about the one later on in Australia, and keep Root for the time being in the middle order. As Bell has not been in any form now since a long, long time, a middle order of KP, Bell, Bairstow looks wobbly (remember, KP is coming in from a long break). If I have the utterly reliable Root there (KP, Root, Bell/Bairstow, Prior - as per my preferred order), then that looks much more solid. I would personally select James Taylor in fact over both Bell and Bairstow, but somehow inexplicably the guy has been utterly forgotten: in that case, I'd go for Bell over Bairstow for the first couple of matches, and if Bell doesn't strike form, then Bairstow for Bell. But I would keep Compton as opener and Root at 5 (6 is too low down for a player hard to dislodge: he would be wasted if he's playing half the time with tailenders). It's good by the way that both Bresnan (if he's selected) and Swann have struck some useful form with the bat: the latter in particular is a really good batsman (wish he could take it more seriously!).
Aussie bowling is though sharp: if conditions assist, they will be real handful. I will be particularly wary of Faulkner, Pattinson and Bird (if he plays). Siddle will put in lion-hearted efforts here and there, but I don't expect him to be a consistent threat; Starc does bowl some great deliveries, but all around them are cannon fodder, so he's hardly a worry for me. I haven't seen Harris bowl, so he's an unknown quantity for me. The chief worry for Australia will be to keep their pacemen injury-free plus
fresh. If they can manage to do so, then this Ashes will be close. Plus, there is Lyon, whom I don't rate badly: he is a good, attacking spinner. I think he doesn't get enough support sometimes from Clarke, or he would be an even better bowler. I don't know if Watson would be able to bowl, but if he is, then he would be a real threat in English conditions.
Cricket is a mind game more than anything else or more than any other sport; Australia will come out bounding with some fresh energy fed to them from the new coach: if England, normally poor starters, can for once not start badly and win the first Test, then the series might already be a doomed one for Australia. But if Australia can take their best chance, the first Test, then you never know what may happen: the series might be close, but there might be an upset at the end of it round the corner. England must learn to be not conservative, not complacent: two evils they are often accused of, and rightly so.
For me, the stars of the first Ashes leg may be Root, Pietersen and Anderson from England, and Pattinson and Rogers from Australia. I am not selecting Cook and Clarke, the two premier batsmen of the series, in the list: I think both will have good enough series, but I think middling ones, not the mammoth ones both are used to. I don't mind getting it wrong in Cook's case, but in Clarke's case I would like to get it right!
Labels: ashes, cricket