Wednesday, November 22

Ashes 2006-07: The Preview

The Ashes this time has got harder to predict, and ironically it is because both the teams have, in my opinion, become weaker. I am less worried about the absence of Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick; the real thorn in England's side is the bowling - these are not the English pitches, and Hoggard might have to return empty-handed, Flintoff is coming back from injury and will have to pick up momentum, especially in the bowling department, and, most importantly, there's no Simon Jones. But, yes, there's Monty, that is if England pick him.

The only real threat to the Aussies could be Harmison and Monty, and possibly Flintoff from maybe the third Test onwards. England could be in a serious boil if they do decide to pick Giles over Monty - you have to be aggressive against Australia, you have to go for the kill, and picking Giles just for his some severely limited batting abilities is never going to bail you out. After all, do you think that Giles' batting would be the difference between England and Australia?

No, it will be much more, and the difference in the results could be much narrower. The numero uno will remain that how does England tackle Warney, the second for me will be the middle-order England batting (especially Flintoff and Pietersen), and the third is can England remain fit till the end of the series. Let me shed a little more light on each of these questions, and why I think they could determine the fate of the series. Australia is a severely depleted side now as far as bowling is concerned, and all its fast bowlers could be very well shut out from the game from the first day itself if England start their job with aplomb. And that's why it all boils down to Warney. He was the one who valiantly fought in the last Ashes, lone-handedly, and he could be again the one. Not only with the ball, but even with the bat. And once he gets down to his business, then all others also come into the picture with their pieces of cake - McGrath, Lee, and Clark. I think that the English middle order of Flintoff, Collingwood, and Pietersen shouldn't have any grave problems in dealing with him, but the suspects would be Strauss and Cook, the top order batsmen. And, after doing all the hard work against the faster bowlers, if you are going to be Warne's bunnies straightaway, then even one extra wicket of any of the middle-order batsmen could lead to a poor or just a decent-enough score. And England did manage with decent scores in the last Ashes, since it had the great quartet of Hoggie, Freddie, Harmison, and Jones that time. But, this time, the onus might very well rest on Harmison being the strike bowler, Flintoff being the stock bowler, and Monty the breakthrough provider. If of course everything would be according to plans, then I would say that England would win a closely fought series, maybe 3-1. Since, even though people do not want to look foolish in saying it, to me, on paper, the English team is superior. Australia is too aged, some of their players have even the fire missing now, the bowlers have not any "X" factor except Warne, and the batsmen are more arrogant than really good. Of course, English batsmen are also not the most talented on earth, but they are steady sorts, disciplined, and they also have the exceptional, but sadly mercurial, brilliance of Pietersen.

As I said earlier, Pietersen and rest of the English middle order will actually hold the key to the series. If it does not crumble, England, if it cannot win, cannot lose the series also. Bell and Cook have to keep their heads down and always play the role of anchors, Collingwood has to counter the spinners effectively, and the trio of Flintoff, Pietersen, and Jones have to blaze their ways to glory whenever the opportunity permits. Wishfully and wistfully thinking, Geraint Jones could find this as his best tour, as far as batting is concerned. He is a player in a cross-batted mould, and so if he plays without thinking he will find himself getting out very, very soon on the Australian pitches, for he will then perish of his own penchant. But, if he even a little sensible-minded, he can make use of these pitches and Australia's poor bowling attack and make a name for himself, and let his poor glovework forgotten for a while at least.

Even though I am an England supporter, I have to review now the enemy camp also to be a little more reasonable. Australia's arrogance cannot be simply dismissed, as it is the thing that brings victory to them so often though they be lesser talented. But, interestingly, it could also be the thing that could lead to their downfall, as did happen the last time. If somehow England doesn't get afraid of Warne, then I don't think that Australia's bowling has anything to make you afraid, unless weather and toss combine some day to make a heady cocktail. But, how do you get their batsmen out? This time, players brimming with newly found confidence like Hussey and Watson (thankfully, not in the first Test) are around, and wouldn't be victims very easily to a limited English attack. Attacking field placements and catches not dropped can be an answer, but dropping catches has become a habit for this team, and with the poor glovework of Geraint Jones sure to come into play sooner rather than later, the Australian batting could very well run amok. And, maybe here, Monty is something fresh - Aussies won't like him at all, they will also try to bludgeon him, they would be definitely found wanting in technique against him, and it could well depend on how much confidence the skipper (Flintoff) reposes in Monty. Also, can England's support bowlers be interesting (Anderson and Mahmood)? Can they provide at least one breakthrough in an innings when it's needed?

England has to remain fit, otherwise Aussies can even win 4-0 or 5-0. But if England do manage to remain fit, and out of the thin air if we might even see Vaughan from the third or fourth test onwards, then England is in with a definite chance - 3-1 or 3-2. The series is too close to call for me right now; maybe, only after the first two tests, I (and many other people) would be prophesy something definite. Australia start as favorites, even for me, but the tag of favorites at least can change for me even tomorrow. For the most important thing is that I want to see the spirit with which England enter the field tomorrow, and the team selection.
The men to watch out for me would be Flintoff, Pietersen, Cook, Harmison, and Monty (from England) and Ponting, Hussey, Gilchrist, Shane Watson, and Warne (from Australia). As an anti-climax, I think that the Ashes this time might not be as great as last time, in terms of last-minute hearbeat stops. But, the quality of batting might be better this time from both sides (and I hope catching!).

My verdict, putting my foot in the mouth: England wins Ashes 2006-07 3-2.

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