Wednesday, July 8

Ashes 2015 in England: Preview

This Ashes looks quite close to call, even though the media is viewing Australia as clear favourites and even though the final result might be pretty one-sided: this series will basically depend on how Australia will bowl to Cook, and even if they bowl well with the Dukes ball to Cook, can Cook bring his best onto the field? Cook's batting, in short, will define the results: and that is why it is hard to predict. I think, judging from what I saw of him in the New Zealand series, Cook is in close to his best form, so England stand a very good chance: and to convert that chance into some clear winnings in the bank, Cook needs to be a bit smart. No, not about field placements that much: but more about batting order plus bowling changes. The latter is where Cook often misses out.

Cook needs to use the spinners intelligently: Moeen, Root and, if need be, Rashid. I rate Root highly for getting tailenders out, as he bowls wicket to wicket and fast, whereas tailenders tend to be swashbuckling. Wood and Root would be an ideal pair to bowl if conditions are benign and tailenders are there on the crease: for me, that point is important, because it was Haddin and the tailenders of Australia who contrived that 5-0 whitewash Down Under. Unfortunately, Cook seems to use Root as the last resort, and that too for not too long: somehow, he keeps using Stokes in such situations, which only plays in the hands of the opposition, as we saw in both WI and NZ series. Stokes might get a wicket here or there with fast toe-crushers, but he is what the tailenders also like: ball coming fast onto bat to hit it with freedom. No Stokes, no Broad in such situations. I don't think Cook is going to read this, so I don't think much will change on the field. Similarly the other things: even in that famous series in India which Cook won, he used to place a third man from the very start for Virender Sehwag, fearing an out-of-form man even. That he escaped then does not mean that that will keep on happening: Cook places third mans too often and short legs too rarely. Fortunately, he has started getting the knack of keeping some leg slips and some very short covers, so he is progressing. Cook also needs to sort out his batting order; for me, Root should be at 4 or 3, he is their best bat actually. Dropping Ballance to 5 might help as well, because Ballance seems to be a person who feeds on the tone already set: he does not seem to be someone who can set the tone. Root is someone who does that; Cook also does it, even though people deride him for being slow, and as does Lyth. Ideally, Bell and Ballance should not have a place really in this team, for in modern cricket, you cannot be unable to set the tone of the match you want to. You don't want to, that's OK, but not that you cannot. Keep Stokes in the team for all matches but don't give him the ball when Haddin, Johnson and co. are out there: unless he's really in some matchwinning spell. And give him short spells: use him in the Johnson way. I do rate Stokes highly with bat: I would even like to drop Ballance altogether, and move Stokes and Moeen all up by one place (Moeen should come before Buttler), and also have Finn or Rashid as a bowler. Attacking cricket is the best way for England to beat the Aussies.

As for the Aussies, it is not that they are very good: many of them are bits and pieces players, like Mitchell Marsh or Watson, or just flashy blades with hardly anything else, like Warner and Haddin. However, they feed on confidence and bullying: and that is what they will do. Their confidence-damaging tricks compensate easily for the lack of talent in their ranks. They have only two really good players for me in their ranks: Michael Clarke and Nathan Lyon. I have always rated Lyon highly as a spinner, and the English must be careful to not to lose soft wickets to him: especially aggros like Stokes and people suspect against spin like Ballance. They also have an in-form bowler like Starc: he is not top quality for me, as he sprays it too much around as well, a bit of on and off day player, but he is right now in form, so if England can dent his confidence early on, half the contest will be won. For denting Starc means denting Johnson and all others: for me, Ryan Harris was really good, but he's retired. Siddle is large-hearted but not that talented. So Cook is key, as I said at the very beginning: for Cook and Lyth and the no. 3 will have to do that job of denting Starc - and hence I would like to see Root or, if not Root, Bell at no. 3, and not Ballance. For I don't have the confidence that Ballance can dent Starc. Lyth also does not inspire me with great confidence for now, but I'd like him to get the long rope: all 5 matches. Steven Smith is another man in the form of his life: his game has improved highly, but I doubt if he can continue that way in English conditions, especially if Cook makes the right bowling changes. Wood should be key against Smithy. But I like Smith otherwise; he's a nice lad and has talent and youth. When he comes next time to England, he will probably be the most dangerous Australian in their party. Voges is solid and might prove hard to dislodge, and Aussie tailenders all bat quite well and aggressively, so England cannot relent. That is why I would like England to drop Ballance and play a 5-man attack. Broad bowled quite well against NZ, but I still would play Finn rather than Broad if it's going to be a 4-man attack. I think England will just stick with Broad for the first 2 matches, the safely conservative choice, and then see what happened. Both sides' tails in fact play quite well, but Australia's attack is better, especially as they have a good spinner: however, if Cook has blunted the Aussie attack, the English tailenders can also make merry. For that to happen, Broad needs to bat at 11, below Anderson: at least, it will rub Broad's ego the wrong way, and he might want to prove a point, get back to no. 9 or 8 even. These are little, percentage things: but modern cricket is fast-paced, and it is these things that turn a game on its head. It is these things that most English supporters feel Cook is slow to grasp: I hope he proves us wrong. And proves us right by his form with the bat.

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