Thursday, 4 June 2009

The Ausies Are Coming!

"There's one thing on my cricketing resume that hasn't been achieved yet and that's being captain of a winning Ashes series in England. That's something very dear to my heart."

With those words Ricky Ponting announced his intent to lead Australia to victory in this summers Ashes series. The ruthless efficiency which was the hallmark of their 5-0 whitewash 30 months ago looks to be in evidence as the Australian’s squad to defend the ashes was announced in the week.

The squad that was picked includes several form players, instrumental in the series win in South Africa. Chief among these, among the batsmen were Marcus North (Centurion in the 1st Test) and Phillip Hughes (A century in each innings of the 2nd Test). Hughes likely opening partner is Simon Katich. Four years ago Katich, like the rest of the Australian middle order, struggled under a barrage of reverse swing. His comeback after the retirement of Justin Langer, and the injury problems of Phil Jaques, is all the more remarkable in that light.

The Australian middle order is likely to be made up of the tried and trusted, starting with the skipper, looking for the 40 runs to take him past 11000 career test runs, followed by Mike Hussey and Michael Clarke. They need to be. Australia have left out Andrew Symons from the squad, while wicket keeper Brad Haddin is no Adam Gilchrist. Whether Haddin is even in the Ian Healy mould remains to be seen. For so long the Australian middle order was the powerhouse of their batting display, with Pointing, the Waugh twins, Allan Border, David Boon and the Chappell brothers all attaining legendary status occupying those berths in the past. Yet this was the biggest failure for Australia 4 years ago, with only one century coming from that area of the batting line up (Ponting’s 162 at Old Trafford, though Clarke made 93 in the victory at Lords). This area Australia needs to get right.

Symon’s exclusion from the squad has seen the door open for 2 relatively unknown all-rounder’s. Shane Watson was much hyped before the last Ashes series as Australia’s version of Flintoff. In 8 tests, 257 runs at 19.76 and 14 wickets at 36 runs is not good form. His “back-up” Andrew McDonald’s figures are not that much better.

There is strong competition for the bowling bearths. Brett Lee and Stuart Clark are back, but are not certainties to get back into the test team. The performance of both Peter Siddle and particularly Mitchell Johnson on South African soil puts the experienced pair under pressure, with Andrew Hilfenhaus also in contention for a test place. It is likely that Australia will start the majority of the 5 tests with 4 seamers.

The largest hole to be filled from the 5-0 ashes team is in the spinners department. Having said that Shane Warne was more than just a leg spinner, the majority of wickets that he picked up in the last years of his career were earned by his nous, and his experience and ability to deliver the perfect delivery. This time around, Australia have picked just off spinner Nathan Hauritz, though if required both Michael Clarke and Simon Katich could provide slow bowling options. Either option is likely to take the 20+ wickets Warne normally hovered up in an Ashes series. This puts pressure straight away on the quick’s to get the wickets.

This is not the legendary Australian side of 1993 or 2001. But it is not unlike the side which toured England twenty years ago with a mix of experience and hungry inexperience. Ponting’s quote is a statement of intent, the question is though. Is England ready?

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