Saturday, 6 July 2013

Ashes 2013: Firm Favourites, But....

For the first time since the mid 70's, there will be back to back Ashes series.  With the Australian leg due in November, the English leg, the 67th series,  begins on Wednesday at Trent Bridge with England firm favourites to emulate the feat they last achieved with Botham’s Ashes in 1981 by winning three series in a row.  

England go into this series as the form team.  Since last summer’s series defeat to South Africa, an unexpected drawn series in New Zealand (where the “Kiwis” played better than the form book suggested) has been bookended by a historic win in India and a home win against New Zealand (where the Kiwi’s played worse than they did at home).  The transition from skipper Strauss to captain Cook seems to have been seemless.  Yet, there are still issues.

Both Swann and Pieterson are recovering from injury, while there still seems to be a spot up for grabs as Alistair Cook’s opening partner.  Nick Compton, who opened during the winter tours, seems to have forfeited his place in the side as a result of a poor run of form during the home series against New Zealand.  The Yorkshire opener Joe Root, who had been a part of England’s middle order since making his debut in Nagpur last December, is now thought to be in pole position to be Cook’s opening partner at Trent Bridge.

These travails seem like small beer compared to the trials and tribulations surrounding the touring Australians.  Like England, Australia lost a home test series to South Africa.  Like England, Australia won a morale boosting series – at home to Sri Lanka.  However, unlike England, Australia lost in India.  Badly.  India won the series 4-0, while thanks to some heavy handed coaching team morale disintegrated.

Things did not improve when the Australians reached these shores.  Opening batsman David Warner was involved in a fracas with Joe Root, while Australia’s early exit from The Champions Trophy saw the ACB sack their coach Mickey Arthur, and appoint  Darren Lehman as his replacement.  As a batsman, Lehmann was unfortunate to have been active during Australia’s golden generation – even though he was a member of their 1999 World Cup wining side, hitting the winning runs in the final.  When he lost his place in the side, his replacement was the young debutant Michael Clarke…  who Lehmann inherits as his captain.

Clarke (right) and his bowling unit are Australia’s strong points, where Lehmann needs to earn his corn is to sort out Australia’s (Clarke apart) stuttering batting lineup.  Almost all of Australia’s landmark series wins in England have seen strong foundations laid by their batsmen.  Even 1993, a series dominated by the emergence of Shane Warne, saw Australia’s batsmen pass 600 twice (and fail to reach 400 three times) out of 8 innings.  In attempting to put together a viable squad, Australia seem to have put together a squad heavy with openers.  With the news that Shane Watson and Chris Rodgers are to open on Wedensday, we can expect Warner or Hughes to bat at three.

If Australia’s batting line up is grounds for optimism for England supporters, Australia’s bowling unit gives them hope for causing an upset.  Peter Siddle is still there, but will be leading a line up including two of Mitchell Starc, James Pattinson or Jackson Bird.  Watson provides options as a change bowler, while Nathan Lyon will probably be the spinner in the side.

Many people have drawn parallels between this series and the 1989 series when a band of inexperienced tourists came away with an emphatic 4-0 win.  The big difference is that Australia side were a much more evolved side than this current team.  While England were resting up, Australia were going through a trial by fire by losing at home to the dominant West Indies team of that era.  Compare & contrast the goings on this winter…

1989 is also the last time Australia regained the Ashes on English soil (the only other time being 1934), in this sense history is against Australia.  For a side who needs to make a good start, Trent Bridge would be a good pick for the Australians – given that England have only won four times at Trent Bridge.  Their last victory there though was the last Ashes test played there, during the memorable 2005 series.  Australia’s last victory at Trent Bridge wrapped up the 2001 series.  It is astonishing to think that given Australia’s dominance in this series, that since August 2001, Australia have only won three tests on English soil (the Oval test in 2001, Lords 2005 & Headingley four years ago).  Maybe Australia still haven’t recovered from not winning at Sophia Gardens four years ago.

The first test then is crucial.  If Australia manage to pull out a performance, then an upset as big as 1989 will be on the cards. The key battle however will be that Australian batting line up.  If it falls apart at Trent Bridge under pressure from the best bowling attack outside of South Africa, it will be a long summer for Australia.  I take England to win 2-1.