Like three years ago, England go into this Ashes series with a chance of a series victory. The 68th series though begins with Australia coming on in leaps and bounds in spite of the 3-0 series loss in England. While England are slight favourites, they have the bigger selection issues.
|Cook with the Ashes at The Oval|
In sharp contrast, Australia has a settled looking batting line up. After what looked like constant shuffling of the pack during the summer, Australia looks likely to start with an opening pair of David Warner and Chris Rodgers at the Gabba on Thursday. Watson’s dropping down the order paid dividends for him at the Oval as he made a big hundred there. He will come in at three, with the skipper Clarke coming in at Four. The other centurion at The Oval, Steve Smith, will come in at five. The only change in the line up looks as if the 20Twenty captain (and adopted Scot) George Bailey will make his debut at 6 with wicket keeper Brad Haddin dropping down to 7.
If Australia’s batting line up is developing rather nicely, there are a couple of selection issues surrounding Australia’s bowling attack. Both Pattinson & Starc are injured, which means that Ryan Harris & Peter Siddle will lead the attack. The remaining two places look to be between the pacemen James Faulkner (who played at The Oval), the walking enigma that is Mitchell Johnson & the spinner Nathan Lyon.
I’m not sure the Australian selectors will go for Lyon, mostly because Warne & Stuart MacGill are really the only spinners to have taken wickets at the Gabba and because Lyon is not a prodigious turner of the ball. Johnson presents another question. He is highly rated by Australian Cricket observers, yet he only seems to produce one performance per series. His performances (at Headingly in 2009 and the WACA in 2010/11) are overshadowed by his poor bowling, at Lords & the Oval in the 2009 series and at the MCG and SCG in the 2010/11 series.
If Australia are in better shape than they were in during the summer’s leg of the Ashes battles, what of England. They had looked to have (not convincingly) resolved their issue regarding who to open with Captain Cook. Joe Root might have made 180 in the Lords test, but apart from a nice 50 at The Oval never looked that comfortable opening. The warm up match at Hobart saw Michael Carberry open, and take his chance with 153 not out. Carberry opening and Root reverting to 6 would also solve another of England’s problems, Jonny Bairstow never really cemented his place at 6 during the summer series. It is said that both Pieterson and Prior should be fit for the Gabba.
England’s biggest questions surround their pace attack. Both Jimmy Anderson & Stuart Broad (poised to be the most boo’ed man in Australian sporting history after not walking at Trent Bridge) will be the new ball partnership, like they started in Brisbane three years ago. However, there is a third berth up for grabs. With Bresnan injured for the first test, the fight for that last quick bowling spot will be between Steve Finn and Boyd Rankin. Both are playing in the final pre-test tour match, with Finn looking the most likely to get that final berth, with Swann being the sole spinner in the England side.
Despite the fact that England will be favourites, the size of their task should not be underestimated. The series in 2010/11 was only the fifth series win in Australia for England since the end of the Second World War, while England doubled the amount of wins on Australian soil since their series win in 1986/7.
What they couldn’t do though was win in Brisbane, Australia had the best of the first three days before Strauss, Cook and Trott batted Australia out of the match in spectacular style. Indeed, you need to go back 25 years for Australia’s last defeat at the Gabba, when Ambrose, Walsh, Marshall & Co blew Australia away. England’s last win in Brisbane came two years earlier, when Botham’s 138 helped England to a 7 wicket win.
While England have won three series out of four since losing at home to South Africa in the summer of 2012, Australia’s form has been mixed. They matched South Africa last year but lost the big moments. They beat Sri Lanka, while we remember the summer Ashes series followed the same pattern as the South Africa home series. I rather suspect that the hard bouncy pitches of Australia may well suit the English batsmen a lot more than the slow dry pitches that we saw in England. That’s why I think that England will win, but it won’t be as comfortable as it was three years ago.