After months of build up and anticipation, the latest instalment of England and Australia’s cricket rivalry will begin on Wednesday as the First Test of the Ashes begins at Trent Bridge. The biennial Test series will be the major sports event of the summer for both countries, with fans in both countries hoping to earn bragging rights until the next series. There is little doubt that, to cricket fans in both countries, the Ashes series are more important than World Cup’s and other big Test series. Despite the distance between the two countries and the trying economic conditions, there will be considerable travelling support following Australia this summer, as there always is for the touring parties on either side of the world. England go into this series as overwhelming favourites having won three of the last four Ashes series which represents a sea-change in fortunes when you consider that they suffered eight successive series defeats from 1987-2003.
In that period, a combination of successive golden generations of Australian cricketers and a lack of consistency and depth in England cricket led to the one sided nature of the fixtures. Australia not only dominated the Ashes but they dominated cricket at international level in all forms of the game. They won the World Cup 3 times in this period and set a record for consecutive Test match victories of 16 between October 1999 and February 2001. It is easy to see why Australia were the dominant force in this period when you consider the players at their disposal. Players such as Hayden, Taylor, Ponting, Warne, Lee, McGrath & Gilchrist were formidable in their own right and when put amongst each other it made for a unstoppable team. Unfortunately for Australian cricket, the retirement of many from the 2nd golden generation starting in 2007 has not been followed by a new crop of stars as happened in the mid-late 1990’s. They have lost the last two Ashes series and have dropped to 4th in the ICC Test rankings having lost two of their last three Test series, most recently being whitewashed by India in a series dominated by off field problems.
England’s journey over the past sixteen years has been in marked contrast to that of Australia at many stages of this period. Having enjoyed great success against Australia in the late 1970’s (largely due to the Packer series) and early 1980’s, England entered the late 1980’s with high hopes of continuing this trend but it was not to occur. Despite periods of encouragement, the late 1980’s and 1990’s were to prove ultimately disappointing for England as performances and results in all formats of the game got progressively worse. As the 1990’s wore on, England became increasingly inconsistent and reached a low point in 1999 when following a series defeat at home to New Zealand, England were the lowest ranked Test side. The reaction to this low point and the resulting changes were to prove the catalyst for England’s steady improvement in fortune during the early 2000’s. Central contracts, the arrival of Duncan Fletcher as coach and a focus on fitness within training and coaching all led to England claiming impressive victories in the Test arena. The Ashes initially proved elusive though, Fletcher’s first two Ashes series in charge resulted in successive 4-1 defeats and further mental scar tissue for most players involved. A new generation of players emerged in time for 2005 and the rest is history as England have established themselves as one of the world’s genuine top Test sides in recent years.
There is a great contrast in the level of Ashes experience within the two sides, England’s first choice XI will likely contain just two players without Ashes experience. Whereas Australia look likely to include as many as six players without Ashes experience having named just eight players with Ashes experience in their final squad of seventeen. It is not only a lack of Ashes experience that Australia will have in their bowling, they will also have a lack of Test experience to counter as well. Only Shane Watson, Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyons have more than 20 caps in their bowling unit, inexperience may not a handicap for Australia but it certainly could be a factor. Success in a five match test series will ultimately come down to a number of factors but in each department, that being batting and bowling, the winning team will have a stand out player to whom success was built around, here are my thoughts on who will fill those roles in each side potentially.
Key Batsmen – England
Kevin Pietersen – It is hard to overstate the importance of Kevin Pietersen in England’s batting line-up, that is not to say he is of a superior talent to the rest of the batting line-up, it is more about the approach he brings to his batting, Pietersen provides a more offensive approach to batting than the rest of England’s top order, Root is perhaps an exception but as a new Test opener he might take time to show his true form, hence he is key to England’s batting. There are some who feel that Pietersen can be an expensive luxury but if you look at Pietersen’s record in terms of making scores that matter it is hard to agree with that attitude. Aside a 158 scored in the 2006 Ashes tour of Australia, all of Pietersen’s other 21 centuries have come in England victories or draws so he rarely wastes a big score. Add to that a superb record against Australia in Tests, averaging 52.71 and has eight half centuries and three centuries against them, he might not make consistent scores of 30-40 throughout the series, he’ll leave that to Bell, but he will make one or two significant contributions.
Alastair Cook – As talented as Joe Root clearly is, as a rookie opener I feel it is important not to overburden him with expectations in this series. All that reinforces the importance of Cook at the top of the batting order and given that he has made fifteen of his twenty five centuries in the past three years, he has proved a man to be relied upon when opening. His batting form since taking over the captaincy has been very impressive and this stretch of form goes further back to the previous Ashes series where the numbers he produced were phenomenal. In excess of seven hundred runs scored at an average of 127.66, one double century, two centuries and two half centuries. He broke numerous records on that tour and has carried on in that vain by becoming the youngest player to reach seven thousand Test runs. He was awarded Wisden Cricketer Of The Year for 2012 and with centuries in two of his five Tests in 2013, he looks likely to be a valued scalp for the Australian bowling unit. If they are able restrict him to an average of below forty for the series then they will consider it a job well done.
Key Batsmen – Australia
Michael Clarke – There is little doubt about Clarke’s batting prowess, he ended 2012 as the top ranked Test batsmen after a year where he made five scores centuries or better. In fact he made one triple century, three double centuries and a century, highly impressive and historic as he was the first player to score four Test double centuries or better in a calendar year. Much like Alastair Cook, he has not suffered from a loss of form upon taking up the captaincy of his country and his form and experience stands him head and shoulders above the rest of the Australian batting line up. 2013 has been a relatively frustrating year for Clarke, a back injury kept him out of the Champions Trophy and prior to that he will have been disappointed that he was the only batsmen to consistently perform on the controversial tour of India. It will be interesting to see how he copes with two factors, firstly the pressure on his shoulders to lead from the front with big scores potentially from his unfavoured batting position of four. Additionally, how his relationship with the team and new team manager, Lehmann, will work following the controversial Homework-gate and his support of the divisive David Warner. If he can handle both of those issues then there is no reason he can’t be a thorn in England’s side.
Shane Watson – A veteran in the Australian squad with eight years of Test cricket experience, Watson will be a vital cog in the Australian batting line up as well as his role in the bowling attack. He is likely to be opening the batting alongside a relative Test cricket novice in Chris Rogers and as a result he will be required to take the lead and utilise his experience in the hope they can build a successful opening partnership. It is a surprise that he only has two Test centuries to his name but that is in the main due the fact that he has struggled to convert half centuries into centuries, he has nineteen half centuries so his conversion ratio of fifty to one hundred is 9.52%. This is perhaps a reflection of his early Test career being coloured by an uncertainty of where he should bat in the order, though he has now been opening the batting for four years. That all said, setting a solid platform for the rest of the batting line up is the primary aim of an opening partnership so in that respect Watson has done a good job, the key in this series with a potentially weaker line up below him is to continue the form shown in the warm up matches and score big for his country.
Key Bowlers – England
Stuart Broad – The role of Broad in this series for me is vital to England’s success despite the fact that Anderson has been the star bowler for England in the past two-three years. Broad is capable of spells of unmatched brilliance and in contrast spells of mundane and abject bowling, this is why he is key to England in this series as he is a more probable target of Australia’s batsmen than the consistent Anderson. This represents a big opportunity for Broad to stamp his authority on this series and produce a genuine series winning contribution in an England shirt, something he hasn’t done despite his considerable talent. The omens for this are looking good, not only did he have two five wicket hauls to his name in the last home Ashes series, he has also taken two Test 5 wicket hauls and 23 Test wickets so far in 2013. He is at an age (27) where he should be reaching his peak as a cricketer and this could prove to be the standout year in his career so far.
Graeme Swann – The ever confident and entertaining Swann will be looking forward to a series which could prove his last home Ashes series as at the age of thirty four it may well prove beyond him to be a Test cricketer in four years time. The current hot spell of weather will also be just the tonic for Swann as it will potentially lead to a dry, spin friendly pitch at Trent Bridge this week, a Test he will be desperate to stamp his mark on as it is on his home ground. The series as a whole shapes up well for Swann, Australia will likely have a majority of left handed batsmen in their batting line up which will play to Swann’s strengths. He will be hoping that the elbow surgery he underwent in the early part of this year will allow him to play pain free this summer after a number of series played through the pain barrier. Swann looked in rude form against Essex this past week and he looks fully fit and focused for this series and this makes him a big danger to Australia.
Key Bowlers – Australia
Mitchell Starc – Not the Mitchell many England fans expected to be seeing in a prominent position in the baggy green this summer, but Starc clearly looks the most impressive of Australia’s rookie bowling attack. He had played just nine Test matches, bagging thirty wickets in those Test including a couple of five wicket hauls, he has the lethal combination of height and pace which make him a live danger to England’s batsmen. He certainly hasn’t looked overwhelmed by moving into Test cricket during difficult times for Australia and performed with credit in the three Tests he played in India before leaving the tour for ankle surgery. Pundits often talk of players having an X-Factor and Starc looks to have it in his ability to take wickets, the weakness would be his economy rate and his wickets can prove to come at an expensive rate. It will be interesting to see how he approaches bowling at Cook as he has had a weakness against left arm quick bowlers and this could be an opportunity for Starc to exploit early in the innings by bowling tight into Cook. Without doubt a huge danger to England this series.
Peter Siddle – One of only two members of Australia’s bowling attack with experience of an Ashes tour in England having been part of the Australia squad that toured in 2009 as well as being part of Australia’s squad when England toured down under in 2010-11. Clearly experience counts for nothing as he is not guaranteed a place in the bowling attack due to his apparent indifferent recent form, perhaps unfair when you consider that has taken thirty three wickets in the past 12 months in nine Test matches home and away. He has thirty three Ashes wickets to his name in ten Test matches including a hat-trick in the 2010-11 series and a five wicket haul at Headingley in 2009. He has an attacking and aggressive style of bowling which lends itself to the high pressure atmosphere of Ashes cricket. Also to his advantage is his ability to ball long spells which in a bowling attack with a lack of experience and young players with injury problems in their past could be vital. I think Australia would be foolish to overlook him during this series as he offers experience with the bowl in an inexperienced attack and is also a decent batter down the order.
England are strong favourites to take victory in this series and on paper this looks justified in every department. But it would be foolhardy to dismiss Australia as no-hopers as they have a few dangerous players in their team capable of winning matches. However, England should and will score a comprehensive series victory this summer, the reasons for this are two-fold; firstly, England look a formidably stronger team than Australia when looked at from every angle. Secondly, while they are not no-hopers by any stretch, Australia look a weak outfit aside from a few dangerous players. Their batting looks an area of serious concern, Clarke could be forced to bat at four due to the fallibilities of their line up, this is a position he has struggled in compared to his preferred position of five. Their bowling attack, whilst full of potential, is inexperienced and inconsistent, they also look fragile in terms of confidence and discipline. And, of course, there is the issue with Warner and whether his divisive position in the dressing room is sufficiently compensated by his talent and achievements on the pitch. England, in short, have more talent, discipline, depth and experience throughout their squad and , regardless of Australia’s weaknesses, would be more than a match for even the best Test sides. Predictions of series score lines are always difficult due to the unknown of the weather but I think England will win by a margin of upwards of 3-0, I really can’t see Australia winning a Test. A memorable summer of cricket is firmly upon us.
- 2013 Ashes Test Series Preview (carlothesportsman.wordpress.com)
- England, Australia renew Ashes rivalry with tourists big underdogs after rough build-up (vancouverdesi.com)
- Shane Warne: Kevin Pietersen can destroy Australia in Ashes series (metro.co.uk)
- Time to rise from the Ashes (midnightbreakfast.wordpress.com)
- Mark Butcher: Kevin Pietersen is a “vital player” for England (sportsmole.co.uk)
- Andy Flower hopes Pietersen to be fit for July’s Ashes series – Cricket News (blogs.bettor.com)
- England will break Australia hearts in an Ashes stroll, and I can’t wait! (mirror.co.uk)
- Where the Ashes will be won and lost (sportsturntable.wordpress.com)
- Graeme Swann: I’m hunting third Ashes win over Aussies (thesun.co.uk)
- Kevin Pieterson included in England squad for first Ashes 2013 test against Australia (3news.co.nz)