Four years later than should have been the case, Andrew Strauss will skipper England in Australia. English cricket has righted itself since the Flintoff and Pietersen debacles. For a spell one sensed that marketing considerations were influencing cricketing decisions. The great strength of the present Strauss-Flower regime is that it is, in the end, almost dull. No drama, no fuss and precious little intrigue either.
Australia, by contrast, are in some mild kind of flux. Where England picked their team before leaving home, Australia have been scrabbling to find players with sufficient form and fitness to justify inclusion. Xavier Doherty’s inclusion seems sensible but is based more on hope and hunch than any expectation that he’ll really make Kevin Pietersen his bunny. Similarly, which Mitchell Johnson will play? The man capable of devastating spells or the radarless slinger? Both, probably. Nor do the questions end there: does Michael Hussey (three centuries in his last 32 tests) have one last hurrah? Can Michael Clarke (averaging 58 in Australia) make it through the series? Will Marcus North feast or starve? Can Shane Watson’s reincarnation as a test opener survive this series?
And what about the skipper himself? Ricky Ponting has developed an unfortunate habit of wasting opportunities. In his last 38 test innings he’s reached 50 14 times but only made two centuries. The Ponting of his pomp would not have been so careless. If Ponting has a poor, or even simply average, series it is hard to imagine Australia prevailing. Decapitate – figuratively, of course – Australia and England are well on the way to victory. Yet my sense is that Punter, the only player in the series of indiputable greatness, will be ready for these tests. No longer the cavalier of his youth and not the remorseless foe of his greatest middle period, I suspect that this may be the series in which the Aussie skipper proves a worthy heir to Allan Border.
Despite all this, it’s still odd to think of England beginning an Ashes series in Australia as favourites. Michael Vaughan tweets that he’s not met a single Ocker who thinks Australia will win back the little urn. The press seem to have decided that England have it in the bag already. We must trust that the England team are not quite so complacent. England may have plans for the Australians; it seems to have been forgotten that Australia will have plans and ideas of their own.
This is a good but hardly great England side. There are plenty of imponderables here too. What of Alastair Cook? (Average in Australia: 27. Average in last 10 innings: 22.) Kevin Pietersen? (Averaging 33 in 2010 and with just one century in his last 34 innings). Ian Bell is a much better player now that England have given up sending him in at three but he still only averages 25 against Australia. Paul Collingwood, meanwhile, averaged 19 this summer. Nor, despite his runs in the state matches, can Strauss be considered a sure thing. He averaged 25 on the last Australian tour.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Anderson is a much better bowler than he was four years ago when his five test wickets cost 82 runs each but last winter’s South African series was the first time he’d ever enjoyed success outside England. None of England’s other bowlers have toured Australia before. Steven Finn is, clearly, an unknowable quantity coming into the series while for all that we hope for heroics from Graeme Swann, it remains the case that in recent years Australia is where visiting finger-spinners go to die. That leaves Stuart Broad. Much will be asked of him this winter. He has the potential to be a match-winner for England; he also has the potential to bowl stupidly. Broad is at his best, I think, when he pitches the ball up. Unfortunately he seems to enjoy banging it in short of a length. If he does this in Australia he will take some wickets but also, probably, be belted to all corners of the continent.
The key men in the series, then, are Strauss/Pietersen vs Ponting/Katich on the batting side and Broad/Swann vs Johnson/Hilfenhaus on the bowling side. Past class suggests Australia’s "ceiling" is higher than England’s when it comes to batting but that England may have an advantage on the bowling front. If this series was being played in England, Strauss’s men would be favourites. That it’s being contested Down Under makes it, I think, pretty much a toss-up.
Neither side really has enough firepower or swagger to intimidate the other and it’s quite possible that there’ll be plenty of indifferent cricket played this winter. But with two teams so reasonably matched – albeit each pregnant with multiple imponderables – it should make for gripping drama.
Set your body clocks to Australian time and enjoy the ride. My prediction? Don’t hold me to it but I think 2-2 is quite possible. What do you think?