Ashes series may be closer than many believe
England are stronger on paper but Australia’s speed narrows the gap
Australia’s captain Michael Clarke at a news conference before today’s first Ashes cricket Test match against England at Trent Bridge in Nottingham.
This could be a closer contest than many people with their whitewashes clearly believe. Some of the talk has been bombastic. Michael Clarke’s side may notionally be the “worst Australian team to visit these shores” but then we have heard that one before, to England’s cost.
They may not be a match for their illustrious predecessors under Ricky Ponting and before him Steve Waugh and Allan Border, but no Australian side is ever without its inherent danger: this is, after all, the Ashes.
England, on the other hand, may not be quite as powerful as they have been painted and have much to prove – with a new opening partnership, a middle-order batsman pushing to establish himself and debate about the identity of a third seamer.
Strictly on a man-for-man basis it is England who are the stronger. It may be almost a year since they lost Andrew Strauss’s 21 Test hundreds, but between them the current side still have 82, with Jonny Bairstow alone without one among the probable first eight batsmen, and this against 35 for the Australians, of which Clarke has 23 on his own.
It is in the bowling that the sides are drawn closer – and any team with a decent hand of bowlers is a match for anyone. There may have been some hyperbole in the assertion of the former coach Mickey Arthur that Australia possess the best attack in world cricket, but the depth of pace bowling talent, if not the standard of fitness, is considerable and enviable.
For their part England have in Jimmy Anderson one of their finest bowlers of all time and in Stuart Broad a mercurial performer approaching 200 Test wickets who can transform the direction of a match in a single compelling spell. The back-up to this pair is less secure, with Steven Finn currently lacking some of the reliability that consistency brings, Tim Bresnan yet to play a Test match since his elbow operation and Graham Onions a magnificent county performer on sappy pitches who endured a terrible time in New Zealand that had appeared to have ruled him out.
Beyond that neither Chris Tremlett, not yet deemed ready for a return following debilitating injury, nor Boyd Rankin, the giant Irishman who is thought to need more experience, are up for consideration.
Australia’s attack has the advantage of superior velocity in the cases of James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc and Ryan Harris.
Only in terms of spin do England have a clear edge. The record of Graeme Swann is formidable, particularly so against left-handers of which Australia have possibly four in their top six. The probability that the left-arm paceman Starc will be part of the side would also increase the effectiveness of Swann against right-handers.
His opposite number, Nathan Lyon, should not be underestimated, however. He may have been only part of the groundstaff at Adelaide Oval the last time the sides played a series, but he has reliability and would seem to have been treated ignominiously by the Australian management during the disastrous India tour.
England’s second spin option is Joe Root, much better as an off-spinner than simply a fill-in, while Australia will use Clarke’s left arm, which he insists he is perfectly fit to deliver despite the obvious concerns over his back condition. Australia’s final XI will be less conditional on the pitch than England’s.
The Australian attack looks settled with the exciting young paceman Pattinson and Starc joined by arguably the world’s most industrious seamer in Peter Siddle.