A lot of pundits, including Simon Jones in his interview with us yesterday, say the Ashes will be close. Even Jason Gillespie believes there are reasons for England to be optimistic. Dizzy reckons that age will count against the Australians – comments which, judging by the video above, got Michael Clarke’s back up. Take it easy Pup, you don’t want another spasm.
Unfortunately however, I’m afraid I don’t share the pundits’ optimism. It just seems like banter and hollow bravado. The Australian team it’s very strong in all areas. It’s full of players with good, solid, proven Ashes records. England’s team, on the other hand, is a blend of unknown quantities and senior players with modest records against the Aussies.
If you look past the fighting talk, try to be objective, and focus on the cold hard facts, there’s actually little for England to be optimistic about. England have hope, of course, but hope isn’t exactly tangible.
Let’s just compare the Ashes records of the individuals in each side. I’ve only mentioned the players’ strongest suit, so it’s batting averages for the batsmen and bowling averages for the bowlers. I’m assuming that Harris and Watson will play ahead of Hazlewood and Marsh. I know this won’t necessarily be the case at Cardiff, but Australia will be strong whatever combinations they choose over the series.
Warner 44 Cook 40
Rogers 44 Lyth ?
Smith 38 Ballance ?
Clarke 45 Bell 37
Voges ? Root 33
Watson 44 Stokes 35
Haddin 43 Buttler ?
Johnson 24 Mooen ?
Starc 32 Broad 30
Harris 21 Wood ?
Lyon 31 Anderson 37
As you can see, Australia’s team is a battle hardened and has a proven track record of Ashes success. England, on the other hand, have five Ashes rookies who haven’t yet played against a team as good as the Aussies; neither have they sampled the intense pressure and scrutiny of an Ashes series.
Meanwhile, Cook and Anderson, the two senior players England desperately need to perform, have relatively disappointing Ashes records. All of these signs point to a comfortable Australian series win.
The bookies, who analyse things dispassionately without rose tinted spectacles, seem to agree. Many have England as long as 4-1 to win the Ashes, whereas the Aussies are as short as 4-11. You won’t find too many neutrals backing England. The smart money is definitely on Australia.
Of course, the above doesn’t necessarily prove anything. It’s a cliche, but anything can happen in sport on a given day. Although the best side will usually triumph over twenty five days, the favourites don’t always win.
If England play particularly well, and get on a roll, then it’s quite possible there will be a surprise – just like there was in 2005. However, I can’t ignore that fact that England had been building something special under Michael Vaughan for a couple of years before the iconic 2005 series.
This time it’s very different. England’s test record since the Ashes whitewash eighteen months ago is mixed. A one-day renaissance which involved just four of our test players is unlikely to make much difference in the scheme of things.
What’s more I cannot subscribe to the Dizzy theorem. Although age might be a factor in the fourth and fifth games, it’s possible the Ashes will have been decided by then.
Crucially, Australia have so much strength in depth that they can happily rotate their seamers without weakening the side. They have five extremely good pacemen in Johnson, Starc, Harris, Hazlewood and Siddle. They only need to pick three at a time. By the end of The Oval test match, Australia’s seamers will probably be fresher than both Anderson and Broad.
So how exactly can England win the Ashes? Trevor Bayliss’s inside knowledge will help for sure. What’s more, it’s quite possible that our rookies rise to the occasion. If one looks back to 2005, Strauss, Flintoff, Pietersen and Simon Jones all made an impact despite never playing against the Aussies before.
Most people seem to think that England’s best chance is to play positively and attack Australia. Indeed, Bayliss himself stressed the need to be aggressive yesterday. However, how much of this is just a hangover from the recent ODI successes? Let’s not forget that test cricket is a completely different game.
When England beat Australia in 2010/11 and (to a lesser extent) 2013, we triumphed by playing a relatively conservative, patient and attritional style of cricket. We bowled accurately, our star batsmen were guys like Cook and Trott, and scoreboard pressure generally did the job. We put the Aussies under pressure and they imploded.
Consequently, I wonder if this attacking philosophy is a red herring? 2005 was unique in many ways because it was the only time in modern cricketing history that England have triumphed by going toe to toe with Australia. England have a very different team, with a very different captain, ten years on.
Most importantly the great 2005 side had belligerent cricketers capable of backing up the fighting talk. We had three genuinely fast bowlers and a top six full of positive stroke players like Trescothick, Pietersen, Vaughan and Flintoff.
This time, England’s side doesn’t look particularly aggressive on paper. A top three of Cook, Lyth and Ballance is almost apologetic, and there will be huge pressure on the middle-order to raise the tempo. Meanwhile, Wood (and perhaps Stokes) are our only bowlers capable of forcing Australia’s batsmen back. And even then, Australia’s fast bowlers are faster than ours.
In 2013, England showed Australia’s pace attack some respect by preparing sluggish wickets that offered turn for Graeme Swann. I wonder if England’s best chance is to do the same again?
Of course, it seems a little perverse to put our Ashes hopes on the shoulders of Moeen Ali, who is still relatively wet behind the ears as a first class spinner, but the spin department is probably where Australia’s advantage over England is least pronounced. Perhaps the selectors hope that the weather stays hot and two spinners is the way to go.
Don’t get me wrong. Nathan Lyon is a decent test bowler and England should respect him. However, a battle between Moeen and Rashid on the one hand, against Lyon and Fawad Ahmed on the other, is a battle that England can actually win. Maybe Trevor Bayliss knows this, which is why Rashid has been drafted into the squad ahead of the battery of fast bowlers they took to Spain.
There’s no doubt that putting our faith in spin is a high risk strategy. Australia’s batsmen have attacked English spinners mercilessly in recent Ashes series. However, is it more risky than preparing wickets that suit Australia’s quicks? Surely Darren Lehmann will be praying that England prepare surfaces tailor made for Johnson, Starc, Harris and Co.
The Australian cricket team has been the most successful in the world over the last twenty-five years. However, for all the wins in South Africa, New Zealand and the West Indies, one cannot ignore their travails in India and even the UAE.
If England want to make the Australians uncomfortable – if such a thing is even possible – the only rational thing we can do is turn Sophia Gardens into Eden Gardens, Birmingham into Bangalore and Lord’s into Lahore . Any other strategy will be playing into Australia’s hands. At least slow wickets will give our batsmen a chance to find their feet.
I know this strategy isn’t exactly ideal, and plenty of you will be shaking your heads, but what other option do we have? We can’t just pick a side and hope for the best. There needs to be a plan. Otherwise any positivity is actually passive and amounts to nothing more than blind optimism.