The time for talking is over. The battle is about to commence. Tomorrow morning the phoney war ends and the real shooting begins. It’s England versus Australia at Cardiff. And the hyperbole and sporting clichés will continue apace. Sorry about that!
The key man, in this observer’s opinion, is Alastair Cook. We all know Cook’s prowess at making mediocre attacks pay, but the Ashes is a step up in class. Aside from 2010/11, when Australia were in disarray and Cook cashed in big time, the skipper’s Ashes record is disappointing. Indeed, he has the second worst record of any regular England opener in home Ashes series since 1900. England have no chance unless Cook gets this particular monkey off his back.
The good news for Alastair is that Ryan Harris has retired. Harris was brilliant at pushing the ball across Cook with relentless accuracy – thus exploiting his flaws against pitched up bowling. Harris’s absence will give England a huge lift. Johnson and Starc are a fearsome combination, but pace has never particularly worried England’s captain. He’s tough enough, and phlegmatic enough, to cope.
With Adam Lyth unproven, and Gary Ballance and Ian Bell in poor form, England need Cook and Joe Root to have big series. The latter is one of the best young players in the world and England’s captain of the future. The Aussies will target Root, knowing that his form is crucial. Root has rescued England’s erratic test team on many occasions. If he’s dismissed early, England’s explosive middle-order of Stokes and Buttler won’t have the platform they crave.
Australia’s batting has weaknesses, but these aren’t as pronounced as England’s. Steve Smith will find it tough batting at three against Jimmy Anderson, but he’s in far better form that his opposite number.
Michael Clarke’s back is also a concern, but his fitness hasn’t affected his ability to go big in past Ashes series. After being dismissed cheaply in the first innings at Brisbane to a short ball, many pundits thought Clarke was a sitting duck. They were wrong. The Aussie’s talisman scored a second innings hundred and went on to have a productive series. Personally, I’m confident that Clarke will be a thorn in our side once again.
The two bowling attacks actually look quite similar on paper. Both boast aggressive five-man attacks with four seamers and an off-spinner. Johnson and Starc will swear and snarl, but so will Broad and Stokes. The key difference, however, is that the Aussie left-armers have that extra yard of pace – and we all know the difference between 86mph and 90-95 mph is vast at test level. Many of England’s batsmen won’t have faced bowling this rapid before.
If England do manage to win the Ashes, I suspect it will be because we enjoyed better bowling conditions. Unfortunately, we still need a little help from the skies and the pitch to take twenty wickets. The Aussies, on the other hand, are capable of running through teams in any conditions. We’ll just need to hope that fortune is on our side.
Although Australia start as firm favourites, England do have a sniff. As our regular readers will know, I’m a firm believer that the bookies know what they’re talking about. Most of them are offering 16-5 on England. That means we basically have a one in three chance of success. You know what? I’ll take those odds after two turbulent years.
Finally, I’d like to return to Alastair Cook once more. With rumours circulating that he’s had enough of the captaincy – and who can blame him – I personally think this series could define his legacy.
If Cook fails against Australia’s fearsome attack, the penny will finally drop that he struggles against the very best. If he succeeds, however, he’ll finally deserve the adulation he’s received since emerging as a young player for England U19s all those years ago.
Can the Essex farm boy do it? With Harris missing, I sense the Ashes will have a happy ending for Cook the batsman. Whether they have a happy ending for Cook the captain, however, is another matter.