2009 Ashes preview

It’s that time of the four-year cricket cycle when Australia visits the Old Dart to take on England for the Ashes, and it’s the old story of arrogance and bluster before the first Test in Cardiff starts later today.

Last time at home, England managed an unlikely victory by the smallest of margins, but since then they have lost 5-0 in Australia. For its part, the Australian team has struggled to maintain its form since the retirement of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, but it wrested back top spot in the Test rankings earlier this year by beating South Africa on home soil, albeit after losing to them in Australia.

Most media speculation before proceedings get underway in Cardiff is centring around Australia’s lack of spinner stocks, with Nathan Hauritz not impressive in warm up games as the only specialist tweaker in the squad – while Jason Kresja tears up Pakistan A in Darwin. Mitchell Johnson will again spearhead the attack as he did with great effect in South Africa, and if he can produce a couple of spells like he did to win a Test or two over there, it will go a long way towards winning Australia the series, in the manner that McGrath and Warne have delivered in Ashes clashes for so many previous series.

The third seamer position, behind Johnson and Peter Siddle, had looked like going to Brett Lee after his strong performance in the tour match at Worcester a week ago proved that he was reverse-swinging the ball in English conditions. However, a slight tear in a hip muscle has ruled him out of one to two Tests, bringing Stuart Clark back into the slot. Despite Lee’s good recent form, though, it may very well be better for the Australian XI to have the far more dependable Clark rather than the unpredictable Lee in that position – particularly as Lee has been the reason Australia have lost several Tests recently with profligate spells of little menace.

England’s batsmen have been given the seal of approval by the media after feasting on the West Indies in away and home series in succession, but the fact that the entire top six of the batting order are averaging over 50 in 2009 masks the lack of quality in the bowling opposition they have faced in that time, not to mention the flatness of the pitches in the Caribbean which were prepared after the Windies won the first test of their home series in an eventually successful attempt to preserve the series victory. South Africa had similarly had an excellent warm up series against Bangladesh before facing Australia last summer, but it didn’t help their cause in the end.

As for Australia’s batting stocks, it is a line up in transition with some still-raw youngsters with obvious skill flaws. Philip Hughes had a fine series in South Africa but the English conditions will leave his singular technique open to further inspection from an honest set of English opening bowlers, not least of which the always dangerous Andrew Flintoff. Ricky Ponting is becoming more and more susceptible to giving the slips catching practice early in his innings, as does Simon Katich with his penchant for flashing through the off side. Cardiff is expected to give the most help to slow bowlers, but if Australia’s slight weakness against spin is exploited there for an opening loss, expect the other pitches on the tour to start turning square, allowing the likes of Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar to lift themselves above some indifferent county cricket form to take advantage of favourable pitches.

Finally on the keepers, both Mark Prior and Brad Haddin are better batsmen than glovemen based on recent form, with both dropping relatively easy catches in warm up games.

At first glance, it appears both sides may struggle to take 20 wickets in a game. Given that Britain is currently undergoing what Nasser Hussain recently described as a “six week drought” (not that Englishmen know the meaning of the word) it doesn’t sound like rain-outs are all that likely, so there will be enough opportunity for the bowlers to grind out results. As was seen in the most recent Australian tour of India, however, even “roads” can produce results if one side established mental dominance over the other.

My gut feeling says Australia is still the more mentally tough squad, and if it can win against South Africa in South Africa it is capable of beating England at home, a team with many more flaws. Some of those flaws are not being talked up at the moment, with raw numbers racked up against lesser opponents by Englishmen masking some iffy temperaments and lack of Test hardness. Australia’s current #1 Test ranking may flatter them, with India and South Africa having claims to the title, but there’s no question that England does not belong in the top echelon of the sport at this stage. I would expect Australia to jump out to a series lead of 1-0 or 2-0 by the third test, and then maybe drop one on the way home. 2-1 is the favourite scoreline for me, Australia’s way.