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Monday, July 8, 2013

The Ashes: Can Australia Spring An Upset?

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With all of the preliminaries over, the time has come to see if this Australian cricket squad can pull themselves together from all of the distractions of the past month, and put their best foot forward in the quest to wrest the Ashes back from the Old Enemy.

Following an average Champions Trophy campaign, another brain explosion from David Warner, the coach being held responsible for all of the negativity surrounding the squad and being sacked as a response, the captain and best batsman being injured on arrival in England and not playing for three weeks, a new coach being appointed, the captain giving up his role as a selector, and the new coach taking on the majority of media responsibilities, one could be forgiven for wondering if the campaign was over before it even started. But the last two weeks has seen a change which seen all of the negativity seep away and a very businesslike attitude come in to replace it.
With Darren Lehmann dominating the cameras and news conferences with his straight forward and no nonsense attitude, the media has had nothing untoward to report. Michael Clarke has relinquished all of this part of his role, and has been allowed to concentrate on his game, his fitness and his team, which from the outside seems to be benefitting everyone.
As to the squad itself, the performances have been mixed. The batsmen have been met with half-baked 2nd XI county bowling attacks on flat decks, meaning that while the majority of them have made some runs, those runs have been just a little too easy to ensure they have had a real tough lead-up to the series. No doubt Shane Watson, Chris Rogers, Phil Hughes and Clarke will have enjoyed getting amongst the runs, hopefully they will all be fully aware that the attack and pitches they are about to face will be like chalk and cheese in comparison. On the flipside, the bowlers have faced bowling to a few decent batsmen on decks with nothing in them for their benefit, which meant the first four in the order found the going easy, but once they had been prised out the tail fell alarmingly quickly.

So what will Australia go in with for this 1st Test? And can those who are selected proved the English media and "experts" wrong in their belief the series will be won 5-0 by the hosts?

Lehmann has anointed Watson and Rogers as the openers for the Test, which to me is the best combination. Rogers may only have one Test behind him, but he has six consecutive seasons - three in Australia and three in England - of averaging over 50 with the bat. His experience is exactly what the team needs at the top of the order. My view of Shane Watson has been well voiced over the past two seasons or more. His century in the last warm-up game was lauded by those who saw it, but against the puff-pastry attack he faced it has answered no questions of his immediate future. This truly must be his final series if he is unable to dominate at the top of the order. He must score centuries if he is to survive, and if Australia is to win. Surely he can't need any more motivation. These two must find a way to see off the threat of James Anderson, to stop him from scything his way into the middle order in the first hour of the innings. Whoever is chosen from Stuart Broad, Steven Finn and Tim Bresnan will also be dangerous, but it is Anderson who remains the key with the new ball. Our openers need to defuse him, before then setting off on big scores themselves.

Questions remain on who will fill the final four batting positions in the team, and in what order. Clarke is the only one assured of his spot, and as he has batted at four in the two warm-up games, one can only hope he will also fill that position in the Test. I am still of the opinion, perhaps the only on in the world I guess, that he should be batting at number three. My basis for this is that he is not only the best batsman in our team, but upon the answer to the following question - if you were England, who is the last person you would want to see coming out to bat at number three? Do you think England fear Phil Hughes at three? Or Ed Cowan? Or David Warner? Or Usman Khawaja? No chance. Clarke striding out at three makes a bold statement, and would absolutely make England's job immediately more difficult. Some people question my thoughts, suggesting that Steve Waugh rarely batted at three for Australia, even when he was probably the most dominating batsmen in his era. The folly of that is this - his team was winning Tests more than any team, apart from the Windies in the 1980's, in the history of the game. If Steve Waugh was playing now in this team in this era, he would be batting at three, and he would be loving it. We know Clarke will not bat at three, and may not even bat at four, but I think it is an opportunity missed.

Phil Hughes would appear to have done enough to retain his spot with a clutter of fifties in the warm up games. Despite technical flaws and constant pressure on him because of these perceived weaknesses, it is obvious he has the talent to succeed. I really hope he can do so. I do think that I'll be loading up at TomWaterhouse.com.au on him being dismissed at least 6 times caught behind off Anderson however.
Of the four remaining batsmen in the squad, their chances of selection will depend on what the batting order is going to end up as. If Clarke bats at four and Hughes at five, then that leaves #3 and #6 up for grabs, but if Hughes bats at three, then #5 and #6 are the spots available. The other question that needs to be asked is whether or not Warner will be considered after his suspension, and no cricket for the past month. Both Lehmann and Clarke have suggested that he has been doing all the work in the nets and that he will be 'right to go if selected', a reasonably broad hint that they want to pick him. Both have also suggested that the Australians need to be aggressive with the bat, which not only plays further into Warner's hands, but also counts against both Cowan and Khawaja. The wild card is Steve Smith, who was not originally chosen in the squad, but came in after good performances in the Australia A tour. His efforts in the last of the warm up games also boded well. What also shouldn't be forgotten was his excellent performances in the final two Tests in India, where he played better than most other batsmen and showed he has learned to adapt to the conditions available.
Whoever the selectors choose, the two to miss out will be devastated and can possibly count themselves unfortunate. The fact that Cowan has really failed to make a big score with plenty of opportunities as well as in both warm up games here, and that Khawaja only played the first warm up game, leaves me to believe that these will be the two who miss out, leaving Warner to bat at three and Smith to bat at six. I would not be terribly upset if this was to occur. But you have to wonder when Khawaja is going to get his chance, and given an extended run to prove he can make it at this level.

Brad Haddin will take the gloves and bat at seven. He was excellent on the last Ashes tour and has done well so far in his return as the number one gloveman. His experience and leadership will fill a void that was obvious in India, and hopefully will keep the team level-headed on and off the field.

The bowlers will face plenty of pressure in their attempts to dismiss the England team cheaply. We can only hope that they have been watching footage of the New Zealand bowlers efforts against their batsmen both in New Zealand in February and in England in May. Off-stump going away to Cook, up and in to Root, a foot outside off stump to Trott and nothing anywhere near his legs, off stump drifting away to Bell. If I can see these things just from watching the games, let's hope our 30-odd people in team management have also noticed them.

James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc will be the first choice bowlers, though Starc must really come to the party here. At his best, with the ball swinging in to right handers at 145kph he is invaluable. Yet he has been too inconsistent in his Test career so far, and he needs to take on responsibility for ensuring he is on his game. He is a key against Trott, Bell and Pietersen. Pattinson, apart from not finishing his homework, was excellent in India, and he shapes as a major player for the Australians.
Peter Siddle has been the senior bowler for the team for the past two seasons, but he really seems to be out of contention. he did not play in the final warm up game, he has struggled for rhythm and penetration in England, and almost all the other options appear to be in front of him. If he is selected, it will be on trust rather than form, which could be a dangerous thing.
The two who appear the most likely contenders for the final pace spot are Ryan Harris and Jackson Bird. Harris is the firebrand, bowling his beautiful in duckers and away swingers at pace, always hurrying the batsmen. his body has been his only letdown, but he appears fit and healthy to start here. While he is unlikely to play all five Tests, his back up should surely be Bird, whose McGrath-like height, length and movement seem to make him the perfect bowler for English conditions. he probably won't play the 1st Test, but he will definitely have an impact on this series at some stage.
Nathan Lyon will line-up as spinner after his Test best figures in the final Test in India, but he will continue to be under pressure for his position in the team. He was given a good long bowl in the first warm up game in unhelpful conditions, so he should be right to go. How he attacks Pietersen especially will determine how much influence he has on the series. While he needs to be attacking, he also needs to ensure he isn't bleeding easy runs. His will be an interesting series to follow. What has been interesting is the continued improvement of the impressive teenager Ashton Agar, who not only bowls left arm orthodox from a big height with good loop and turn, he also manages a bat better than most. It may be that he doesn't get a game on this tour, but by being around the team, and doing a lot of net bowling, he can only improve, and it would not be a surprise to see him make a big impression in the next Australian summer. However, if indeed he was thrown into this series, I think he would surprise a lot of people.

So, the stage is set, and the battle is about to begin. Whatever happens we can only hope that Australia stands up and puts their best foot forward, and acquit themselves to the best of their ability. England are cocky and confident - perhaps rightly so - but if the Aussies can pull together and play to a plan, then there is no reason why they can't spring a surprise. No one expected England to win in 2005. Eight years later, and perhaps the tables can be turned.

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