Australia face a sticky wicket in the Ashes

 
 

As the cricket world prepares for the biggest event on it’s calendar, Seán O’Neill previews England’s chances of emulating their famous 2005 win.

ALL FORMS OF SABRE rattling from the childish to the plain absurd have begun to rise from Australia and England’s former cricketing greats. It can only mean one thing, the next Ashes series is almost upon us. However, despite the lack of any noticeable difference in the build up, it appears that this summer’s contest will be different to the epic clash the cricketing world was treated to last time these great rivals did battle for the hallowed urn.

Sophia Gardens in Cardiff will host its first ever test match when it is the venue for the curtain raiser on 8th of July, and in many ways a ground devoid of any Ashes history is the most apt setting for the start of a series whose outcome will most likely be hugely influenced by players who are yet to have their first taste of Ashes cricket.

At first blush it may appear that not much has changed since the 2005 series. Australia will again arrive in England captained by Ricky Ponting, who is still one of world’s chief destroyers of bowling attacks.

They still hold the number one spot on the ICC rankings for test playing nations, a title they have not relinquished since 2003. And, in typical Australian fashion, they will still arrive expecting to win ever single match of the tour. But closer examination will reveal how vastly different the two outfits are.

The batting line up will be without such names as Hayden, Martyn, Langer and Gilchrist. The absence of these world class performers, all of whom have been the cause of many a sleepless night for England’s bowlers over the years, means that Australia are a far less intimidating unit.

Filling the boots of Hayden et al is a daunting task, and while Mike Hussey has shown himself to be of the same calibre as his predecessors, his peers are for the most part unproven. 20 year-old opener Philip Hughes hinted that he may have what it takes with an elegant century against South Africa at Durban, but Brad Haddin has yet to convince anyone that he is capable of emulating Adam Gilchrist, with the bat or behind the stumps.

England’s batting line up will be built around their talisman, Kevin Pietersen. He and Flintoff are capable of taking the attack to the Australians, and have had much success doing exactly that. Strauss, as captain and likely opening batsman, will also play a vital role in ensure that England post competitive totals.

“Although Ponting’s side are still the number one test nation according the ICC’s official rankings, their hold on that accolade is more tentative than it has been in the past”

The old curse of England’s batting line-up, the middle order collapse, is still a worry as loyal fans who travelled to Jamaica will attest. The unspectacular West Indian bowling attack demolished England in the second innings, skittling them for 51, their third lowest total of all time. The English batsman did manage to salvage some pride later in the series, compiling some large totals, albeit on some particularly batsman friendly surfaces.

Although Ponting’s side are still the number one test nation according the ICC’s official rankings, their hold on that accolade is more tentative than it has been in the past. Ponting suffered the ignominy of being the first Australian captain in 16 years to suffer a series defeat at home when South Africa defeated his side 2-1 over three tests. But it could have been worse.

Had his side not shown the resolve and resourcefulness to force a victory in the final test, Australia would have experienced their first whitewash at home in 122 years, and in doing so would have lost their number one spot. However, Australia showed that they are a resilient unit when they turned the tables on South Africa for the return fixture, comprehensively outplaying the Proteas and taking an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series with their 175 run win at Durban. However, the unbeatable aura which the Australians have had in previous years is fast disintegrating, with back to back defeats to India and South Africa.

Whatever losses Australia have suffered on the batting front, they are dwarfed by the departure of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. Between them they had over 1200 test wickets at a positively penurious average of 23 runs per wicket. Together they tormented batting line-ups for the duration of their careers, cross examining batsmen’s technique’s with their probing accuracy and guile, until they inevitably succumbed to their wiles.

As two of the greatest players the game has ever seen, the hole their retirement has left in the Australian attack will never quite be filled, but despite this, it would be unwise to write off what Ponting now has at his disposal in this department. Brett Lee, arguably the world’s fastest bowler, has made the progression from the wayward tearaway days of his youth to become the shrewd and economical spearhead of the Australian attack.

His likely new ball partner, the ebullient Mitchell Johnson has impressed thus far, and will test the English batsmen if conditions are in any way favourable.

At the moment third and forth choice pace takes the form of Ben Hilfenhaus and Peter Siddle, both of whom have shown signs of potential, but it remains to be seen how they will progress. England’s attack is probably the more settled of the two, yet it is not without problems. In the recent tour of the Caribbean they lacked penetration. The enigmatic Steven Harmison, who destroyed the West Indies last time he set foot in the Caribbean, failed to have any major impact, and is not the 90 mph spearhead he once was.

England has suffered badly from the loss of Simon Jones and the decline of Flintoff’s bowling. In 2005 the pair bedazzled the Australians with reverse swing and took valuable wickets just when England needed them. It is difficult to see where England’s inspiration will come from this time around.

Whatever the outcome, cricket fans across the world will hope that this as a sporting spectacle will live up to the 2005 instalment, when they were treated to one of the greatest exhibitions of cricket in memory. The eyes of the cricketing world will look on expectantly as the next chapter in this 127 year rivalry unfolds this summer.

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