The Ashes

Ashes Test Preview

By Neil Robinson 21/07/05

The Ashes, England v AustraliaThe decision by the England selectors to pick Kevin Pietersen ahead of the experienced Graham Thorpe is a clear statement of intent. This is an England side which believes in itself, which intends to take the game to Australia, rather than simply trying to cope with the best side in the world.

In my last piece for this site, I wrote that I would have picked Thorpe this time, mainly for the advantage of having one left handed batsman in the middle order to combat the leg-spin of Shane Warne. No doubt this is a point which the selectors considered, and rejected on the basis that such thinking is part of the old England ethos of trying to deal with the oppositionís strengths, rather than picking the best available team and trusting their abilities to cope with whatever is thrown at them. It is an argument which will only be proved by success; even the failure of Pietersen will not prove that Thorpe would have changed things for the better.

The crux of this argument, and perhaps of the series as a whole, is how well Englandís middle order can stand up to Warne, and how far the great leg-spinnerís abilities have diminished (if at all) since England last met him . According to Bob Woolmer, now coach of Pakistan, his young charges thought that Warne had lost his ďXĒ factor in their Test series a few months ago. He still picked up 14 wickets at 28 (plus another 17 in three Tests against New Zealand in March), and while it is true that a greater proportion of his victims now come from the tail than was the case a few years ago, there is plenty to be said for wiping up the tail quickly in Test cricket.

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But perhaps the greatest advance Englandís batsmen have made under the tutelage of Duncan Fletcher is in their playing of spin. This was visible as far back as the tours of Pakistan and Sri Lanka four years ago, and while only Vaughan and Trescothick remain from the top five of that era, the lessons learned then are likely to have been passed on to the new generation. If Warneís latest shoulder injury has reduced his capacity to take wickets and intimidate the batsmen with sheer reputation, he is unlikely to prove the conclusive factor in this series as he has been in so many before. It is hard to imagine him not being among the leading wicket takers in the series, but there is a difference between that and being the key figure.

Englandís best player of spin is probably Trescothick, whose biggest problem will be the new ball in the hands of Glenn McGrath. If things go badly in the first couple of Tests, it might serve England well to drop Trescothick down the order to 4 or 5 and open with Vaughan. But they will be hoping it does not come to that.

I have focused on Australiaís bowling so far because it is uppermost in my mind after watching the tourists in the field at Leicester on Sunday. I was not terribly impressed. It may well have been the case that, having gained a first innings advantage of 360 or so, they felt their warm-up job was done, but the bowling lacked accuracy and the fielding was lethargic and sloppy. It was 40 minutes before I saw either batsman forced to play forward, and by the time Brett Lee tried out a yorker it was 247-0 (0.3 of a second later it was 247-1.)

Lee was fast and furious, but his first 6 overs went for 40 runs. Neither Gillespie nor Kasprowicz impressed, and MacGill was carted all over the place, 4 late wickets sparing his blushes. Certainly Lee was trying hard, judging from his pace, certainly he cared (or so his half-heard comment ďyou didnít pay to come here and read, mate,Ē suggested as he picked up a drink on the third man boundary. It may have been directed at yours truly, but I canít be sure. I was reading the paper at the time.)

I saw enough to suggest that there is scope there for an inexperienced England middle order to prosper. With the need to score runs early, as in one-day cricket, removed, England could see off the new ball, milk Warne for singles and attack whichever of Gillespie or Kasprowicz makes the starting XI. If the bowling is as short as it was at Leicester, there wonít even be the need to wait. All of Englandís batsmen are ruthless punishers of short bowling, so this is something Australia must watch.

The battle when Australia bat is likely to be just as tough. If Hoggard can get the ball to swing, Australia could be in trouble. If he does not, he could provide them with the outlet which would release the pressure imposed by the other bowlers. England did well enough against the likes of Smith, Gibbs and Kallis in South Africa (despite a mis-firing Harmison) to suggest that they have the fire power to disturb Australia, but the Aussiesí top three remains the best in the world, and even if they can shoot through them and dispose of Martyn and the less experienced Katich and Clarke they then come up against Gilchrist. Some success has been achieved against Gilchrist in the one-dayers by going around the wicket to him, but this is a tactic which has been tried before, notably in the 1999 World Cup. He worked through it then with the help of the late David Hookes and made a crucial 50 in the final.

All logic suggests that Australia are going to make runs in this series, even if England bowl to their best form. What matters is that England donít let them score so many that they are out of sight, and that their batsmen in turn make enough runs to put Australia under pressure. It should be a fast-scoring, high-scoring series, full of skill, drama and delight.

But I will end this preview by returning to the theme of Australiaís bowling, because that is where, as an Englishman, I feel the best hope lies. For while McGrath and Warne may be their old stingy selves, Lee may well leak runs in between wickets, and neither Gillespie (at present) nor Kasprowicz can impose fear the way their colleagues always have. This time around Australia also lack a back up seamer in the mode of Steve Waugh. Damien Martyn doesnít bowl much these days, and the left-arm spin of Michael Clarke didnít look up to much at Leicester. Simon Katich could be the unknown quantity, but part-time wrist-spin does not have a history of prospering in England.

So, on this tour more than any other, Australia will be relying on their ageing four-man attack to get wickets. They may well do it again, but in a tense, hectic series, their fitness and stamina may be tested as never before. I may tempt fate just once more by quoting the words of the great Neville Cardus, writing halfway through the 1930 series when an ageing England were level 1-1 with a youthful Australia: ďA young side is always getting better; an old side is day by day feeling more and more the seasonís daily round and task.Ē Fair enough. But if itís a prediction you want Iíll have to disappoint you. I still owe a pint to Matthew Fooks of Melbourne from the 2001 series. (Sorry Matt!)

So now this is it. No more talk. This is the Ashes. Made in Melbourne, housed at Lordís, once dusted by my friend Emma (lucky little urn). In the words of the bizarre adverts on Channel 4 over here, featuring a disinterred, and clearly barmy, WG Grace: ďBring it On!Ē

Editors Note: The final teams to take the field at Lordís are not expected to be finalised until around 30 minutes prior to the start of play.

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