Luke Irelan-Hill previews an ashes series that is set to be a tactical battle and out-and-out warfare.
Current holders: England
First Test: Thursday 21st November – Monday 25th November, Brisbane.
Second Test: Thursday 5th December – Monday 9th December, Adelaide.
Third Test: Friday 13th December – Tuesday 17th December, Perth
Fourth Test: Wednesday 25th December – Sunday 29th December, Melbourne
Fifth Test: Thursday 2nd January – Monday 6th January, Sydney.
The second leg of an Ashes double-header starts in Australia late on Wednesday evening as England look to claim their fourth successive Ashes triumph. For those thinking the Ashes battle has only just finished, they would be quite right, however for the first time in the contests 131 year history, the two cricketing greats take battle for the second time in the same year.
With the dominant home success on home soil still fresh in the memory, this series promises to have more of the same, except that one usual ingredient is missing; the eternal optimism of an Australian nation. England can justifiably approach this trip Down Under with more confidence than they have since the 1970s, when World Series cricket tore the heart out of the Australians.
England are still boasting the core of a team that are unbeaten in Tests this year and that has very happy memories of their last trip in 2010-11, when they hammered Australia 3-1 to win the Ashes away from home for the first time in 24 years.
However, despite losing seven of their last nine Tests and drawing the other two, the Australian camp remains surprisingly upbeat ahead of the first Test. Australia will argue that the series in England was much closer than the score line suggested, their batting line-up is more settled than it has been for a while and if their quick bowlers can fire on the hard wickets, they feel they can really trouble England.
England’s top order
There can be no denying that England’s top order batsman performed well below par throughout the summer. In Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott, they possess two of the most reliable and prolific runscorers in Test cricket, but both endured disappointing home Ashes campaigns, but you feel two poor series is out of the question.
Michael Carberry, starting only his second Test match, will be signalled out by Australia as England’s weak link at the top of the order. However he has played a lot of domestic cricket and certainly has the technique and temperament to succeed this winter.
Negotiating the new ball will be crucial because England cannot afford as many poor starts as they did at home. Plus, if Kevin Pieterson, at four, gets in against the old ball, he scores so quickly he can change the momentum of a game, and with it, the whole series.
Leaders of the attack.
Ryan Harris and James Anderson are the best bowlers on each side, and how they perform is crucial as to whether either side will manage to take 20 wickets in each Test.
Anderson is crucial to the England attack, even more so because they do not know 100 per cent who their third seamer will be. He is, in effect, three bowlers in one, in that he takes wickets with the new ball, reverse-swings the old ball and is a master against left-handers.
Although widely recognised as one of the best swing bowlers of his generation, he has only just peaked at the age of 31. He showed signs over the summer of time catching up with him, and if he breaks down over the winter, England will struggle without him.
Anderson took 24 wickets over the summer series, nine more than the best Australia bowler, which highlights the gulf in class. The only Australian bowler that you can imagine taking that number of wickets is Ryan Harris, but he needs to be carefully managed and is therefore unlikely to play all five Test matches.
Cook vs Clarke – The tactical battle
In Cook and Clarke we have two very similar players, they both make run-scoring look easy and they both love doing it. However as captains we saw two very different styles in action over the summer. While Cook tends to favour caution over adventure, which suits the way England play, they have plans and they stick to them as long as they can.
Captain Cook has picked up a lot of critics over the past few months on the back of the Ashes win, mainly calling for him to be more attacking. However he is well respected by his fellow players and he has the confidence of having captained an Ashes-winning side barely two months ago. He will be unfazed by the critics.
Clarke, on the other hand, has been widely praised for his leadership, whether it is attacking declarations or funky field settings. While this may be enjoyable to watch and can turn day 5 into more of a one-day game, he has not got the results this year with Australia currently without a Test match win.
There will be a few individual battles going on over the next three months, but ultimately when you line the two sides up side-by –side England are far the better team. The English top six have a vast amount of Test and Ashes experience, and in James Anderson and Graham Swann they arguable have the best fast bowler and spinner in the world.
But Australia will be determined to set the record straight and not let England win a fourth successive Ashes series. If they can keep Ryan Harris fit and Mitchell Johnson finds some consistency they can be dangerous on typical hard Australian wickets. The key however will be at least one player per innings making a big score because they cannot continue to rely and expect Michael Clarke to make massive runs every time.