I have many pet theories about sport, all of which are revolutionary, incredibly well-reasoned and, of course, absolutely correct. One of them is on the relative importance of sporting events, which could be summarised as i=lu, where i=interest, l=length of time between occurrences and u=the unusualness of the event. Therefore in my opinion the most interesting sporting events are a Lions tour, the Olympic Games and the Ryder Cup. Incidentally if you wish to hear more staggeringly perceptive theories on sport, come and find me somewhere between pint 4 and pint 5.
The reason for putting this theory forward is that, ordinarily an Ashes series is one of the great sporting events, but this summer’s will be the third in two years, meaning for me the special-ness of the occasion has been slightly devalued. Of course, another reason why there might be less excitement ahead of this particular series is that England, in all probability, will be on the wrong end of a drubbing.
It is often forgotten amid the general narrative of the 2013-14 series that England’s bowling, particularly at the start of the innings, was pretty good. It was their inability to polish off the Australian tail that made a huge difference, especially when compared with the clinical way the Aussies disposed of England’s tail. While there was admittedly a huge gulf in quality between the sides, the difference could, at its most simplistic, be boiled down to Brad Haddin’s batting with the tail, and Mitchell Johnson’s brutal bowling.
The bad news for England is that since that series, which really was a seminal moment for Australian cricket, the Aussies have gone from strength to strength, winning in South Africa, brushing aside India, before battering a West Indies team that drew with England. Their only blemish was, like every other non-Asian team, an inability to deal with Pakistan’s spinners in the UAE.
So, can England actually win? Let’s look at the positives first of all. Alastair Cook is back on form after a difficult 2014. Cook’s great strength is his implacable nature, which, at his best, allows him to face each delivery on its merits, unaffected by what has happened before. Australia’s fast bowlers will test his concentration to the limit, putting the ball relentlessly on or around off stump, and allowing no easy runs off his legs. Cook’s opening partner, Adam Lyth, has looked the most comfortable of all the opening batsmen tried since the retirement of Andrew Strauss (with the possible exception of the unlucky Michael Carberry), and showed a Bell-esque ability to look in permanently good nick despite not necessarily scoring many runs. He was, however, troubled by Trent Boult against New Zealand, so expect the Mitchells, Starc and Johnson, to target him with the swinging ball.
Ben Stokes finally realised his huge potential with a match-winning performance against New Zealand at Lord’s, prompting the inevitable Andrew Flintoff comparisons. Such comparisons, in my opinion, are not too wide of the mark. Flintoff’s final test figures are pretty mediocre for a supposedly top-class all-rounder (batting average 31.77, bowling average 32.78), but they don’t take into account the number of crucial, match-altering interventions he made, particularly towards the end of his career. Stokes can have a similar impact, and, while his bowling is not up to Test standard yet, he is still capable of the odd electric spell. It will be important for England fans to be patient with him – he will have some stinkers, but he is improving, and could well win a match on his own. The Aussies certainly respect him.
In Joe Root and Jos Buttler, England have two outstanding young batsmen who are in excellent form. Since being dropped at the end of the last Ashes tour, Root has batted like a dream, in all forms of the game, seemingly able to adapt his style to the requirements of the situation. Buttler has been only marginally less prolific, partly because he usually has to marshal the tail or rebuild after a mid-innings collapse. If both of them bat anywhere near as well as they have over the last 12 months, maybe England’s cause isn’t lost.
Then again, let us consider Australia’s bowling before we get too carried away. The Mitchells are the headline acts here, both Starc and Johnson capable of bowling ludicrously fast, while swinging it both ways. The psychological hold that Johnson has over the England batsmen after the last series should not be underestimated either. He had a horrible series here in 2009, but that was before modifications to his bowling action and, more crucially, his mental strength turned him into the fearsome bowler he is now. England’s only hope is for slow pitches, fast outfields and no cloud cover, otherwise I fear he will have a similar impact to 2013-14.
It is a real shame for the purist that Ryan Harris has had to retire before the series has even started – never has so much guile and subtlety been contained in so bulky a body. His command of the moving ball has been equalled in recent times only by Dale Steyn, James Anderson and Praveen Kumar. His absence weakens the Aussie attack only slightly, given that Josh Hazlewood, his likely replacement, is a mini-McGrath – tall, miserly and with awkward bounce. The banana-loving Peter Siddle and the explosive Pat Cummins wait in reserve.
As for Australia’s batting, it really sticks in the craw that both Steve Smith and David Warner are making successful Test careers. Smith hops around at the crease like a kangaroo with a bladder infection, but somehow his idiosyncratic technique works for him, while every time Warner throws a hopeful bat at a ball angled across him, it must make Stuart Law (1 Test cap) even more annoyed he wasn’t born 15 years later. Yet there are potential weaknesses here for England to exploit. Disciplined bowling will remove Warner sooner rather than later; Michael Clarke is still troubled by his back injury; Adam Voges and Chris Rogers, while experienced in English conditions, are still relatively untried at this level; and Shane Watson should be encouraged to take quick singles at every opportunity.
Unfortunately, I am struggling to see how England are going to take 20 wickets regularly. Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, while still both fine bowlers, have been on the slide for a couple of years now, and there is not much in the way of back-up. Mark Wood is a real find, surprisingly quick and not dissimilar to Simon Jones in his knack of taking wickets from nowhere. He is also, sadly, as injury-prone as Jones was. Steven Finn was impressive against New Zealand in the ODIs, but Test cricket is a different discipline entirely, and if he plays I’m sure Australia will go after him.
Moeen Ali looks likely to take the spinner’s role for the first Test, a strange state of affairs where a county back-up is an international first-choice. He bowled reasonably well last year, and the basics are there – he turns it a lot, gets some decent drift and can vary his pace. He just needs the confidence of his captain, and to be told not to try too hard. Adil Rashid is full of confidence after the ODIs, and has a dream of a googly, but is too inconsistent, although his ability to wheedle out tail-enders could be crucial, and I expect he will play some part later in the series.
Other reasons to be fearful? Both Gary Ballance and Ian Bell are in poor form, although as ever Bell has looked utterly untroubled right up until the moment he gets out. Jonny Bairstow, who has been scoring runs for fun in all conditions for Yorkshire, will be waiting in case a change is needed. England’s likely line-up also contains 7 left-handers, which will be ideal for Nathan Lyon, spinning the ball away.
During the two warm-up matches, against Kent and Essex, we saw some very aggressive batting that rattled the Aussies to some extent. Daniel Bell-Drummond, Tom Westley and Ravi Bopara all scored quick centuries, especially targeting the supposedly weaker bowlers (and giving Lyon some fearful tap in the process), an approach that ties in with how England played in the recent series against New Zealand. There is a certain logic in this tactic – against such good bowlers you will get a jaffa at some point, so you may as well die trying. However, I think such an attitude would be too defeatist – England’s batsmen will have to trust their ability and not force themselves to play a way that is alien to them.
Despite my fervent patriotism and the fact that I have tickets to the Lords Test, I can’t see England winning the series. They might win one match thanks to an outstanding individual performance (à la DeFreitas in ’94 or Butcher in ’01), but otherwise, given the superiority of the Aussie pace attack, and the settled nature of their batting line-up, I am going to predict (weather-permitting) a 4-1 Australian victory.