Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Bring on the Aussies

Here, ahead of tomorrow's series starting at Lord's, is my preview and prediction for the Ashes series:

The Australians have been, without doubt, the best side in the world for the last ten years. With the exception of a couple of series against India, in India, they have carried all before them, with a mixture of extravagant talent and ruthlessness. As such, for many years the Ashes have been well beyond England. Even when our side has been playing well, it has lacked the world-class performers that are needed to defeat such a strong eleven.

England's performances over the last year and a half or so have been excellent. The West Indies have been destroyed both home and away; New Zealand and South Africa were both defeated. There are few teams in the world that can genuinely compete with England on their day. This is partly a reflection of the great work Duncan Fletcher has done as coach, and the team spirit Michael Vaughan has been able to develop as captain. It is also partly a reflection of a slight lull in the competitiveness of international cricket. For none of the teams England have put to the sword so well are anywhere near the class of Australia - even the South Africans are some way short, and are still getting to grips with the integration of the coloured communities.

That said, England do now have some potentially world-class performers, although they will need to step up to the plate in this series to cement that status. Steve Harmison is a genuinely quick and threatening bowler. Andrew Strauss, if he keeps his discipline, has the potential to make some intimidating scores at the top of the order. Andrew Flintoff is probably the world's best allrounder at the moment - worth selecting for both batting and bowling. The team may also have its matchwinner in Kevin Pietersen, the sort of talent who can undoubtedly turn a game around (although he may also be able to lose games that could be salvaged).

This is a big start, and is helped by the fact that Australia are getting older. Matthew Hayden is no longer as threatening as he once was; Glenn McGrath, whilst still intimidating and a cut above the other pace bowlers around him, seems to have lost his strength. Shane Warne, too, no longer has the vicious spin on the ball - although you write a talent like him off at your peril. That said, their batting line-up is fearsome, and they possess their own match-changing talent in the form of Adam Gilchrist. The team may be growing old together, but they haven't started falling off just yet.

I just don't see England quite having the firepower necessary to win. Our middle order will either post huge scores or nothing at all; given that against a team like Australia the chances are we will have the top order knocked over cheaply once or twice in the series, this could prove to be a severe weakness and place one or two games beyond us in next to no time. On the other hand, it will also turn one or two games around. Thus we may scratch some games that we have absolutely no right to do.

Our other big drawback is that the pitches we have for the series do not help us the most. Why are we not playing at Headingley? Why are we not playing at the Riverside? These are the two pitches which will help our bowlers most, and the Australians the least. We aren't giving ourselves the best chance to win - the Australians have our number at Lord's, and we rarely beat them at Trent Bridge, either (although we may scrape a draw there). In theory, we could win at Old Trafford, although I somewhat suspect we will be defeated there, too. Edgbaston (that hallowed ground!) and The Oval provide the greatest opportunities for a victory. Weather permitting, the series should finish up 3-2. However, with the British weather being ever unpredictable, 3-1 or 2-1 is more likely.