By Manish Pandey.
One of the most intense rivalries in cricket will restart in under 24 hours time, with England looking to exact revenge for the 5-0 drubbing they suffered last time out. Australia meanwhile, as world champions will look to continue its aggression to win its first series in England since 2001.
Both teams will be motivated, both teams will be ready. All the pre-series talk and drama will end at the flip of the coin and the real business of cricket shall begin.
Australia are not as invincible as many think. Recent batting performances have not been up to scratch, with the exception of Steve Smith. Warner, Clarke and Smith are the ones who pose most trouble to England yet all have weak spots. Warner tends to play extremely attacking cricket which will give England opportunities. Clarke is Australia’s best batsman, but his fitness issues coupled with his weakness against Stuart Broad suggest he may not be the player he once was. Smith is rated as the best in test cricket at the moment, but he has never batted at 3 in English conditions, and therefore could be susceptible against the moving ball early on.
All 3 are capable of hurtful scores to England- Warner scores extremely quickly and can put the pressure back on the bowlers. Smith loves his hundreds and Clarke averages 50 making him the prized wicket.
Australia’s weakness as a batting unit was visible in the last Ashes, where they were often 5 wickets down with not many runs on the board, with Brad Haddin often riding to the rescue with a superb rearguard action. He however, has been out of form, with only one score of 50 since.
England will have to be wary of Adam Voges, who is used to English conditions through country cricket and has the experience to handle the pressures of any situation.
The bowling department is the strong suit for Australia, and will be the area which decides whether they win or lose. The star of the last Ashes, Mitchell Johnson will once again hold the key, as it is his pace which the English fear so much. Yet he had an ordinary world cup and IPL, seemingly down on his regular pace which will make the battle between him and England’s batsmen so interesting.
Australia will be without Ryan Harris, who in English conditions was the most dangerous bowler that England could face. In his place, it is expected Josh Hazelwood will play, with his ability to swing and hold an accurate line and length have prompted comparisons with Glenn McGrath.
Mitchell Starc has been the star of world cricket in recent months due to his successes with the white ball. Whether he can replicate that with the red ball in England remains to be seen, but he certainly has the attributes to be the star of this series. The ability to swing the ball at 90mph from a left arm angle gives him a huge advantage over many other bowlers, including Johnson. It will be Starc’s performance both individually and in tandem with Johnson which holds the key if Australia are to succeed.
The spin of Nathan Lyon has gone under the radar in amongst the talk of fast bowling, but the way the English batsmen play him will be particularly key. They struggled against the spin of Mark Craig at Headingley against New Zealand because they were hesitant. England must attack Lyon, using the crease to go on the backfoot, or skipping down to hit him straight down the ground. Lyon does not have a mystery ball or wrong-un, England must attack him like Australia attacked Graeme Swann.
Lyon had success against India because he was bowling an inbetween length which caused the Indian batsmen to be unsure on how to play him. With Cook, Lyth, Ballance, Stokes and Moeen Ali being the 5 left handed batsmen Lyon will spin the ball away from, it is imperative for the right handed Bell, Root and Buttler to attack Lyon and unsettle him. Against New Zealand in the 2nd test, the right handers struggled against the off-spin turning into them because they were stuck on the crease.
England generally, will need to build on the attacking cricket they played on instinct against New Zealand, if they are to beat Australia. Australia will be a picture of non-stop aggression, constantly sledging and will be attacking as much as they can be. In order to do that from a batting perspective, they will need to rejig the batting order. Cook, Lyth and Ballance are all left handers. England should aim to create a left/right hand combination as much as possible, moving Bell to 3, Ballance to 4 and keeping Root at 5. A top 6 of Cook, Lyth, Bell, Ballance, Root and Stokes combines attacking stroke play with rigid defence and determination.
Any hundreds you get against this Australian attack will not be pretty. It will have to be ugly and gutsy because Australia have the best bowlers in the world. England will not have faced pace like Johnson or Starc which is a problem but not a problem without a solution. They will have to be watchful, look to leave the ball, put away the hook shot and find new scoring shots. With the pace of Starc and Johnson, they should look to deflect the ball, finding gaps for singles and boundaries.
Alastair Cook is England’s key man. He is now back in form with the bat, but his captaincy still leaves lots to be desired. How attacking will he be? Will he trust Adil Rashid? England need a frontline spinner who can be an X-Factor. Rashid has variety and can bowl out the tail which has been a big problem for England.
As Geoffrey Boycott pointed out, ‘the biggest problem with playing Rashid is Cook does not have confidence in him. It is not Rashid himself. It is Cook, the leader. He did not play him in the West Indies. He should have played all three Tests and England would have won them all if he had played. But if the captain does not have confidence in any player then it is a problem.’
‘Even if you pick him the captain is not keen to bowl him. If Rashid bowls a poor spell and Cook panics, takes him off and does not bring him back for three hours then the kid’s confidence will go down. At Yorkshire they take him off and bring him back in 20 minutes and he gets wickets because the captain, coach and players have confidence in him. The problem for England is the leader.’
Cook will be relying on his trio of seamers in Anderson, Broad and Mark Wood. They must prepare pitches like against New Zealand which brought these seamers into play. Even if those pitches might bring the Australian bowlers into play, they have to back their own batsmen to better than the Australian batsmen. Jimmy Anderson has over 400 wickets with a superb average in England, the Australians will be fearing him as much as the English will be fearing Starc and Johnson.
The three England young guns of Root, Stokes and Buttler will have key roles. Root is the glue of England’s lineup and averages over 90 in the past year, his ability to score in all situations will be invaluable. He has to get through the first 30mins where he is most vulnerable, particularly on off stump. Stokes will have a key role with bat and ball, with his aggressive style being more Australian like than English. Yet he must keep his temper under control. The sledging he lost his head at against Marlon Samuels will be nothing compared to Haddin, Clarke and Johnson constantly chirping away. If he can focus his energies on cricket, he can be the difference between the two sides.
Jos Buttler will be under huge pressure. Not particularly with the bat, as his natural abilities to score are unquestioned. But as wicketkeeper, particularly to the spinner(s), his glove work still leaves lots of room for improvement. He cannot afford to miss chances as this Australian team will be ruthless enough to capitalise.
Cook vs Clarke – the captaincy will decide much, the captain which provides the most attacking set up for his bowlers will be the victorious one.
Root vs Johnson/Starc – Root struggled last time out in Australia, but he has played much cricket since then and averages 90, his performance against these two speedsters will decide much.
Smith vs Anderson – Anderson is England’s best, Smith is World No1 – can he handle the early swing of Anderson? If he can get through that, he will line up the big scores.
Clarke vs Broad– Broad has dismissed Clarke numerous times, particularly with the short ball, can Broad find his form one last time vs Clarke?
Ben Stokes- a matchwinner if he keeps his head calm.
Josh Hazelwood- has the skills to succeed, can he find the consistency?
Adil Rashid- can he show enough to earn his captain’s trust? Has the variety.
Adam Voges- experienced in cricket but not in international test matches. Has played for years in England, his abilities cannot be underestimated.
Ultimately, it will be about the combination of technique, mental toughness and character.
Prediction: Series draw at 2-2.