Thursday, August 22, 2013

A big call - Australia will regain the Ashes down under.

It is possibly hugely typical of a sports fan who has for so long followed English cricket and Scottish football that pessimism is not just endemic, it's automatic. Losing was always a national pastime and therefore it becomes highly confusing and contrarian when your team is winning.

Having lived through the years of Allan Border, David Boon, the Waugh brothers, Hayden, Gilchrist, Ponting, Warne, McGrath (we could go on indefinitely it feels) battering England almost at will, one should be rejoicing unceremoniously in winning three straight Ashes series and four out of the last five.

Whilst I felt confident about this Ashes series given the dominance that England exerted in Australia the last time around there has still been a huge amount of nail biting and gnashing of teeth leading to strange betting behaviour by way of emotional hedges. Winning it seems is expensive.

Even England's victory down under seemed surreal rather than glorious. The Gabba was split equally between horrendous pain and then a combination of utter disbelief and then relief as England rallied. Adelaide was fantastic before believing that normal service had been resumed at the WACA as Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris tore England to pieces.

The scenes that followed firstly at the MCG and then the SCG felt like out of body experiences with joy being some way down the list in terms of the emotions being experienced. Bemusement is probably the most appropriate adjective.

Now it may just be that someone hailing from the North East of Scotland is simply born with this kind of built in sporting pessimism in your DNA. For this reason there is some inward skepticism at the realisation that I have come to that Australia will win the next Ashes. Having said that, I will attempt to offer some kind of rationale for this belief.

At the time of writing, England sit 3-0 up but having endured a tough day at the office on the first day at the Oval, not assisting themselves it must be said with a strange team selection.

On the face of it, England have beaten Australia comfortably and are by most experts' opinion, far the better team. They have also beaten Australia whilst being far from at the their best and this is clearly not a vintage baggie green eleven.

Having said all that, Australia have in the main been competitive in England and on balance have probably won most of the sessions, England have more pertinently won the important ones however.

Through the debris of this tour following on from the debacle of the India tour there are some green shoots of recovery from this Australian side not least in a healthy looking seam attack.

England's batting is the main issue at hand with their attack still capable of ripping through teams when the mood takes them. Those failings look unlikely to be addressed before November and with Johnny Bairstow being discarded for the Oval there is clearly going to be either one rookie or hopelessly nervous batsmen at least in their batting order at the Gabba.

England may well have decided to restore Compton at opener and drop Root back down the order but neither instills confidence. Cook and Trott look shaky at best right now although Pietersen and Bell in particular have been solid. Matt Prior needs to put away his Wisden almanac and get cracking also.

A hostile first day crowd at the Gabba is not where you want to have an ounce of self doubt. England looked a far more solid batting unit in 2010 and yet they were on the ropes after two days last time around, they do not want to be in the same place again this time.

Given the professionalism of the modern game, if I were at the helm of the ACB I would have moved Perth to the second or even the first test such has been Australia's domination at the WACA. Having England one or maybe two down after two tests and there would be no way back. It obviously won't happen, tickets and hotel rooms have been sourced but it is food for thought for future series.

Another reason I feel Australia can win is there is just such a huge difference in the conditions and the psychology of playing down under. England mastered those conditions last time around but they had an unbelievable platform of runs from Cook, Trott and Pietersen to give their bowlers the license to win the games.

Bowlers win matches so says Geoffrey Boycott but it is batsmen that take the pressure off them to allow them to do so. The series in England has generally been a low scoring one and whilst England have passed 300 often they have not looked like amassing the 500s they did last time around. At the one low scoring match at the WACA, England were hammered.

India thrashed Australia in the tests that preceded this Ashes series. Now granted Autralia had lost Ponting and Hussey in the interim but it must be remembered that Australia at home did the same to India in 2011, it is not quite so long ago.

Now no one is suggesting that England travel as badly as Indian test batsmen do nowadays but it does show the strength that Australia can garner at home in front of their own crowds. Having watched England three times personally at the WACA you can see them almost visibly wilt in the conditions, it is the harshest of environments.

Sitting next to a colleague at the Gabba on the opening day last time, I remarked to him that England had to find a way by hook or by crook to get a result in Brisbane. If they could avoid going one down from the off they had a real chance in the series, especially given that Adelaide usually offers them some hope.

The problem is at the moment that without the assistance of weather, not one of these matches has remotely looked like being drawn as the totals have been generally sub standard. Whilst we have now have drop in pitches, no one has yet found a way to drop in Old Trafford weather.

If we therefore work on the assumption that their will be a victor at the Gabba, I could not honestly say I expect it to be England. If you also work on the assumption that England will lose in Perth then you could reach a point where you could reasonably expect Australia to win two of the first three tests.

The ex Manchester United player and huge cricket fan Gary Neville said that he has 'come to trust' this England team, believing that should one or two fail, another will step up and perform and so far he has been right. England's record in tests has generally been excellent - other than against Pakistan and South Africa - and they probably do deserve more credit and more belief on my part.

Having said that, whilst England have won the series, I couldn't honestly say that other than Lords and in the sessions where England have actually won a game that it has been entirely enjoyable. Exciting yes but you have never felt the ability to 'lord it' over the opposition in the way that Australia destroyed England 5-0 a few series back.

One other key point may be the captains. Both are superlative test batsmen but for me, it is Clarke who is the better leader in the field. He captains far more aggressively and seems more in tune with his bowlers. Cook is far more defensive, much to the chagrin of Shane Warne.

Cook also appears to simply trust his bowlers knowing their ability whereas Clarke looks more to work as a unit and to a plan, his leadership has been superb. Looking at the second part of that equation however, I would take Andy Flower over the newly boorish Darren Lehmann any day of the week.

I may be - and I hope I am - utterly wrong and England will come to Australia and pick up where they left off last time. Somehow however like Han Solo used to utter so poignantly 'I've got a bad feeling about this.....' - No Nonsense.