Whisper it quietly but, the way this Ashes series seems to be developing, Andrew Strauss’ England team look like strong favourites to record a series win in Australia for the first time in 24 years.
Predicting success in Australia is one of the most notoriously optimistic traits an England cricket fan can have. The hype preceding tour after tour down under has promised much only for England to find themselves overmatched once the action commences on the field.
But there’s something different about this particular Ashes tour. Defeat in India reinforced the belief that Australia, now slumped to a previously unfathomable fifth place in the world rankings, were more vulnerable than they had been in England in 2009.
Then came the first test in Brisbane and, aside from the brilliant second innings batting of Strauss, Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott, an odd, disquieting pattern began to emerge.
Previous England tours of Australia have been characterised by the tourist’s leftfield selections, the fielding of half-fit players and established players clinging for dear life to their international careers.
In 2010, the boot is on the other foot. This time Australia are in turmoil and Strauss’ professional, well-drilled, efficient England team are positioned to reap the rewards.
England walked into Brisbane well prepared. They had three tour matches under their belt. They even had the foresight to send their first choice bowling unit up to Brisbane early when they realized the Hobart pitch bore no resemblance to the strip they would play on at the Gabba.
All was not well with the hosts. The media questioned whether Michael Hussey should be in the team at all. In typical fashion, Mr Cricket responded with a timely – if slightly fortunate – hundred.
Vice-captain Michael Clarke’s fitness was an issue but they played him anyway. His reward? Getting peppered by England’s quick men for 45 minutes before eventually being dismissed.
Things were just as bad for the Aussie bowlers. Peter Siddle’s excellent six-wicket haul on his birthday masked the overall ineffectiveness of Ricky Ponting’s attack in England’s first innings. Second time around, they had no answer to the patient batting of England’s top order.
With Strauss effectively limiting himself to three attacking shots (the cut, the drive and the leg-side nurdle) and Cook and Trott refusing to waft their bats outside off stump, it was hard to see how Australia would take a wicket. As we now know, they only managed one in 170 overs.
The ongoing struggles of Ponting’s bowlers are another example of how English and Australian fortunes have reversed. In the past, bringing in an inexperienced player like spinner Xavier Doherty (never played in a test match, first class bowling average of 48) would be a typically straw-clutching English move.
Not any more. It is England who boast with the settled and experienced attack while the Aussies futile search for the next Shane Warne (or indeed the next Stuart MacGill) ambles on.
Then there’s Mitchell Johnson, axed one game into the series after spraying the ball around like a lefty Steve Harmison. Johnson was disappointing enough in England in 2009 but 18 months on he seems to have regressed even further, shorn of confidence and accuracy.
Dropping a player one game into a series is the least Australian move I can think of. Jeez, in 2005, they even carried Jason Gillespie for most of the series.
If Ashes history tells us anything, it’s that panic moves and desperation selections rarely work. England’s success in 2005 was built on stability. Their ignominious failure in 2006 (and many Ashes tours before that) was founded on incoherent team selection and poor captaincy.
Talking of which, the first test in Brisbane highlighted again how anemic Ricky Ponting is as a leader. Captaincy certainly came a lot easier to him when he could throw the ball to Warne, Glenn McGrath or Brett Lee and watch opponents crumble under the onslaught.
Ponting’s squarely unimaginative field placings on the final day in Brisbane were those of a man happy to display the most un-Australian quality of all: he was happy to settle for a draw – even though three quick wickets would have put his team on top against opponents notorious for batting collapses.
Not only did Ponting seem bereft of ideas, even worse, he seemed to have no inclination to attack. Previous Australian sides could force a win from almost any position – remember Adelaide in 2006?
Now, with a toothless and wayward attack at his disposal, he was happy with one slip and no bat-pad men in close. The shoulders of the Aussie fielders slumped when catches were put down. When has that ever happened before?
So Australia are old England, but are England able to be old Australia? The foundations are in place. A settled side, good preparation and disciplined leadership from Andys Flower and Strauss.
Can they dominate the opposition in this Ashes series? Pundits, pointing to Adelaide’s reputation as a batsman’s paradise, believe England will struggle to take 20 wickets there.
That’s a fair argument but the pitch isn’t the only variable in play. What about scoreboard pressure? If England bat first and grind the Aussie bowlers into the dust a la Brisbane, how will Ponting, Clarke and co go about their business facing a 500-run deficit?
Going into the second test, England have the momentum, but that counts for nothing when they take the field at Adelaide.
If the roles of England and Australia have truly been reversed, Strauss’ men must demonstrate the characteristically Australian professionalism, ruthless efficiency and unfailing belief in themselves if they are to take control of this Ashes series.