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Role reversal makes England Ashes favourites

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.

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England expects: the return of Kevin Pietersen

A good mate of mine refers to England cricketer Kevin Pietersen as “Big Prinz”, a song from The Fall’s I Am Kurious Oranj album which features the classic Mark E Smith lyrical refrain “He is nuts-ah!” (KP, nuts, geddit?). It’s an appropriate nickname for reasons that go beyond the obvious nutty bar snack association with Pietersen’s initials.

From the moment Pietersen made his test match debut at Lord’s against Australia in 2005, he dominated the crease with his Botham-esque self-belief and imposing Flintoff-ian physical stature. While supporters could sense the pride he took in representing his adopted country, they also enjoyed the fact that there was something wholly un-English about his behaviour. He refused to be intimidated by the sense of occasion. He dished out the abuse when opponents dared to sledge him. He regally counter-attacked against the best bowlers in the world. And, most importantly, he made big match-winning innings when it counted. Almost instantly, he became the biggest figure in English cricket. That is, until someone at the ECB decided he needed taking down a peg or two.

Dressing room leaks have seen him labelled a loner and were responsible for the decision to take the England captaincy from him after just six turbulent months.

Pietersen spent the first half of 2009 looking, in the words of Avon Barksdale, like a man without a country. Separated from his teammates by his own talent and the circus that surrounded him, it was almost a relief when he succumbed to an achilles injury that gave him a much-needed break from the game.

Fit again, Pietersen has rejoined England as they embark on their tour of South Africa. Only a fool would believe he won’t walk straight back into the team when the one day series begins. But while many believe we will see characteristic bombast when he walks out to bat in South Africa, I wonder if Pietersen’s experiences over the last 18 months have left him emotionally scarred.

Look at it this way, Pietersen’s technique is idiosyncratic. Although he bats with intelligence and thought – witness his ability to use his crease and alter his stance when troubled by pace or spin – Pietersen’s unique shot-making and dominant batting style relies, at least to some degree, on boundless self-belief. Up until the point where he accepted the England captaincy, it’s a good bet he’d never questioned or compromised himself in any way as a cricketer. I believe being deposed as England captain left deeper scars on Pietersen’s psyche than anyone will ever realise. It was the first time he hadn’t made a success of a situation he believed to be under his control (remember, it was the quota system that stopped him from being a star for South Africa). It was the first time he had openly and embarrassingly failed.

For this, the ECB must take the blame. They fudged the captaincy issue in the autumn of 2006 when, with Michael Vaughan injured, they passed over Andrew Strauss, who had just guided England to a home series victory against Pakistan, and made Andrew Flintoff skipper for the ill-fated Ashes tour. They overburdened Flintoff, the team’s best player, and lost the series 5-0.

In the summer of 2008, when the captaincy issue rose again following the retirement of Michael Vaughan, the ECB failed to heed the lesson and handed the reins to KP. At that time, there were no other choices as Strauss was out of the one day side and going through a terrible run of form in the test arena. Had Strauss been appointed in late 2006, the England team would have enjoyed the stable leadership that led to this summer’s Ashes victory. Plus, their two most talented players, Flintoff and Pietersen, would have been left free to perform without the pressure of the captaincy.

The ECB must have known that Pietersen as captain would lead to problems. For his part, KP looked like a man out of his depth, immediately insisting on the appointment of a new coach (tellingly, Kent’s South African coach Graham Ford who he had worked with before) and demanding former skipper Michael Vaughan be included in the tour party for the 2009 West Indies tour. He wanted expertise around him because he was already unsure of his ability to lead. As things turned out, he would lose the captaincy before setting foot on the plane.

Did being ousted as captain hamper Pietersen’s performance when he returned to the ranks of England’s middle order in the spring of 2009? Although he made a few forties and fifties against the West Indies and in the Twenty20 World Cup, the sense of dominance and permanance at the crease were gone. The achilles injury did play a part, but so did the fact that he had been betrayed by his employers. Losing the captaincy through no fault of his own (the ECB later went on record backing up Pietersen’s assertion that he did not leak the story of his rift with coach Peter Moores to the media) robbed Pietersen of his instinctive and domineering South African style of play. Thanks to the ECB, he suddenly looked like a typical English batter, reactive and riddled with self-doubt.

If England are to be successful in South Africa, Andrew Strauss needs Kevin Pietersen to come back having used his six-month break from cricket to allow his psychological scars to heal. With Strauss and new coach Andy Flower flush from Ashes victory, Pietersen’s return to the England dressing room should be a smooth one. This is no longer a one or two man team. Flintoff is gone. The likes of Strauss, Graeme Swann and (on occasion) Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad have announced themselves on the international stage. The success or failure of the England team no longer depends on whether Pietersen flays the opposition bowling to every corner of the ground or gets out first ball to a good delivery. To help England be successul in South Africa, all Kevin Pietersen needs to do is rediscover how to be himself.

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