Ashes preview: England given targets to aim at

Mitchell Johnson will lead the Australian attack. Picture: Getty
Mitchell Johnson will lead the Australian attack. Picture: Getty
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APPARENTLY there has been a war of words waged between the English and Australian cricket teams since the latter’s arrival two weeks ago.

The truth is it has all been a bit “he said, she said” and the media, voracious for copy to fill airtime and column inches, have talked it up into something supposedly newsworthy.

James Anderson. Picture: Getty

James Anderson. Picture: Getty

So James Anderson, below right, hoped the Ashes series would be played hard but in the same excellent spirit of the recent contest with New Zealand and Brad Haddin responded with a “snarling” no chance and “we won the world cup”.

Goodness me. Pretty tame stuff and in truth it should not be anything more. Sledging is so much better when it is witty and amusing and the Australian team are still mourning the tragic death of their team-mate, Philip Hughes, and England have the recent words of their new managing director, Andrew Strauss, to consider when speaking at a launch for a charity match for Help for Heroes that cricket should not be confused with war and the real tragedies that brings.

And as ever the team that wins will be the one that plays best on the pitch, not talks the most or loudest.

So could England compete and regain the Ashes? It will be difficult. There should be no delusions about that as on paper Australia look a superior side, albeit one not without weaknesses. Some of these have been exposed in the past week in the matches against Essex and Kent.

Two young English blades have flogged centuries against the much vaunted Australian attack. First Daniel Bell Drummond responded to the pace of Mitchell Johnson with a barrage on the leg spin of Fawad Ahmed and then both Tom Westley and Ravi Bopara scored centuries for Essex, this time the off spin of Nathan Lyon receiving a calculated assault.

These players have done to them what they usually do to England Down Under. The state sides are merciless in attacking any perceived weakness in the visitors as they try to force an advantage for their national team. In ruthlessly attacking the two spinners, these counties have exposed vulnerability. Lyon is an efficient, workmanlike off spinner and his primary role in the side is to bowl a lot of overs from one end, giving his captain, Michael Clarke, control and allowing the more threatening seamers to rotate from the other. It was Graeme Swann’s job for England and on the ill-fated last tour all Australians hammered him from the first day. It was a targeted assault and mightily effective as he retired halfway through.

England need to do the same to Ahmed and Lyon so these two counties have helped enormously.

Where England should be nervous is the form of Johnson. This is his last tour to England and his previous one in 2009 was a horror show. He is in good rhythm, fit and strong and by all accounts bowling as quickly as he ever has. Australia need him. The others are all excellent cricketers but have issues.

Mitchell Starc is out of sorts and bowled a wide in the week that hit second slip. Steve Harmison did something similar in 2006-7 with the first ball of the first Test in Brisbane and never recovered. Starc’s lost radar was not in a Test match but must be worrying nonetheless.

For Ryan Harris, though, the tour and career is over. Scans during the match against Essex have forced him from the field he has adorned so well for Australia in 27 Test matches. His loss is a blow for the tourists, especially for Lord’s where his match figures in 2013 were 7-103.

That leaves Josh Hazlewood, Peter Siddle and Harris’s replacement, Pat Cummins. The former is quick but inexperienced with only five Test matches while the latter is hugely experienced but has lost a yard of pace over the past 12 months. So while there is much talk about the Australian seam attack it is very dependent on Johnson being the lethal menace he was in 2013-14 and Starc finding some form.

The two all-rounders, Mitchell Marsh and Shane Watson, have been engaged in a personal duel for the final spot. Marsh has batted superbly but been expensive with the ball while Watson, bowling wicket to wicket with a well-set field of catchers on the drive, gives Clarke control with the older ball. That could be crucial if the assault on Lyon continues to be successful.

The batting just looks superb though. David Warner and Chris Rogers are a complementary opening pair, a tormenting mix of flashing blade and begrudging accumulation. If Rogers is not picked then the talented Shaun Marsh, elder brother of Mitchell, opens. Then the form batsman in the world is Steve Smith and for all the talk about his possible issues against the swinging ball, he has looked a man apart in cricket for the past 12 months. Clarke comes in at four and then it is Adam Voges, Marsh the younger or Watson and then Haddin, the wicketkeeper at seven. It is a formidable line-up not weakened greatly by selectorial whim.

England need to get early wickets and get to Haddin early. He rescued Australia in 
2013-14 in every first innings but he is now 37 and his recent form is poor. The three seamers, Anderson, Stuart Broad and newcomer Mark Wood, have a hard summer ahead. Win or lose they will have earned a break in the autumn.

Whatever the outcome England must follow the example of the county lads that have taken it to the visitors. Be bold and attack. Alastair Cook needs his men to stiffen every sinew, for the two Yorkshiremen, Adam Lyth and Gary Ballance to help him blunt the Australian seamers and for the lower order to battle against the thunderbolts of Johnson. Do all that and a competitive series is possible.There are many concerns, Lyth, Ballance and the form of Ian Bell especially but there is much to hope. Ben Stokes, in a blistering performance at Lord’s against New Zealand, became the talisman for England, the rest just need to support his spirit. The selectors will know a lot more about this group in two months’ time, as well the recently re-engaged public. Ashes series tend to do that.