The Ashes: Who’ll go the distance?

Australia hope former Saltire George Bailey's one-day form can continue at Test level. Picture: AFP
Australia hope former Saltire George Bailey's one-day form can continue at Test level. Picture: AFP
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Shane Warne has been talking about England cricket a lot recently. They are dull, were lucky to win the Ashes during the recent summer, Alastair Cook is a boring captain and should be replaced by the daring maverick Kevin Pietersen and so on.

It might as well be made official that an Ashes series cannot start until Warney has fired the first verbal volleys. If Glenn McGrath then chirped up with his usual 5-0 prediction we would know we were only days away from the opening delivery being bowled.

Actually McGrath has restrained himself in recent years as Australia have taken a bit of a beating and England have clearly been the superior side. It has been a little one-sided and, as sport needs a contest to be enthralling, a little unexciting, and Michael Clarke’s sorry attempt at gamesmanship by announcing the England team in his press conference does not change that.

What would is for Australia to start well on Thursday in Brisbane and show they are a competitive outfit again.

There were signs during the past summer in England that they were embarking on the first steps of a recovery. Shane Watson smashed 176 in the final Test at the Oval, Ryan Harris was arguably the best bowler of the series and Brad Haddin returned to the spiky, combative wicketkeeper that he was when he first replaced Adam Gilchrist.

And it should not be forgotten that despite losing the series 3-0 they could have won two Tests. Back home they should be better and, despite Cricket Australia’s love affair with all things India and Twenty20, they have wisely ensured all their players have had two Sheffield Shield first-class matches to play in. It was an excellent decision, proving that the dollar may be considered almighty but it matters nothing compared to an Ashes series.

In contrast, England’s preparations have been hampered by bad weather. Hobart in Tasmania is a beautiful place and there is much to remind of the green and pleasant land in Blighty and last week that included the rain.

At least the final warm-up against the Invitational XI finished in a victory but all admit it would have been better for the England payers to have enjoyed a bit more of a workout.

The batters are in fine fettle, and now Joe Root has made a score the order looks settled. Michael Carberry, enjoying the form of his life, will resume his Test career opening with Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, Pietersen and Ian Bell fit like a pair of comfortable old slippers, which leaves Root back at six where he started so successfully. It is a decent line-up, particularly if Matt Prior is fit from a calf niggle. He, like Haddin, can hasten a game along for his team and demoralise opponents.

Jonny Bairstow is on standby if the calf is bad, which is a worry with glove more than bat, although his work in the second innings yesterday was much tidier and included one excellent catch off Graeme Swann. Three bowlers select themselves – James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Swann – which means Boyd Rankin, Steven Finn or Chris Tremlett makes up the side.

Some players’ real value is only noticed when they are absent and Tim Bresnan, the unsung shire horse of the side, is such a man. England will miss his discipline when the ball gets old and soft and Australia will know that if they can isolate Swann they have exposed England’s plan of only four bowlers. Finn has taken wickets but at more than three runs an over, Rankin has bowled a couple of decent spells but has frequently bowled too short, and Tremlett has taken only one wicket in two matches.

Whoever is selected, the England management will be hoping they can stick to the bowling plans David Saker, the bowling coach, provides.

If they do then England should prevail. Australia have lost seven of their last nine Test matches and even when close to victory, as at Trent Bridge last summer, contrive to lose. Winning is a habit and Australia currently do not have it. They are at least making better selection decisions. The gambles have gone: remember Ashton Agar? And common sense is back. George Bailey, a former Scottish Saltire, will debut at six and the hope is he brings his wonderful batting form in one-day cricket to the side, and James Faulkner may play as the all-rounder. He is a real talent with both bat and ball and is a bit of a throwback with his unabashed competitiveness. And then there is Mitchell Johnson. Who knows what the left armer will bring. Currently he is bowling quick, very quick, and a few England batters will not be relishing that but is he bowling it straight?

The rumours are he is and in the one-day matches in India recently he was superb. However, that means two selections have been made on one-day form. Normally such decisions would be considered wild gambles but ironically they are not. The selectors are simply picking the best players and trusting them. It could work, as the players feel trusted and secure. Johnson, Harris and Peter Siddle is a good seam attack and, if Watson’s hamstring improves enough for him to bowl, they will take wickets. The bowling was not their problem, it was the batting, and that is why England will feel confident. They know they will dismiss Australia and often quite cheaply. That is what won the Ashes in the summer and is likely to again now.