What will most affect an Ashes series that could be quite open

2010-09-25 00:00

ENGLAND cannot have taken long to choose their Ashes touring party. Having formed a stable leadership group in Geoff Miller, Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower (or “the father, son and holy ghost”, as they are known locally) the Poms have been able to build a solid and well balanced team that is widely fancied to retain the hotly contested urn.

Apparently the only outstanding issues concerned the choice of second spinner and fifth speedster, neither of whom is likely to play. Barring injury, England could name their side for Brisbane forthwith. Australia should be so lucky.

That the top order includes four men born in Africa and a perky Irishman will not stop supporters backing the English. Thousands of enthusiasts will spend the festive season Down Under and they will be warmly welcomed, notwithstanding their fondness for singing teasing chats such as “God save YOUR gracious Queen”, and “we can get three of your dollars for one of our pounds”. Not that the latter any longer applies.

Happily the bitterness of the past has faded. Australians no longer measure themselves solely by performances against the former ruler. English cricket has changed. For a hundred years the team were captained by the sort of chap calculated to upset the Australians. Now Yorkshire field four bowlers of Asian extraction. Barriers are breaking down. Eventually people will realise that there is nothing to fear and that the loudmouths have been using them all along.

England will start as favourites but it’s going to be close. Much will depend on the bowling. England have rarely won a series Down Under without the assistance of a topclass fast bowler. Harold Larwood, S.F. Barnes, Frank Tyson and John Snow are remembered precisely because they achieved the almost unimaginable — beating the Aussies at their own game on their own patch.

Strauss has no such destroyer at his disposal. Instead he has a handy bunch of swingers and the best spinner running around. In English conditions and with Duke balls, the attack works well. Dukes have larger seams and are more willing to swing than their antipodean counterparts. In no other sport can balls and pitches matter as much. Pundits prod them and poke them much as a mother does a baby.

Australia’s flingers rely less on curl and seam and more on cut and bounce. Outclassed in other areas, Doug Bollinger, Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus can match their counterparts in these skills. England’s best hope of securing an advantage lies with their spinner. How the wheel turns! Twenty years ago off-spin was on its deathbed. Its life was prolonged by the discovery of the doosra. As the Bard put it, “the art of our necessities is strange and can make vile things precious”. Offies without a doosra were doomed, or so it seemed.

But the view was unduly pessimistic. Helped by the rash of left-handed batsman (most of them blessed with stronger right hands as the batting revolution gathers momentum) and bowlers, off-spinners came back into wickets and vogue. Arguably it has been the most startling comeback since David Genaro appeared at the reading of his own will. Able to turn the ball away from the bat and to use the rough produced by lefty speeders, they have been licking their lips. And in Graeme Swann, England have the pick of the bunch.

Apart from the attacks, the result will depend in no small degree upon the outcome of two conflicts. Strauss has been pitted against Ricky Ponting, a great batsman desperate not to lose the Ashes for a third time. Ponting’s captaincy has not been as consistent as his batting. He was at his best in his early years, before the old guard started to weigh him down. Recently, though, he has relished the opportunity to put his imprint upon a respectful younger brigade. As his captaincy revives, though, his batting falls away. Perhaps he can take inspiration from Sachin Tendulkar. Winter has not yet claimed him. If so he can prevail. Strauss is a sticker, though, and the Tasmanian will need to be at his sharpest.

The other crucial clash is between the two most unpredictable but potent players on display. Kevin Pietersen still holds the key for his team. If he dominates then his colleagues will be emboldened. To conquer the world, though, a man must first conquer himself. Strauss will not be walking under any ladders.

Mitchell Johnson is Australia’s most influential player, but it works both ways. He can be wonderful and woeful. Clearly he lacks the command of his game expected from the elite. Alas he takes longer to warm up than a bear emerging from hibernation. Ponting will not be kicking any cats.

About the only things that can safely be said about the series is that the grounds will be ready and all 22 players will try their hardest. The rest can no longer be taken for granted.

• Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in Pietermaritzburg and Australia, and will be covering the Ashes for the Sydney Morning Herald .

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