Peter Robinson

Let the games begin

2005-07-20 14:30

Sixteen years and eight series have passed since England last held the Ashes.

To have browsed through English newspapers a month ago, say, or listened to English commentators and you might have thought that cricket's oldest, most prized and most fiercely contested trophy was there for England's taking.

With the Ashes Tests about to start at Lord's on Thursday, however, the picture has changed.

Australia might have taken a while to hit their stride, but by the end of what seemed an endless series of one-day games, they looked to be moving comfortably.

They are, after all, a veteran team, but age and experience have taught them to be economical with their energy, to save their best for when it matters most.

By and large, most neutral observers fancy Australia to retain the Ashes by a handy margin.

Best Test and one-day team

They have been the best Test and one-day team in the world for the best part of 10 years now, a pre-eminence born as much out of self-belief as from skill and application.

Simply put, Australia will have travelled to England confident of winning.

They may have lost to Bangladesh in an ultimately unimportant one-day game, but they will have put this behind them as no more than a wake-up call.

Better to have been embarrassed when it didn't matter than to make fools of themselves when it counted.

Australian, we can expect, will maintain their usual standards.

Glenn McGrath seems to have slipped back into his groove, Brett Lee has been almost bursting out of his boots to get at England and Shane Warne is back in the squad for the Test matches.

As ever, there appear to be no obvious weaknesses in the Australian batting which goes down to number seven.

And what a number seven. Adam Gilchrist, along with Ricky Ponting, found form in the last couple of one-dayers to send out ominous warning signals to England.

Australia will play well in this Ashes series. The question is: Can England match them?

England, it has to be allowed, have played excellent cricket through the past 18 months, winning away in both the West Indies and South Africa.

An Ashes series, though, is a step up. Those who have played in Ashes Tests previously know what it's like to be dominated by Australia.

Those who haven't might not realise what's coming.

The Pietersen factor

With Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell both included, England may be vulnerable in the middle order if Australia break through at the top.

For Pietersen, in particular, Test cricket will examine both his technique and his temperament. Has he the patience the build a significant innings?

How will he cope with the nagging accuracy of McGrath? Will he want to continue shovelling everything to leg when Lee sticks it up his nose?

England also seem to be overly-dependent on Steve Harmison finding his form. Harmison is a genuine match-winner, but he fell apart in South Africa and his confidence, it has been suggested, is not particularly sturdy.

If Harmison bowls well, he could win England a Test or two, but you still fancy Australia to prevail over five matches. Then again, this is an emerging England team and an ageing Australia side.

Sometimes pressure accelerates both processes.

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