Ashes 2010: England’s Cause for Optimism?
This winter England travel Down Under hoping to retain the Ashes and win their first series in Australia since the 1986/87 tour. The current England team has enjoyed plenty of success recently and consequently has taken on a decidedly optimistic aura, with the players having every right to feel confident about their chances this winter. SportingBlogs takes a look at the build up to the tour and several of the factors that might contribute to what would be a momentous English success.
– – –
The England Team: On-Form and Feared?
Much has been made of late of England’s fine form across all disciplines of the game, with Test and One Day Series victories, and a Twenty20 World Cup success, all obtained with unerring consistency and minimum of fuss. It is perhaps notable that this has been observed by Australia’s captain Ricky Ponting, ‘England have played well for while now’, suggesting that for once England might well be the form and more respected team going into an Ashes contest. Australian spin-bowling great Shane Warne went somewhat further recently when he tellingly stated: ‘It’s been a long time since they [England] had the edge on us in all forms of the game’. With the present captain and past greats acknowledging England’s fine form, this can only be a good thing for their chances this winter.
The confidence the England team exudes is reflected in various comments and statements the players have made of late. 21-year-old bowler Steven Finn, fresh from being awarded the ICC’s Emerging Player of the Year award, highlighted this when he stated, ‘We’re on a roll at the moment. We’re confident’. The 6ft 8” fast bowler further underlined the rude health in which the England team is in, continuing, ‘we have played some good cricket over the last 12-18 months and the guys who were there before I got into the team put together an incredible string of performances, including the Ashes win, so I think everything has been building up to this’.
Such views are clearly representative of the team’s position, as evinced in seam-bowling team-mate Stuart Broad’s comments recently: ‘As an England side we’re really confident coming up to the Ashes,’ he stated. ‘We are the Ashes holders from 2009 and playing really good cricket at the moment […] We are a really confident group.
Such confidence could well prove central, certainly in the eyes of his father, Chris Broad, an integral member of the last England tour party to taste an Ashes series success in Australia, who suggests that ‘confidence plays a huge part in winning international matches’.
As it stands then, a confident and recently-successful England side will travel to Australia with the awaiting Australians knowing it. A superior starting point is no bad thing and certainly bodes well for English chances this winter.
– – –
Key to England’s recent successes and consequent confidence has been the consistency in selection that has rewarded players with long runs in the side without the immediate fear of being dropped. Knowing who your team-mates are has also helped to foster an impressive team spirit, another strong point of the current side. Ponting admitted as much when he commented, ‘They seem to be a lot more together as a group than ever before and, the fact is, they are winning games and keeping a similar group of players together’.
When the squad for the tour was announced a few weeks ago, it was a virtual formality with no real surprise inclusions (or exclusions, for that matter). Jonathan Agnew suggested that ‘there didn’t need to be [any surprises]’, because ‘the tourists are going down under at pretty much full strength’, leaving the TMS commentator and BBC pundit ‘very optimistic they’ll emerge triumphant’.
With the team largely picking itself (with one or two selection headaches), the only slots really up for grabs were the reserve spinner (which logically went to Monty Panesar) and a reserve seam/fast-bowling slot. The selectors opted for Surrey giant Chris Tremlett, who is aided by having played for Surrey at The Oval this season, a wicket which is one of the most comparable to Australian wickets across the County Championship. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that Tremlett stands tall at an impressive 6ft 7”, a height from which he should be more than well equipped to extract bounce from the Australian wickets, something duly noted by National Selector Geoff Miller, who stated, ‘We feel that Chris Tremlett’s inclusion will add a real threat of pace and bounce to our bowling attack given the conditions in Australia’.
With Matt Prior behind the stumps, England have a genuine international-standard wicketkeeper-batsman at last, whereas Australia ‘still don’t know if wicketkeeper Brad Haddin’s going to be fit or not’. Miller further highlighted the strength and depth in the England squad with his appraisal of reserve wicketkeeper Steven Davies, ‘His glovework and batting have continued to reach new levels’.
Indeed, having options could well prove key, especially in the batting department with the form of Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen having come under scrutiny throughout the summer. This was something Ponting has been quick to pick up on, noting that England appear to ‘have a couple of vulnerable players,’ and that ‘there are a few cracks and there’ll be guys looking over their shoulders’. However, with the likes of the stylish Ian Bell and the increasingly impressive (and equally unorthodox) Eoin Morgan vying for just one place in the order, should KP or Cook’s troubles continue, England have a couple of rather adept replacements waiting in the wings.
In the bowling department, again, there was little room for surprise. As mentioned above, Finn has just claimed the Emerging Player of the Year award, and the other three bowlers (Broad, Graeme Swann, and James Anderson) are all currently in the top eleven of the ICC’s Test Bowler rankings. These players’ selections were virtually guaranteed, although it is Swann – currently ranked #2 in the world – who attracts the most attention (as I shall look at shortly). Agnew suggests he would have selected Ajmal Shahzad instead of Tim Bresnan, but given both would have been likely to be back-up bowlers, it is of minor importance. Furthermore, Shahzad travels to Australia with the England Performance Squad (another positive factor to be looked at later on), enabling an easy call-up if required.
Finally, a plaudits-orientated mention must go to captain Andrew Strauss, whose measured and steady leadership has provided the platform for England’s recent successes since his return to the captaincy in January 2009. You do feel that with him at the helm (and Andy Flower as Team Director) England are in more than capable hands.
All in all, the England squad (and team) appears to be in good health, with each player confident of their and their team-mates’ ability to get the job done when required, another factor that surely bodes well for the tour…
– – –
‘Swann of the Best’…
In Graeme Swann, England not only has the world’s second highest ranked Test bowler, but a genuine match-winner who the Aussies have every right to fear. Shane Warne has been more-than glowing in his recent praising of England’s finger-spinner. ‘His special ability is his quicker delivery – he spins it. That’s rare for a spin bowler. Generally, the slower you bowl, the more you spin it. But Swann can turn it when he bowls faster’. Not half bad then, Graeme.
Swann’s prowess with the ball also helps to balance the side, allowing a four man attack which permits the presence of an extra batsman in the line-up. Alec Stewart comments, ‘there’s talk of needing five bowlers, but they have Graeme Swann who is a match-winner and that helps off-set the fact there is no all-rounder in the Freddie Flintoff mould’.
Indeed, Warne furthers, ‘as a spinner, he needs to know how to take wickets at the crucial times. There are times to defend and attack. But, if in doubt, attack and that’s what I like about him’. And in many ways Swann has come to embody the new, brave and bold England – a side without fear, willing to attack whoever they come up against.
That was the ethos of previously-dominant Australian test teams, who have slipped to fourth in the world rankings since being shorn of the likes of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. England’s gain in having a genuine world-class, match-winning spinner in Swann is Australia’s weakness, for as Agnew says, ‘they’ve got willing tryers but I don’t see any match winners in their attack’. Yet further reason for optimism this winter…
– – –
In past, unsuccessful tours, the ECB has been criticised for not allowing the players enough time to get used to the foreign playing conditions. This time around, the tour schedule includes three serious first-class standard warm-up matches which, as pointed out by Jonathan Agnew, gives England ‘proper preparation time,’ as well as ‘a chance for players to stake a claim,’ both of which should serve England well.
Furthermore, out-of-form Kevin Pietersen has been pro-active in tackling his issues by travelling to South Africa to play some games with Kwa-Zulu Natal Dolphins prior to the Ashes tour. As stated by the man himself, this is ‘the perfect opportunity to prepare in excellent conditions immediately before the Ashes,’ especially for someone ‘keen to get as much cricket as I can under my belt’.
Pietersen continues, ‘these two matches would enable me to work on my game against the Kookaburra ball in southern hemisphere conditions which is the ideal preparation for Australia.’ Wise words indeed, Kevin, for we all know that an on-form Kevin Pietersen would be a huge advantage for England in their attempt to retain the Ashes.
Finally, the ECB also deserves significant credit for throwing financial concerns out of the window and arranging for the Performance Squad to be in Australia at the same time as the main tour party. Essentially, England now has two squads of players to pick from, and should any injured players from the main party need replacing, such replacements will already be in Australia, playing cricket and getting used to the conditions, instead of having to adjust from a tour of the Subcontinent (for example) or even their Winter holidays! Who knows how important this decision might turn out to be, especially when given the history of English players returning home early from Ashes tours (Simon Jones, Andrew Flintoff, and so on).
– – –
And to the Ashes…
All-in-all you would have to say that England have prepared rather well for this tour, covering as many bases as possible and thereby giving themselves as good a chance as ever of performing to the best of their abilities. The Australian side of things (individual player form, team form, their preparation, etc.) is obviously largely out of England’s control, but England appear to have given themselves a great shout at retaining the Ashes.
England go to Australia full of confidence, as evinced by Steven Finn when he stated, ‘I’m confident that, no matter who it is that is put in front of me, I will be able to do the same processes that will end up in the same result – i.e. me being successful.’ However, as Ricky Ponting succinctly points out, England have approached recent Ashes tours full of optimism, only for the wheels to fall off in rapidly spectacular style: ‘They were the fancied team last time […] They didn’t handle it last time and there’s no doubt there’ll be more pressure on them in this series than probably ever before’.
And whilst Shane Warne correctly highlights the fact that Australia’s home record has faltered somewhat lately and ‘hasn’t been as strong [as it was] – they lost to South Africa and drew with India’, he is quick and right to note that ‘it’s still a tough ask to win in Australia’. This is something Chris Broad confirms, noting that ‘Australia in Australia are a very difficult outfit to beat’, and that ‘England are going to have to play at their very finest, not only on the odd days, but every day, every session of every Test match’ if they wish to return home successful.
It is a salient point [‘every session’] that Broad Senior raises there, for England are going to have to play with a measured consistency throughout the series, but most importantly in that very first session of the series. England can ill-afford starts such as the infamous Steve Harmison instigated wide in the 2006/07 Ashes, an example Alec Stewart cites when noting how Australia have previously ‘put a marker down’ in the opening session before ‘stamp[ing] their authority over [the] series’.
‘I think it’s not just that first day, but the first session that is crucial. England need to put a marker down,’ furthers Stewart, something – thankfully – England appear to be more than aware of. Stuart Broad, who will be a key player for England with bat and ball, wisely comments that England ‘can’t look to Sydney in January [and potentially winning the Ashes], we have to look to Brisbane in November and make sure we win the first hour of that game. That is all we’re focused on as players and [we’re] just excited about the challenge’.
Such focus, you feel, could well be invaluable to England’s chances of success this winter, but it is thanks to the large number of positives looked at above that they are able to go Down Under with realistic aspirations of retaining the Ashes. And boy, wouldn’t that be something…