Whether the battle will be as anticipated on January 3, 2014, when the two captains appear for the toss at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) for the 10th consecutive time in six months, is something that will be determined during the course of this first leg in the Old Country. Contests between cricket’s oldest rivals have mesmerised the world ever since Ivo Bligh and his Englishmen went to the Australian shores to recover the “revered Ashes of English cricket” in 1882-83. However, going on current form and team strength, there are no prizes for guessing who are the favourites to take the crystal urn.
England are coming on the back of a historic series triumph in India, a difficult yet well-fought drawn series in New Zealand and a 2-0 whitewash of the Kiwis in the return tour. Australia, meanwhile, lost to the number one-ranked South Africa at home, beat the Sri Lankans to retain the Warne-Muralitharan Trophy and then got thumped 4-0 by the Indians away to bring them back to earth. As an added blow, Australia no longer have the services of veteran stalwarts Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey — the repercussions of which were seen in India.
That Australia are the underdogs is something that Michael Clarke and his inexperienced team would have accepted. However, that doesn’t go to say that they are going to be taken to the cleaners again — which is something that is entirely in their hands. The visitors’ present situation bears resemblance to that of Allan Border’s team that visited the English shores in 1989 with not a snowflake’s chance in hell of winning, according to the press. What followed was a 4-0 thrashing of David Gower’s men that turned the tide of world dominance in cricket towards Australia for nearly two decades. To expect Clarke and his team to emulate Border’s Australians would be a tad too much, but they have sufficient firepower within their ranks to give England a run for their money, at the least.
Australia’s strength lies in their bowling attack which comprises the indefatigable workhorse Peter Siddle; the aggressive, young and fast James Pattinson; the wily swing-bowling left-armer Mitchell Starc; the inexperienced yet promising Jackson Bird; the experienced Ryan Harris and the all-rounders in Shane Watson and James Faulkner. That’s seven pace bowlers who are well capable of threatening England’s top-quality batting line-up. To back them up, they’ve got the spin of Nathan Lyon along with part-timers Steven Smith and skipper Clarke himself. If Australia want to go anywhere near making a match out of this series, their bowling will have to fire.
With regard to their batting, a lot will depend on the experienced trio of Clarke, Watson and 35-year-old Chris Rogers, who may have featured in just one Test match so far, but has played in England for nearly a decade and knows the conditions well. With Watson and Rogers slotted to open the batting, Australia have put themselves in the best position to counter the dangerous swing of James Anderson and Tim Bresnan, who are likely to open the English bowling. With a disciplined and tranquilized David Warner, and the reliable and prolific Clarke to back them up, the Australian top four will have to carry the major bulk of their batting responsibilities.
England, on the other hand, have the better all-round team. With six batsmen and a wicketkeeper making up their squad of 13 for the first Test, the top seven positions are automatic choices. Even with a makeshift opening pair in Cook and Joe Root, the top five, including Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell, can take the game away from the opposition on their own. At number six, there’s the inexperienced but talented Jonny Bairstow, followed by the very dependable head of Matt Prior. Backing the batsmen are Graeme Swann at number eight and probably Tim Bresnan, who is fresh from a century against Essex, coming next. Stuart Broad at ten has a century at Lord’s to his name, while James Anderson is no mug with the bat either.
The pitch at Trent Bridge is shaping up to be a dry one, quite unlike what the Australians would have expected. Conventional swing, thus, would be scarce, but the fast bowlers can hope to generate some good reverse. This is why Bresnan should make the cut ahead of Steven Finn. The new daddy has a five-wicket haul against India and two four-wicket hauls against the West Indies in his last two matches at this venue. Meanwhile, Anderson, arguably one of the best fast bowlers in the world right now, especially in home conditions, has taken 39 wickets in the six Tests he has played at Trent Bridge, which is second only to Sir Alec Bedser (41 wickets). With the pitch being dry, Swann could go on to play a crucial role, as would his counterpart Lyon.
In head-to-head encounters at Nottingham, Australia have the edge with seven wins as against four for the Englishmen, plus nine draws. As things stand, England have their best chance to make that five and give themselves a proper impetus to dig into the series.
England (probable): Alastair Cook (c), Joe Root, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Jonny Bairstow, Matt Prior (wk), Graeme Swann, Tim Bresnan, Stuart Broad, James Anderson.
Australia (probable): Shane Watson, Chris Rogers, David Warner, Michael Clarke (c), Steven Smith, Brad Haddin (wk), James Faulkner, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc , James Pattinson, Nathan Lyon.
Time: 15.30 IST | 10.00 GMT
(Jaideep Vaidya is a correspondent at CricketCountry. A diehard Manchester United fan and sports buff, you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook)