Monday, 3 November 2008

The Ashes 2009 - Early Preview and Prediction

Our Early 2009 Ashes Preview
This is our early preview and prediction for the the Ashes series that is going to grace England in 2009.

By Chris Smith and Lee Drew

The Ashes series next year promises to be an intriguing encounter, as Australia, now struggling to maintain the success they’ve enjoyed over the last ten years or so, take on an England side gradually improving from the depths of despair of the last Ashes encounter in Australia. The series won’t reach the dizzy highs that the Ashes of 2005 achieved, in what was undoubtedly, not only the most entertaining but the highest standard series of cricket that two sides have played at the same time for many years. It will, however, answer many questions that need answering; will Kevin Pietersen manage to mould England into the world beating side they were in 2005 and in the two years leading up to that where England beat all-comers, are Australia a spent force (at least for the near future) and will Andrew Flintoff be able to recapture his match winning prowess and rekindle the English public’s passion for the game as he did in 2005.

Let’s begin with Australia. Although results have been going their way in recent series, they are without doubt not the side they once were. The retirements of McGrath and Warne in particular have left them with a bowling attack, which although is not toothless with the likes of Lee and Clarke, is now looking a lot more comfortable for other teams. If Cameron White is their best spin option at the moment then England should be rubbing their hands with glee. There will be no surprise if Warne makes a return, if White is still number one choice come next summer. It’s not just the spin department either, the back-up seam bowling to Clarke and Lee is not looking as strong as it could be. I’ve watched Mitchell Johnson now in a number of test matches, and am still unconvinced. He bowls with good pace, but seems not to have mastery over the swinging ball and does not consistently get the ball to swing in to the right-hander. He often wastes too many balls by not getting the batsmen to play and his current test record to date (11 matches, Ave. 32.57), suggests this. In England it will be vitally important that he can control his bowling when the ball is swinging, only time will tell if he can manage to do this. I have also yet to be convinced that Shane Watson is a world class player who can replicate his form in county cricket to that of the international stage. Both parts of his game seem better suited to One-Day cricket than to test cricket, he looks weak in defence with the bat and has a lack of penetration with the ball. Watson may well have a holding job with the ball next summer, but I can’t help but picture Kevin Pietersen dancing across his stumps and doing serious damage to his bowling figures.

Australia’s two most experienced, and best bowlers now are Brett Lee and Stuart Clarke. The later, I believe to be the greatest threat to England’s batsmen next summer and Australia will be hoping that his age doesn’t catch up with him and that he gets over the injury problems that have seen him take little part in the series against India. Brett Lee has now, dangerously for Australia, turned into a bit of a stock bowling option for Ricky Ponting. He is in danger of over-using his potent strike bowler. Although England shouldn’t worry about Lee too much, his record in England does not make good viewing if you’re an Australian, 10 matches, 29 wickets at an average of 45.44. If you put together, Lee’s test record against England, worries over Clarke’s fitness, lack of a spin option and the unproven aspect of the rest of the bowling attack, I think Ricky Ponting must be more than a little worried about his bowling options. Confidence in the bowling ranks might also be damaged by the difficult recent series in India and a tough back to back series with South Africa home and away.

South Africa now have the strongest batting side in the world and their seam bowling department has the balance and general nastiness that England’s did in 2005. I would not be at all surprised if Australia are rolled over in both series and if they are defeated in India as well, momentum will certainly not be on their side. I believe if both sides play to their potential South Africa will win. But South Africa as a team need to be able to produce their best when it counts, something that all but captain Graeme Smith have failed to do in the past.

Australia’ strength will be in their batting, they still have four genuine world class batsmen, in Hayden, Ponting, Hussey and Clarke. Simon Katich too has the ability to score lots of runs, although not of the class of Justin Langer. To bowl Australia out is still going to be tough, but one feels that the days of Australia rocketing along at over 4 an over are now gone. Even their class batsmen seem to have gone into their shells lately and the retirement of Gilchrist also has a big impact on the teams run rate. This is another reason why the series next summer will not be of the same excitement and standard of cricket as in 2005. Watching the Aussies over the last 12 months or so just isn’t the same experience, Australia were dominating attacks now they are making themselves hard to get out, grinding out a score. The mind set is changing, but I guess that’s what happens when confidence is low and quality players retire or get injured. You only have to look how England’s style of play changed from that winning attacking formula in 2005 to a more conservative approach when confidence ebbed away with series losses and injury problems.

On to England and is it all rosy in the garden? On the surface it appears so with Pietersen proving an inspirational new captain, but beneath Pietersen’s positive exterior, there are still some issues to address. The batting order still seems very capable of collapsing and much of the batting still has much to prove. England’s batsmen, with the exception of Pieterson, have the uncanny ability to go through very bad patches of form and then just as they face the axe, pull out an outstanding performance that keeps them in the side. Classic examples of this come in the form of Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood. Strauss who struggled for a couple of years and then was left out for the tour to Sri Lanka , only to return in New Zealand, was in last chance saloon until a brilliant 177 in the final test innings of the tour. Has he done much before that innings and since? Paul Collingwood too was in dire straits with his game last summer, it looked as if he had never picked up a bat before and was painful to watch. Then in the third test at Edgbaston everyone witnessed Collingwood play an almost miraculous innings, rescuing his test career. A failure surely would not have seen him play in the final test of the series.

The rest of the batting also has problems, Cook is consistent but needs to build on solid starts to his innings and score hundreds. Ian Bell looks like such a class act sometimes and frustratingly disappoints too often and Flintoff has a vulnerability with the bat at the moment which reminds me of his early years in test cricket. Pietersen needs support from the rest of his batting, he is a match winner. He will take risks, he will get himself out playing silly shots, but the last thing England need is for him to go into his shell. Pietersen at his best is on the edge all the time, looking like he could spoon a ball straight up in the air or hit it out of the park, his character is not conservative or sensible if he plays this way his best batting will not shine through. With the rest of England’s batting inconsistent this puts more responsibility and pressure on Pietersen and the more likely he will have to tone down his game. To win against Australia next summer, the rest of the batting needs to let Pietersen play with freedom, if they can do this England can dominate the weakest attack Australia will have sent to England in the modern era.

Decisions need to be made in the bowling department also and the winter tests in India and the West Indies will decide which bowlers take the field in the first Ashes test next summer. For me Flintoff and Panesar are the only sure fire selections (injury permitting). James Anderson has improved his control greatly over the last year or so and when the ball is swinging there are few more dangerous bowlers in the world. His confidence is a fragile thing however and this can cause dramatic slumps in form, this is a problem that Steve Harmison also shares. Harmison made a good comeback at the end of the summer against South Africa, but what Harmison will turn up on any given day is anyone’s guess, how often has he really disappointed. Ryan Sidebottom was the first name on the team sheet until last summer, his accuracy and subtle swing bowling proved a real asset, but he let his fitness slide and by the end of the summer was looking a little portly, injury soon followed. Sidebottom bowling well can cause real problems to Australia, especially to their two dominant left handers, Hayden and Hussey. Hayden in the recent India series has had major problems with left-armer Zaheer Khan in less swing-friendly conditions than in England.

With lots of factors to weigh up the result of the series is uncertain, but England do have a very real chance to claim the Ashes once again. One feels that England is a team again heading in the right direction, a team that after a bit of a crisis caused by retirements and injuries is improving. Australia, on the hand, is for the first time in a long time vulnerable and capable of losing to a team that are not world beaters. England’s winter tests will be important for the team to build momentum and form and much will depend on how Australia do against a good South African team in their back to back series in Australia and South Africa.

Australia will start marginal favourites but I think England have the players to win. It will be a close series but my prediction is 2-1 England, with two draws; as I think both sides may find it difficult to take 20 wickets unless helped by the conditions.