Never in living memory have the England cricket team entered an Ashes series so hotly favoured over their Australian counterparts than they do this week. Any fears there might have been of a repeat to the nightmarish preparations of England’s last tour Down Under have been laid to rest, with the tourists having coasted through three full warm-up matches and the hosts being strongly criticised by both former players and an expectant media.
Four years ago England played three matches against domestic Australian opposition before the first Test Match started, losing one and drawing two. The management was heavily criticised at the time for not organising warm-up matches that were long enough to allow players to prepare effectively, with the first match only being a one day affair and the next two only lasting three days each. The lack of sufficient match preparation was ultimately detrimental to England’s series performance, which saw them suffer their heaviest Ashes defeat for decades. This time around however no stone has been left unturned.
Following the conclusion of their controversy-riddled summer, the England team travelled to Bavaria in southern Germany for a five-day boot camp. No wives, no phones and (in the cases of messrs Swann and Pietersen) no tweeting. As well as hours of rigorous boxing, hiking and abseiling the players visited the Dachau memorial site. Taking a leaf out of the Aussies’ book, who make a detour to Gallipoli en route to every Ashes series on British shores.
Having arrived in Australia nearly a month ago, England have since played three warm up matches, performing admirably above expectations and showing no trouble in adapting to the Australian climate. They played two three-day games against domestic State sides; beating Western Australia by 6 wickets before drawing against the south. Finally they recorded a comfortable victory by 10 wickets against an Australian A team consisting of their most promising youngsters. Across the three matches what stood out the most was how well the team played as a unit, with each member contributing towards a strong team effort. Wickets were shared around with Graham Swann once again leading the pack. Each member of the top six (save for Jonathan Trott) scored at least one half-century, with skipper Andrew Strauss leading by example scoring two composed, quick fire centuries. However the standout individual performance from all three matches was undoubtedly Ian Bell’s superlative 192 against Australia A, dominating the young Aussie bowlers and shepherding the tail end to take England’s 1st innings total up to 523. A knock that has all but secured his place at sixth in the England batting line-up ahead of Eoin Morgan. Having only just come back from injury the signs look good for the once hapless Ashes batsman. From an Australian perspective the warm-ups couldn’t have gone any worse, with some of their 1st XI players like Marcus North failing to make an impression. Also worrying perhaps is the fact that the young, up and coming players like Callum Ferguson, Peter George and Tim Paine also failed to show any signs of resisting England’s smooth preparations. These being the players who are likely to be called up should any big name players suffer injuries or even get axed by the selectors.
Incidentally, following his failure in the final warm-up match, the much-hyped youngster Callum Ferguson was promptly cut from Australia’s 13-man squad for the first Test. The most notable player excluded from the squad was spinner Nathan Hauritz. Since the retirement of Shane Warne, the role of Aussie spinner has become something of a poisoned chalice, claiming several international careers (including Beau Casson & Bryce McGain) in a very short space of time, with Hauritz being the man who’s managed to stay in the job the longest. But he’s been under pressure for some time now having not turned in any major match winning performances and the selectors have now apparently lost faith, dropping him in place of Tasmanian slow left-arm-orthodox bowler Xavier Doherty. Doherty’s domestic record is really no better than Hauritz’s, although he has apparently impressed Ricky Ponting over the years which must count for something and his preferable left arm angle does give him the edge over the right armed Hauritz. That also being something that Kevin Pietersen will have an eye on, considering his apparent inability to play comfortably against left arm spinners during the last couple of years.
Australia’s players are under huge scrutiny and face their toughest and most competitive home Ashes series for nearly 30 years. England are ever increasing in confidence as they continue to rack up victories in all forms. As ever though, both sets of players will be aware that anything can happen in an Ashes series despite what may have happened during the build up.