Tuesday, January 13, 2009

brimful of Ashes

2009 is Ashes year, in case you didn't know. After the debacle of the 5-0 whitewash in Australia a couple of years ago you might think Australia are favourites, and you'd be right, but I think recent events provide some grounds for cautious optimism.

1) Matthew Hayden's retirement means that just about all of the all-conquering Australian side of the late 1990s and 2000s have now retired, with the sole exception of captain Ricky Ponting. Since the 2006-07 whitewash Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn, Adam Gilchrist, Stuart MacGill and now Hayden have hung up their boots. It's hard to say how good Hayden really was, in such a batsman-dominated era, but clearly he was pretty good - you don't get a Test average in excess of 50 by accident. He was a pretty charmless character on the field, and a big hulking beetle-browed unsubtle bully of a batsman, but hugely effective nonetheless. Michael Clarke and Mike Hussey are excellent additions to the middle order, Stuart Clark (when he's fit) is an excellent bowler who will probably thrive in English conditions, and wicketkeeper Brad Haddin looks to be settling in quite nicely, but the loss of all those superstars must have an impact.

2) And that impact can be seen when you look at the last two Test series that the Australians have played: a 2-0 loss to India in India followed by the unthinkable - a 2-1 loss to South Africa in Australia, their first defeat in a home series for 16 years (and the first time they'd lost consecutive series in 20 years). Consider if you will that England played out an equally hard-fought series against the South Africans in the summer and lost in very similar circumstances - 2-1 after a couple of matches that could have gone either way and a consolation win for the home team in the last Test.

3) England are widely perceived to have shot themselves in the foot with the Pietersen-Moores resignation/sacking debacle earlier in the week. I take a slightly more optimistic view, since what it does mean is that England have now appointed as captain the man they should have gone for all along: Andrew Strauss. As long as Pietersen stays onside and Flintoff stays fit this could all work out quite nicely. Also, now that there's to be a new coach there might be a rethink of a couple of items of selection policy, specifically giving Owais Shah a fair crack of the whip in the Test team if certain batsman don't pull their weight (Ian Bell, for instance) and rethinking the decision to discard Matthew Hoggard after, essentially, one bad Test in New Zealand last winter.

4) Australia's next Test series is about as tough as you could imagine: South Africa in South Africa. England, by contrast, travel to the West Indies for a series they really should win fairly comfortably. A chance to build some confidence before the summer perhaps?

5) Could Simon Jones be fit in time? With his injury record, don't bet on it. A triumphal return in the Cardiff Test in July would be nice though.

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