Less than a week to go before the Ashes begin, and the news today that Ryan Harris has announced his retirement is an unwelcome development for Australia. Harris probably wouldn’t have been in the side for Cardiff, mostly because his fitness was questionable anyway – and clearly rightly so – but to lose a player of that calibre from the squad is unquestionably a blow. For Harris himself, he’s had perhaps four more years of a Test career than seemed likely when he limped out of the 2010/11 series, seemingly into retirement. That he came back, and proved so effective a bowler, is greatly to his credit. A shortened career at international level perhaps, but 113 Test wickets at 23.52 represents a fine return even so. And there’s little question that a certain England captain will be delighted that there’s no prospect of his technique being picked apart by such a clever bowler.
He has said himself that he’s played 27 more Tests than he thought he would, and it’s probable that is at least partly down to Cricket Australia’s relatively careful management of him, providing space for recuperation. They received a lot of stick for their policy of resting and rotating their pace bowling attack, yet it may well have ensured that in Harris’s case, they truly did get as much out of him as was possible.
Pat Cummins has been called up as his replacement, which is an interesting choice, as he hasn’t played first class cricket in almost two years. His talent isn’t in doubt, but given his own injury record, it has to be questionable whether in the event he needed to play, he’d be able to last five days of a Test. Even if completely injury free, he’s very much out of practice at the longer format.
Australia have had a decent workout in their two warm up matches, and perhaps the one area of concern for them has been that their spinners have come in for a fair degree of stick. A warm up is a warm up, so not too much should be read into it, but it does perhaps detail a line of attack that England could look to adopt when the phoney war is over.
And a phoney war it certainly is. David Warner picked the build up to the Tests to repeat his claims about Joe Root from the tour two years ago which resulted in Warner throwing a punch. This is trivial stuff, but it indicates that the sledging game is well and truly on. Australia themselves are something of a known quantity anyway, much of the series depends on how England play. The one day series raised optimism that England would look to be aggressive, but the Test side and the one day side are two distinct entities. An obvious difference is that the captain is Alastair Cook, not a skipper renowned for going for the throat of the opposition. Indeed Shane Watson specifically referred to that issue recently:
“I’m not sure if that’s exactly in Alastair Cook’s DNA, to be really able to put a game on the line. It’s going to be interesting to see how now that Alastair Cook comes in and takes over the Test team, how they continue to evolve as a team, because it’s very obvious in the one-day series they’ve played how they’ve really started to take on the game.”
Watson hits the nail on the head there. Partly of course it’s a case of trying to undermine England, which is normal enough and fair enough. But the question itself is one that England followers have raised several times. Putting aside the merits of the teams for a moment, the style of play is going to be interesting to watch. It remains extremely hard to imagine England adopting the mentality of the first innings at Edgbaston in 2005. That contradiction has been observed by the incoming coach Trevor Bayliss:
“The way the game has been played over the last five or ten years, you could argue that maybe we haven’t kept up to date maybe as some of the other teams. Whether you like it or not, the T20 format and the one-day format do have a bearing on the way the game is played at Test level. It’s that philosophy of being positive and aggressive.”
And yet Andrew Strauss doesn’t seem to be on the same page.
“As I said at the start of the summer, I think Cook is very much the man to take the England Test team forward
Perhaps there’s an element of having to say that, but the innate conservatism of Strauss is looking somewhat out of kilter with the approach of both the new coach and of the stand in. It was certainly noticeable that Bayliss was very quick to praise Morgan and Farbrace for the way the one day team played the game, as was the much more non-committal remark about Cook:
“I’ve not seen him up close or worked with him before.”
It is of course entirely possible that despite the initial appearance of them being chalk and cheese, they might get on like a house on fire. It wouldn’t be the first time that has happened – perhaps most notably in the instance of the taciturn Duncan Fletcher and the fiery Nasser Hussain, who proved to be an outstanding partnership. But it still has the feel of end of term about Cook’s captaincy, particularly so if England lose, as so many expect.
And will England lose? It was quite amusing to see Glenn McGrath react at the terming of Australia as “Dad’s Army” when it was actually Jason Gillespie who made a point of describing them as such. And yet it is quite clear that this is indeed a fairly old Australian side. One thing that shouldn’t be ignored is that sides never look past it until they actually are. Although more sensible observers noted that England in 2013/14 were a side running out of steam, few anticipated the collapse that followed. A side can look old very quickly.
Where Australia do clearly look to have the edge is in the fast bowling stakes. Starc and Johnson are a potent opening pair, though Johnson does blow hot and cold. If he were to return to the 2009/10/11 vintage, then Australia have a problem. Of course, if he’s more like the one from the last Ashes, England could be in for a fearful hiding. Even then, Starc looks a more obvious – and more consistent – threat in any case.
So where do England have to perform if they are to have a chance? Cook himself is pivotal. His technique was dismantled by Australia’s bowlers in the last two series, and should that happen again, England will do well to compete. Cook bats long, and blunts opposition attacks when all is going well for him. His technical approach is vastly improved over the recent vintage, both in terms of playing much straighter and his judgement of line. The strength in England’s batting is in the middle order, but for that to be a strength they need a platform. Lyth is at the start of his career, it’s asking a lot for him to provide it consistently at this stage. So it hangs on Cook himself. If England are consistently 30-3, then to call it an uphill task is an understatement.
Equally, there are question marks over other players. Ballance’s sophomore difficulties need to be resolved and fast. Ian Bell’s relative drought likewise. There is ability throughout, but as things stand too many of them have dubious recent records.
The England bowling attack is simpler to assess. Broad and Anderson are a fine new ball pairing in English conditions, the doubt is over whether the latter will be ground into the dirt and asked to do too much. Broad might blow hot and cold almost as much as Johnson, but Australia does seem to bring the best out of him. Perhaps the key might be Mark Wood, who has shown serious promise in his brief career to date. That doesn’t mean he’s under pressure to deliver, it means that he’s a wildcard that may just come off.
Bayliss also made an interesting comment that Moeen was the number one spinner “at the moment”, and suggested that he had no problem with selecting two spinners for Cardiff. It seems unlikely, but it’ll give Adil Rashid a degree of hope he might be more than a drinks carrier in future.
One of the fascinating elements of this series will be how Steve Smith performs. He’s had an outstanding couple of years, but his idiosyncratic technique is likely to receive greater examination with the Duke’s ball moving around. He certainly didn’t do that well on the last tour, and while that doesn’t reflect the player he has become since, the same could be said of Joe Root.
And so it comes to the time of actually making a prediction for the series. I don’t think it will be as one sided as some others do, but I do think Australia will have a bit too much for England to beat them. Being optimistic, a 2-2 series result would represent serious progress for England, but the head says Australia will win 3-1.