And lose them they will. But considering the state the Australian touring party was in just a fortnight ago, and the fact that England were unbackable favourites until recently, whilst still remaining overwhelming favorites amongst the ex-English player and Indian bookie fraternity alike, it’s still an amazing state of affairs. The manner in which Darren Lehmann has turned the team around in such a short state of time, creating unity when previously there was only chaos, unearthing depth in what previously had looked like the most talentless bunch of bastards to ever step onto English shores since the last Wallabies tour, has been nothing short of amazing. But for all of this Australia still won’t win the Ashes. But it won’t be because England beat them, it will be because Australia will contrive to beat themselves. Stop sniggering. That wasn’t supposed to sound dirty.
The English Test team must be the worst front runners in history. Looking back over the last 18 to 24 months shows an appalling record. Most thought they would win in the UAE against Pakistan, but they were annihilated. Tipped to make good that reverse against Sri Lanka, they barely scrapped a draw. They made beating the West Indies at home look like the hardest task in world cricket (and Tino Best a world class batsman to boot). Nevertheless they were largely considered favourites to beat South Africa at home and retain Test cricket’s number one spot. Instead the manner in which South Africa tore them apart at The Oval was only matched by what the English team did to themselves in the dressing room afterwards. And the less said about the two series against New Zealand the better.
The only time England have performed well, consistently well, in the recent past, was that remarkable series win in India. A series which they were tipped to lose heavily. The pattern should be obvious by now. So for England to be such strong favourites for this Ashes ought to have the locals more nervous than the last time the Germans declared that they would like to drop over en masse for a spot of pre-Christmas shopping. But strangely there seems to be little in the way of nerves from the hosts, with victory in most quarters taken as an inevitability, and the only real concern being the impact a one sided series might have on public interest.
Of course, the difference between this series and all those others is that this is, well, the Ashes. It would require a fairly large leap of the imagination to conceive England taking this series lightly, however lowly the tourists are rated. But that doesn’t ensure we will see a fluent, composed English performance, no matter how vast the gulf in experience between the two outfits might be. Be prepared for a stuttering start by the hosts, raising the possibility of Australia nicking the first Test and setting the cat amongst the pigeons. Literally when you consider how much Glenn McGrath would be gloating on Test Match Special. But for all that Lehmann has achieved in such a short amount of time, once England do click into gear they’ll just grind the tourists into the dust. It probably won’t be pretty, and much like the 2009 series, most of the more memorable performances will probably come from the losing team, but it will be effective. England will prey on Australia’s inexperience and capitalise on their inevitable mistakes.
The hope in Australia is that this team will prove to be a reincarnation of the 1989 tourists, but that’s to hope for too much. Whilst largely an unknown outfit internationally, the ’89 squad was packed with proven First Class performers. This Australian squad can’t even claim that much, and the series will probably have more in common with the ’85 series, which England won 3-1. That squad is widely regarded as the worst in living memory, and whilst this mob isn’t quite that bad, they’re not too dissimilar either. There is one outstanding batsman (Allan Border and Michael Clarke), one emerging quick (Craig McDermott and James Pattinson), and a batsman dogged by issues of race (Greg Richie and Dave Warner). Er, yeah.
The point being that this squad lacks the experience to perform anywhere near as well as that ’89 side managed. Perhaps given more time Lehmann might be able to instill the self belief required to make a repeat performance possible; a win at home later in the year being a more feasible proposition, as is the return series in 2015. To really push the hosts Australia need everything to go in their favor. Losing the toss and being sent in when the ball is hooping about all over the place will result in a scenario like that endured by South Africa in the Champions Trophy semi-final. Every time Australia bat the sun has to come out, and when they bowl the clouds need to come scurrying over. And they need to get their team selection absolutely spot on from the first Test. And Phil Hughes, David Warner, Shane Watson, et al, need to discover the ability to bat to the conditions.
All of that is simply too much to ask, and even then England have a player, in Kevin Pietersen, who can still take the game away from them. But he probably won’t ever need to. The Australian batsmen will be so focused on countering the threat posed by Anderson and Swann that they’ll fall over themselves in their haste to throw their wickets away to the bowling of Finn and Broad. Not to mention Trott and Root. Which means solid, dependable, performances from the likes of Cook, Trott, Bell etc will be enough to secure a solid, dull victory.
Unless, of course, Phil Hughes really is the new Steve Waugh, Jackson Bird the new Terry Alderman and Steve Smith the new, er, Dean Jones. In which case strap yourself in.