The 2015 Ashes begins tomorrow. In the wrong venue and at the wrong time. Apart from that it is perfectly timed! The cricket event between England and Australia is usually held every four years in each country (2001,2005,2009,2013 in England, 2002-3,2006-7,2010-11 in Australia for example). But to prepare England for their pathetic World Cup campaign the last Australian Ashes took place in 2013-14 instead of last winter (which meant there were back to back Ashes series a disaster for England). It also meant that the next English series was brought forward to this year instead of 2017. To my mind after 2013 the next Ashes should have been in 2015-16 – this winter – and the next English one should have stuck to 2017.
This is relevant because I’ve never known an Ashes series to get less publicity. The unexpected success of the Women’s Football World Cup has not helped but three Ashes series in two years is one too many. It might have worked in the 1970s where they were three in two and a bit years (1974-5,1975* and 1977) but the Ashes was far less hyped in the press back then and there was less sporting competition (no women’s football World Cup in the 1970s for example). This series could be “a series too far”.
Of course if England played well one suspects the country will get interested again. Problem here is that the First Test is in Cardiff which is not even in England has no tradition and the ground only exists as a Test quality venue because it was paid for by money from the devolved Welsh Government (thanks Tony Blair for the constitutional hooliganism!) As England have only ever played two Tests there for all practical purposes England have very generously given up home advantage for the First Test. Would Australia ever play the first Test of an Ashes series in say Darwin? Er no..
That said how will the series go? Again England are the victims of their own incompetence. The England team is rebuilding after the trauma of the Ashes whitewash of 2013-14 and the awful World Cup this past winter. They have a new coach in Australian Trevor Bayliss. Australia did the same before the 2013 Ashes when they sacked Mickey Arthur and appointed Darren Lehmann. It didn’t improve Australia at once – in the second Test of 2013 it was probably the worst Aussie team I’ve ever seen – but as there was a home Ashes for Australia later that year Lehmann could use the 2013 Ashes to improve his team. By the end of a 3-0 defeat they had improved and with the help of 95 mph demon bowler Mitchell Johnson and English complacency the 5-0 whitewash of 2013-14 occurred. But as the next Ashes series is not until 2017-18 in Australia England cannot use this series to improve – as they could have done if another country was here and the Ashes was not until this winter. They must hit the ground running now.
And if they are to do so the captain Alistair Cook must get runs. He has only had one good series against Australia – in 2010-11 when he averaged 127.66. In four other series against Australia he has not averaged more than 27.20. Since the strength of Australia is their fast bowlers- Mitchells Johnson and Starc, Josh Hazelwood and Peter Siddle – and Cook is England’s senior opener he must see off the fast bowlers with the new ball and get hundreds. Especially as his opening partner Adam Lyth and no 3 Gary Ballance have played one Ashes test between them (a sign of how much England have been rebuilding as this as mentioned above is the third Ashes series in two years). Also if Cook gets runs it sets up England’s counter attackers at numbers 5,6 and 7 – Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Joss Buttler – to hammer tiring fast bowlers. I’ll go as far to say if Cook does not get runs England struggle to compete in this series never mind win it.
Cook is important in another way too. His captaincy is far too safety first and conservative and it must change. For example England must target Australia’s off spinner Nathan Lyon. Captain Michael Clarke will aim to use Lyon in long spells to give his fast bowlers a rest. If he gets hammered he has to bring the fast bowlers back on they do more work and they get tired. In a series that sees five Tests between July 8th and August 24th tired fast bowlers could very well be a factor. Cook’s county Essex hammered Lyon in a warm up match and England must do the same. He also must attack when England are fielding especially when aggressive Australian opener David Warner is batting. Warner can take a game away from you very quickly and in my opinion the only way to contain him is to get him out and stop him batting. At some stage in the series he will run riot and England must stay calm don’t panic and don’t fall back on defence.
Sadly I think Cook is incapable of doing this. We will know tomorrow. If Moeen Ali is still in England’s team and Adil Rashid is not we will know fear has won. Why is Moeen in the team? It is not for his batting or else he would be higher than no 8 in the order. It is not for his bowling or else Cook would bowl him more. Rashid is a risk but he takes wickets and Australia struggled against leg spin on their recent tour of the Caribbean. You need to take 20 wickets to win a Test. Australia will target whatever spinner England play. Both could well get hammered but Rashid could get wickets. Besides England have Joe Root who can bowl off spin but no leg spinner. And leg spin could baffle Australia’s lower order – who made too many runs in 2013 and 2013-14 and must be dismissed quickly for England to compete.
Is there hope for England ? Yes. Australia have not won here since 2001 and no member of this current team has won a series in England. Plus Australia struggle away from their own fast bouncy pitches as defeats in India in 2013 and the UAE in 2014 (against Pakistan) show. Pitches in England are not fast and bouncy and the fast bowlers (none of whom apart from Siddle have a good record in England) could be neutralised. If they are and England target Lyon there is a chance. Plus go after the weak link. Wicket keeper Bard Haddin was a key player for Australia in 2013-14 but has barely made a run since and is past his best. Since the wicket keeper is a key player in a team if England can get Haddin struggling it could rub off on the whole Australian team.
That said I fear this series has come too early in England’s rebuilding phase. They are not as good as in 2013 while Australia are better. If I was to predict the result I would say either 2-1 for Australia or a 2-2 draw (there has not been a drawn Ashes series since 1972 so you could say it is overdue) which would mean Australia as holders would keep the Ashes. Which would mean England would pay the ultimate price for their administrator’s incompetence.
*And the 1975 Ashes was not meant to take place. It was arranged as a replacement for a South African tour which was cancelled due to that country’s apartheid policies.