Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Can Ponting afford to lose Ashes series?

Andrew Strauss' England tour Australia with their best chance of success in a quarter of a century. Pundits, experts, and former players on this side of the world are all resoundingly in accordance that Strauss and his team will bring home the urn. The first part of this blog will look at England's chances, and assess whether the overwhelming optimism surrounding the team is justified, before looking at the other side of the all-important coin, and see that England would underestimate at their peril the ability, and most importantly hunger, of the Australian side and its talismanic, yet controversial leader Ricky Ponting.

Pundits and former players in England seem in clear agreement that England are a superior side to Australia, so much so that they will win the series on their opponents' own soil. Former captains Gatting and Vaughan have confidently predicted England victories while Jonathan Agnew expects a 3-1 triumph, looking at Swann's ability and the frailties of the Aussie batting line-up, Michael Hussey and Marcus North in particular, as deciding factors. 

Indeed, there is much evidence to back their opinion. Our seamers are full of confidence, while Graeme Swann has been rightly pointed out as not only the key to England's success, but also as the major difference between England's and Australia's otherwise similar bowling attacks. In the batting department, Kevin Pietersen, despite his much-publicised recent slump in form, boasts a supreme batting record against the arch enemy and remains a huge threat. Australia will rightly treat him as such, already taking the brazen yet tactically smart decision to play rookie Xavier Doherty, a player with a modest first-class record, instead of Nathan Hauritz for the first test, given Pietersen's well-documented weakness against left-arm spinners.

England look solid throughout their team. The batting line-up runs deep; the Australians were laughing at the sight of Matthew Hoggard at number 8 on the last tour (England's last 5 wickets averaged a paltry 65), while, potentially vitally, management is harmonious and highly motivated: this is not the England led, or rather not led, by Andrew Flintoff during the disastrous '06/07 tour. England's lack of direction and discipline was so crucial a factor in its humiliation last time around. On the other hand, Strauss, if not the tactician Vaughan was, leads by example, and his record with the bat as captain is exemplary, as is England's own success with him as leader.

The optimism over the team's own strengths is coupled with a perceived, and not wholly unjustified, view of the current Australia side as weak. Their recent record in cricket has been abysmal, and pundits have weighed up an increasingly strong England team versus one of Australia's worst for many years, and produced only one winner.

Hopefully the impressively professional England side, a key feature of Andy Flower's leadership, will not suffer the same over-confidence the likes of Gatting, and more surprisingly, Agnew, seem to be experiencing. The much-discussed Kookaburra ball will be a hindering factor to the threat of the England attack, which, on home soil, is undoubtedly the most potent in the world. The threat of James Anderson and Stuart Broad will be restricted, though they will remain highly dangerous. The conditions will not suit England's bowlers either. It will be hot in the middle, and the pitches often hard and unresponsive, and the ball will lose its seam and become older far more quickly, which will not suit England at all. All of this will only feed a somewhat worrying and unfortunately repetitive habit of England's bowlers to become overly and unnecessarily frustrated and lose focus. Australia will look to exploit this. Factored in with Australia's own batsmen's outstanding records on home pitches, so easy to forget*, it is highly feasible that Australia could score very heavily over the series.

What English experts might also have overlooked is their side's disturbing reliance on Strauss as the main source of runs. Indeed, Michael Vaughan sees his effective successor's form as critical to England's chances: "We will win the Ashes if the England captain averages 50 with the bat. We will lose if he averages 25 or 30." Vaughan is half right. With hopes resting so crucially on not only the captain, but also England's opening batsman for runs, he could quite easily average 50 in a losing cause; each other batsman will have to pull his weight, a worrying prospect when looking at the form of Cook, Pietersen and Collingwood. Ian Bell, in particular, has the potential to turn the series with the performances he is capable of and which we are finally starting to see from him; his own battles with his past record against the toughest opponent could prove to be a microcosm for England's success. The mercurial Mitchell Johnson, arguably Australia's own microcosm, has labelled Strauss as his main target; if he is successful, England face a difficult winter.

A final factor in Australia's potential to win the series is their opinion-dividing leader Ricky Ponting. A man reaching the end of his career, Ponting has taken an undue amount of flak from the Australian media for his record as captain. He has often failed to live up to the high expectations of the nation and has lived in the shadow of his predecessor Steve Waugh, whose near-perfect record as captain was achieved with one of the greatest teams in test history, and one superior to Ponting's class of 2010 in almost every way. This was destined to be a hard act for Ponting to follow.

His batting legacy will never be in doubt. An instinctive and deadly predator at the crease, Ponting is the finest batsman I have ever seen play. But to lose the series, Ponting will have the unwanted accolade of losing three of four Ashes series, which, despite what any pre-Ashes sledging may suggest to the contrary, is the most important series for their players and fans. Thus Ponting's captaincy will be, if unfairly, regarded as a failure should England fly home with the urn in February. A fiercely competitive individual, often to his own detriment, Ponting will be desperate to prove a point to his doubters by winning what will be his final Ashes as captain.

This could prove a decisive factor in the series, giving an added edge to Australia's spirit (as if they ever needed a boost in motivation!), with more players in the team than merely Ponting having something to prove under the scrutiny of their own fans and media, North and Johnson being two prime examples. The series will be much closer than England's pundits seem to be indicating. Australia's superior batting line-up makes them slight favourites for the series, but England will be justifiably confident of success.

* Australia batting records in Australia, career record in brackets:

Shane Watson – Ave. 43.50 (39.94) ; 1 hundred (2)

Simon Katich – Ave. 46.90 (45.96) ; 3 hundreds (10)

Ricky Ponting – Ave. 60.08 (54.68) ; 21 hundreds (39)

Michael Clarke – 58.56 (48.91) ; 8 hundreds (14)

Michael Hussey – 62.65 (49.75) ; 8 hundreds (11)

Marcus North – 23.00 (37.40) ; 0 hundreds (5)

Bradley Haddin – 44.81 (38.62) ; 1 hundred (2)