The eyes of the sporting world will again turn to Australia for the 68th incarnation of the Ashes. The series kicks off in Brisbane on November 21st, with Australia eager to make amends for its disastrous 3-0 loss in England during the Australian winter. There has been an unusually short break between series, given that the previous series was held a year later so as not to clash with the London Olympics, and the return fixture cannot come too soon for Australia. It shall be a fascinating contest between an England side near its zenith, compared to an Australian side which has often appeared toothless of late, in sharp contrast to the dominance of the Australian side of the late 1990s and most of the 2000s.
In many ways, it was not so much a stellar performance from England, but rather Australian ineptitude which resulted in the 3-0 score line in the previous series. Other than a shining 180 from Joe Root in the second innings of the Lord’s test match, Ian Bell, with 562 runs at an average of 62.44 was the only real standout performer for the English. Big names such as Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott, who devastated Australia during the last Ashes series here, failed to shine, whilst Kevin Pietersen was the second top run scorer, albeit inconsistent, with one century and a total of 388 runs. England is yet to settle on its opening combination, with Alastair Cook having a variety of partners of late; Nick Compton was dropped before the previous series after inconsistent form, whilst Joe Root looks uncertain. Michael Carberry staked a strong claim to the openers spot with a century in the rain marred warm up match against Australia A in Hobart which concluded on Saturday, but that was on a flat pitch against a largely docile attack.
On the bowling front, England will look to regular stalwarts Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad to head the pace attack, with off spinner Graeme Swann again set to bowl plenty of overs. Swann was leading wicket taker with 26 in the previous series, whilst Broad and Anderson claimed 22 apiece. It will be interesting to see who makes up the remainder of the attack. Workhorse Yorkshireman Tim Bresnan is likely to miss the series with a back injury. Chris Tremlett and former Ireland player Boyd Rankin can be expected to fight for places in the attack, whilst spinner Monty Panesar might also play alongside Swann if a curator happens to produce a turning pitch. Matt Prior is to take the wicket keepers gloves, unless a calf injury sustained during the Australia A match rules him out, in which case Johnny Bairstow is likely to keep wicket.
The Australian line-up is amongst one of the less certain in recent decades, with a number of spots up for grabs, reflective of recent poor performances. Good performances in the recently concluded Sheffield Shield match for NSW against Victoria look set to help David Warner retain the openers spot alongside Chris Rogers, who made 88 and 117 for Victoria in that same match. Other than that, Clarke, Smith and Watson (if he recovers from a hamstring injury) are set to feature, with the number 6 spot up for grabs. Alex Doolan, Usman Khawaja and George Bailey, who scored prodigiously during Australia’s recent ODI tour of India all fighting for the spot. Watson (418 runs), Clarke (381) and Rogers (367) were the only batsmen who could be said to have reasonable series in England, but no-one was particularly consistent.
As for the bowling attack, there are again numerous possibilities. Injury prone workhorse Ryan Harris looks set to feature, alongside Victorian Peter Siddle. Other than that, two fast bowling slots and to some extent the spinners spot are up for grabs. The erratic Mitchell Starc, the even more hot and could Mitchell Johnson, as well as players such as all-rounder James Faulkner, the as yet untried Queenslander Ben Cutting, who bowled well for Australia A could all also feature in the Australian attack, or Ben Hilfenhaus. Nathan Lyon appears to have the spinners spot locked in, in spite of relatively lacklustre performances at first class level this season, although given his unceremonious dropping for youngster Ashton Agar before the First Test in England, anything could happen.
One other hallmark of the last Ashes series was controversy over umpiring decisions, particularly in relation to the Decision Review System. All four umpires from that series are set to feature, with Marais Erasmus, Kumar Dharmasena and Aleem Dar set to feature on field, whilst New Zealander Tony Hill, who had a patchy series in England set to be the third umpire for three matches, as part of an ICC push to make the role more specialised when DRS is in use. The big surprise is the appointment of Kiwi Billy Bowden, on field for the Perth test and as third umpire in Melbourne. The eccentric Bowden was dropped from the ICC Elite Panel of Umpires in June back to New Zealand’s International Panel of Umpires. As a member of that panel, he is however still able to be appointed to test matches, and given the controversy during the last series, the ICC has evidently been eager to make use of him to relieve the pressure on other umpires.
It is sure to be an enthralling series. Australia appears to be on the back foot, whilst England looks good, albeit not at their dominant best. In front of eager Australian crowds, with the Australian’s eager to reclaim the Ashes, anything could happen. In spite of that, England is clearly the better of the two teams. My prediction is for a 3-1 victory to England.
First published at http://theinfinitive.com.au/sport/cricket/will-urn-returned-australia/1388