When Alastair Cook leads his side out into the middle in front of what will be a packed Trent Bridge for the first time this summer, they will find themselves in an unusual position.
For decades, it’s been Australia who were expected to dominate, expected to outclass their opponents, to rub England’s nose in it and to show their superiority and class over their hopes. For decades too, Australia did just that. The 18 years in which the Aussies retained the Ashes remains etched onto the minds of players and supporters of both sides alike. England fans have had to endure years of mediocrity, but now the tides have turned they’ll expect nothing less than for Captain Cook’s men to inflict the same misery they’ve had to endure for years onto their oldest rivals.
England’s position as favourites seems, on the face, to be justified. Ranked second in the world, they’ve recently beaten a solid West Indies side at home, ended 20 years of disappointment by defeating India in their backyard and avenged a disappointing tour by beating New Zealand in what was their final series before the match-up against Australia. The true engine room of what has become something of a well-groomed machine is their bowling line-up. Stuart Broad is capable of tearing teams to shreds, James Anderson is the world’s premiere swing bowler, whilst Graeme Swann gives England a crucial advantage that Australia have, for so long, been able to hold over England – Swann is the only top-quality spinner.
However, those who have England pencilled in for a whitewash are being overly hasty. There are a number of question marks that surround England, and it’s in these areas that Australia will look to exploit England. First up is the debate on who should open with Alastair Cook. Previously, it’s been the docile, methodical Nick Compton who has gotten the nod, but it seems as though the talented Joe Root is now the popular choice to take his place at the top of the order. Though Root remains one of the most stylish batsmen England have produced in years, his temperament and lack of experience could be called into question, especially given that he will be thrust into an environment never seen before.
Root’s promotion to the top of order only further weakens a middle-order that has looked on rocky ground of late. Ian Bell has looked desperately out of touch in recent months, whilst Jonny Bairstow has struggled to set the world alight as his fellow Yorkshireman Root has. Kevin Pietersen’s ability to act as the glue in the middle-order will be crucial to England. Luckily for England, Pietersen is super-resistant glue, and at his best, transforms the middle-order from shaky to one of real quality. Question marks do remain about Pietersen’s fitness. But, as a natural athlete who has been preparing to be fit especially for this series, Pietersen should be there alongside his team-mates at Trent Bridge. Once again, England will be reliant on Pietersen if they want to win.
Though they are underdogs, the pressure on Australia could not be higher. Having lost their coach just two weeks before the action starts, places will be on the line for many players as they attempt to impress new coach Darren Lehmann. Lehmann was the popular choice for the role, and whilst his more laidback style suggests he’ll bring evolution rather than revolution, there is no doubt that he’ll be looking for areas of weakness in what is an undoubtedly under-performing team.
Top of his list of concerns will be the middle-order. The Australians have already had to cope with losing the class and experience of Mike Hussey, but there are also doubts over the fitness of Michael Clarke. Even with Clarke, it’s a line-up that seems to be bereft of experience and, more importantly, quality. Old-timer Brad Haddin has been drafted in to try and add some stability, whilst unheralded names such as Usman Khawaja and Chris Rogers will be expected to plug the gaps in a middle-order that could leak badly against England’s bowling attack.
Australia do have some players who can give England nightmares. Their bowling attack is considerably improved on it’s recent predecessors and could give that middle-order something to think about. As if the Pattinson family hadn’t embarrassed England enough with the bewildering selection of Darren a few years ago, they could be about to inflict more with younger brother James. A pacy, aggressive bowler who is a considerable improvement on his brother, Pattinson could cause damage in English conditions. Ryan Harris, who has always been a talent, is hoping to finally shake off his injury woes and, at 30, finally live up to his undoubted potential. Peter Siddle is a survivor from the 2011 series, and is an intimidating bowler who usually saves his best for England. Sadly, and much to the disappointment of England fans across the land, Mitchell Johnson failed to make the cut.
PREDICTION: Australia will come out of the blocks quickly and will be fired-up, so England will have to improve on their recent slow starts. Much could depend on the form of Australia’s top order which, with the likes of Warner and Watson, could score runs quickly and put England on the backfoot. However, as the series progresses, England’s experience and quality should prevail, but don’t expect high scoring, dominating wins. This series could come down to the small details. Luckily, with Cook and Flower at the helm, that’s what England do best.
ENGLAND 3-1 AUSTRALIA