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Thursday 24th November; after months of media build up and intense preparation by the England and Australia teams, the first test begun at the Gabba in Brisbane. Five days later, and for non-cricket fans the resulting draw would appear to show that no-one has drawn first blood. However, looking beyond the result; some key moments have unfolded. For the Australians, the resurgence of Michael Hussey with the bat and the potency of Peter Siddle in the first innings will please the selectors. However, the second innings showed that their bowling attack lack the consistency to apply pressure to the batting side; with Mitchell Johnson badly out of sorts. For England, their astonishing 517-1 second innings score showed the ability to bat for long periods. However, Andy Flower will be concerned by the first innings vulnerability and a below par performance from Graeme Swann.
Despite the positive display from England, they will be aware that defeating Australia on their own turf for the first time since 1986-87 will require all the players to perform at their peak over the remaining four tests. A battling performance in Brisbane has at least banished any lingering memories of the disastrous 2006 series which saw England whitewashed 5-0; but this current Australian side should not be underestimated.
Quality preparation has been the key priority for the ECB; the England team have been in Australia for over a month to ensure they are acclimatised and well acquainted with the Kookaburra ball. Andrew Strauss has a quality squad to select from and seems to have a clear idea of his first eleven. However, England must also overcome the mental challenges posed by a tour to Australia; the intense media scrutiny and relentless sledging, not to mention being away from home over the Christmas period.
Then there is the small matter of an Australian squad, which may not induce fear like their compatriots in previous years, but is still a dangerous unit. They will once again be captained by the talismanic Ricky Ponting; and while some question his leadership skills, he remains a world-class batsman. He will be assisted by Michael Clarke, a hugely talented bat who is capable of bowling a few overs and exceptional in the field. The Australian bowling unit may not contain a Warne or Mcgrath but in Bollinger, Hilfenhaus, Johnson and Siddle they posses aggressive quicks. The unknown quantity of spinner Xavier Doherty will also pose questions of the England batsmen. In addition, Australia are also capable of building large totals. In Katich and Watson at the top of the innings, they have players capable of taking a game away from the opposition, whilst the middle order of Haddin, Hussey and North will seek to occupy the crease for long periods.
England’s batting line-up is settled and looks more than capable of handling the Australian bowling line-up. Andrew Strauss will captain and open the batting; the 33 year old will be looking to improve on an ashes average of under 40, whilst ensuring that his troops perform to the very highest level in every session. In contrast to his opening partner, Alastair Cook has much to prove this series. Cook has struggled for form this season and will be keen to show that technical deficiencies and a lack of foot movement have been eradicated from his game. Similar concerns have been voiced over Kevin Pietersen throughout his whirlwind test career. Despite his infuriating tendency to play the extravagant shot and hole-out when well set, KP still averages over 50 against Australia. His unpredictable nature may frustrate pundits and fans alike, although when Pietersen plays at his best, there is no-one more effective in test cricket.
Jonathan Trott is the man charged with batting at number three. The rock-solid if unspectacular Warwickshire batsmen will be vital if England do lose quick wickets at the top of the innings; his uncanny ability to protect his wicket and grind out scores has earned him respect throughout the game. He must also be confident of facing Australia, having scored a century on debut in the 2008-09 series. In Ian Bell, England have a similarly gritty character to occupy the middle order. Although Bell has a terrible record against the Aussies, averaging just 25, he has worked tirelessly at his game with Graham Gooch and scored a fine 192 in the tour game with Australia ‘A’. Fellow middle order player Paul Collingwood has also performed admirably in the build up to the series. Like Trott he will build innings slowly and look to occupy the crease for long periods. In what may prove to be a tight series, Collingwood’s ability to support the tail-enders, bowl the odd over and field as well as anyone in the world will be priceless. England’s final specialist batsmen is Matt Prior, he has the ability to score quickly and has improved behind the stumps immeasurably in recent years.
The quartet of frontline bowlers also looks settled. James Anderson will take the new ball and look to continue his recent fine form, which has seen him hailed as the best swing bowler in world cricket. However, there have been concerns that the Kookaburra ball used by Australia is less conducive to swing bowling and the atmospheric conditions are also less helpful than those in England. Anderson’s new ball partner will be Stuart Broad. The outstanding young Nottinghamshire bowler will be suited to the hard tracks in Australia and while he does not possess raw pace, his variety will be the key to claiming wickets. Broad has taken 18 wickets in his only Ashes series to date, and has matured into a genuine all round talent.
England’s third seamer is Steven Finn, the 6ft 8 Middlesex man will be making his Ashes debut having taken well to international cricket. Finn’s pace and bounce is enough to trouble any batsman, and he has refined his action to remove a glitch that saw him regularly fall to the turf during his follow through. Adding variety to the England attack will be the talismanic Graeme Swann. The Nottinghamshire spinner is one of the best in world cricket and has the ability to turn the ball on any surface. While the flat Australian tracks may limit his wicket taking ability, Swann is more than capable of tying up one end for mammoth spells. England’s bowlers have also worked tirelessly in the nets and now regularly add valuable runs with the support of Prior and Bell.
Waiting in the wings England have five players capable of holding their own in international cricket. Quick bowlers Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan are powerful workhorses, while Monty Panesar has experience of playing in the Ashes. The destructive batsmen Eion Morgan will certainly provide Australia with a challenge if selected. Although arguably more at home in limited overs cricket, if Morgan paces his innings correctly then he should be able to replicate his best form. The final member of the touring party is reserve wicket-keeper Steven Davies. He bats in a similar style to Prior and has been touted as his successor in the long-term; although he may play the role of spectator in this series.
With the series intriguingly poised after the first test, attention turns to the Adelaide Oval where both sides will look to land the first victory. With back-to-back test matches now the norm in modern international cricket, the game starts this Thursday at midnight UK time.