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November 21st will see the first day of the 68th Ashes series between England and Australia and it promises to be one of the closest contests in recent years.
On the back of a flattering 3-0 score line in summer, England have questions to answer, the first of which is top order batting; on numerous occasions England lost 3 wickets for less than 100 runs. Joe Root looked inexperienced against the new ball and if it weren’t for his 180 at Lords, his run tally would have been lean. Captain Alistair Cook’s high score in the series was 62, disappointing after he scored 766 runs in the previous series in Australia and Jonathan Trott displayed technical issues as he gave his wicket away cheaply. However England’s batting was stabilised on several occasions by Ian Bell. In the form of his life, he scored 562 at an average of 62.44 as his vital middle order runs gave England the opportunities to win.
The second question is which player will bat at number 6. Yorkshire’s Jonny Bairstow is the favourite to start the 1st test but he faces tough competition from county team-mate Gary Ballance and Durham all-rounder Ben Stokes. Ballance scored 995 championship runs this year as Yorkshire challenged for the title, and has been duly rewarded with a ticket to Australia. Ben Stokes made some good contributions in the One-Day series and is handy with the ball but all three of these players lack experience at cricket’s top level.
While Ballance and Stokes’ selections were relatively surprising, it was less surprising that Graham Onions was left out of the England Squad again. Arguably the best bowler on the county circuit, he has been overlooked by selectors who favour taller bowlers who may get more out of fast, bouncy Australian pitches, so despite taking 70 wickets at 18.46 and with Chris Rushworth winning the championship for Durham, he doesn’t get a place in the squad.
Instead selectors opted for Tremlett, Finn, Rankin and Stokes, all tall bowlers to complement the stalwarts of Anderson, Broad and Swann. The much loved Monty Panesar has been picked as a second spinner to support Swann even after he had an amusing altercation involving a nightclub bouncer and got released by his county.
Looking ahead, games will likely be won and lost by the bowlers.
Australian pitches can be flat and movement can be hard to find. It will be down to James Anderson, now England 2nd highest wicket taker of all time, to have a good series – last time down-under, he took an impressive 24 wickets to help England’s cause. Graeme Swann is a vital cog in England’s attack and his ability to destroy left-handed batsmen is a great asset to the team, however Australia will probably prepare pitches that don’t turn due to their lack of a world-class spinner to fill the void that Shane Warne left.
After the Summer Ashes Series, Australia have found a lot of positives. The majority of their playing eleven has been finalised though questions over batting remain. Michael Clarke is by far the stand-out batsman, but Chris Rogers has a lot of experience and Shane Watson’s technical issues were improving in the last test.
If Ryan Harris stays fit, he will play a major part in the upcoming series, as will Australia’s workhorse bowler Peter Siddle. The pair bowled very well and often troubled the English top three.
Mitchell Johnson may well find a way back into the Australian team after exemplary performances in the One-Day Team against India and for Mumbai Indians in the IPL. His ability to control movement at an uncomfortable pace and sharp bouncers even on slow Indian pitches means he deserves another chance in the Test side, especially given Alistair Cook’s weakness when batting against left arm quick bowlers. Australia had promising performances in England this year and will look to build on them; whilst on home territory, England’s faults can be exposed but Australia need to learn to win.
Rain and Ian Bell saved England some embarrassment in the summer, but England’s killer instinct shone through in the games they did win, with each of Broad, Anderson and Swann bowling brilliantly to close out a match. This series promises to be a closely fought battle and England’s dominance of late could be upset if the Australians put up a fight.