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England fighting an unfamiliar foe

Posted in England in Australia 2010-11

Ashes urn

England's hopes of returning with the urn are higher than at any time since 1986-87

Among the traits exhibited by England fans during previous Ashes tours, overconfidence was perhaps not the most prevalent.

However, such has been the groundswell of support for England in recent weeks that I'm finding it increasingly difficult to keep my optimism in check ahead of the first Test.

There has been a familiar pattern to much of the pre-Ashes coverage - at least on this side of the world - with tales of Australian decline intermingled with reports of growing England assuredness.

However, the length of the build-up and the breadth of the reporting raises the very real danger that the validity of opinions expressed grows in direction proportion to their frequency.

When Andrew Strauss claims in one newspaper that England are quietly confident of winning in Australia, it seems perfectly plausible. By the time you have read it in half a dozen newspapers, heard it trotted out on every other radio station and had it repeatedly flashed up on the internet, it begins to sound like gospel.

At moments like this I find myself turning to the trustiest of cricket companions: Wisden.

I must admit that having a shelf full of them has done little for my street cred down the years, and I am yet to find a lonely hearts column which begins: ‘Attractive female seeks male with GSOH and complete set of almanacks’. As for bringing the 1982 edition on a first date, trust me when I say it’s not a good idea.

When a sense of cricketing perspective is needed, though, there are few better sources to tap into, and a quick glance at the ‘Test Records - England v Australia’ section should serve as a reality check for those who expect the tourists to cruise to victory this winter.

It barely needs repeating that England have not triumphed in Australia since 1986-87, and you may even be aware that they have won only three of the 25 Tests they have played Down Under since then. Yet arguably the most shocking statistic is that, of those three wins, not one came when the Ashes were still at stake.

Alastair Cook

Alastair Cook's century in Adelaide was the latest positive aspect of a tour that has begun in encourgaing fashion for England

The last time England won a Test in Australia that had a bearing on the destination of the urn was 1986. This winter they must, in all likelihood, win a minimum of two to retain the Ashes. Therein lies the challenge.

In delving into the archives, I know I run the risk of being labelled unpatriotic, but my purpose is to highlight the scale of the task facing England over the next two months, which seems to have been conveniently ignored by some tub-thumping publications (we accept our fair share of blame for this, but, then again, we do have a vested interest).

In particular, it would be mighty foolish to dismiss Australia’s record on home soil over the last two decades, against not only England but every other international side: they have won 27 and lost just one of the last 31 series stretching back to 1993.

Statistics, as ever, don’t tell the whole story.

Australia’s recent record is being used as proof of their decline, and it is common knowledge that they have lost their last three Tests. That they won the previous seven is less widely reported by the English media.

Australia’s top order has been the subject of much debate lately, with Ricky Ponting’s batting and captaincy under scrutiny, Michael Clarke’s seemingly guaranteed succession to the throne and the state of his back in doubt, Mike Hussey’s place no longer secure and Simon Katich struggling for fitness. But before we get too carried away, it is worth noting that, of the top five, only Shane Watson averages under 45.

By common consent, however, this winter, represents England’s best chance of success since Mike Gatting returned with the Ashes in his possession almost a quarter of a century ago.

There is no shortage of reasons to believe Strauss will emulate Gatting, chief among them England’s impressive form over the last 18 months, including six series wins in all forms of cricket this summer.

Ricky Ponting

Ricky Ponting's Australia may have lost in India recently, but their record on home soil over the last two decades remains formidable

Tour matches that have traditionally brought nothing but embarrassment have seen two encouraging performances, with most of the top order scoring heavily and the bowlers doing well enough to reportedly earn a rest from the final warm-up match in Hobart. Their Test XI is as good as decided.

Even the most blinkered of Australia supporters could not argue with any credibility that the current team compares favourably with the side of yesteryear containing Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, Hayden and Langer.

Indeed, Australia seem to be enduring a rare identity crisis. They have just sacked a selector, Merv Hughes, and there are suggestions that they will announce a bloated 16-man squad tomorrow - a full 10 days before the first Test - at an unsuitably lavish press ceremony at Sydney’s Circular Quay.

England’s form versus Australia’s record. Momentum against home advantage. The arguments could go on - and surely will.

Fortunately, it matters not a jot what you, I or anybody else outside of the England camp thinks, for the two Andys in charge - Strauss and Flower - are not the sort to start believing their own publicity.

Surely two of the most grounded men in international cricket, neither will allow a few complimentary headlines to lure them down the dangerous path of overconfidence.

For all England’s strengths on the field, this is the main reason why the players can entertain realistic thoughts of winning the Ashes in Australia. But let us not for one minute think it will be easy.

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