Thoughts turn towards the Ashes
Posted in npower Ashes Series 2009
England have just scored 879 runs in drawing the fourth Test against West Indies in Barbados.
Five thousand miles away, Australia are taking the first steps towards restoring their aura following a comprehensive victory over South Africa in Johannesburg.
It is now less than five months until the Ashes and the two combatants will be sizing each other up.
Both teams are rebuilding - England under new captain Andrew Strauss and Australia after the humiliation of losing their first series at home since 1993 - and both feature fresh faces.
England are using the series in the West Indies to further assess the credentials of Owais Shah, Graeme Swann and Ravi Bopara, while Australia were forced to field a bowling attack with 24 Test caps between them and two debutant batsmen, including the 20-year-old opener Phil Hughes, at the Wanderers.
England’s first-innings total in Barbados was built by a combination of youth and experience. Andrew Strauss, Paul Collingwood and Alastair Cook made sizeable contributions, while Bopara recorded a maiden century in just his fourth Test and Graeme Swann bowled 50 overs to take his second successive five-wicket haul.
Meanwhile, in South Africa Marcus North crafted a superb hundred on debut, Hughes and Ben Hilfenhaus impressed and Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke chipped in with half-centuries.
Despite their recent loss to South Africa on home soil, Australia are better equipped to retain the Ashes than many commentators believe.
Having chopped and changed personnel throughout most of the southern summer, they have now won two Tests in a row and appear to have settled on playing six batsmen and four bowlers.
Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle are bowling with control and aggression and Hilfenhaus showed in Johannesburg what a handful he may be on green English pitches.
Hughes handled the transition to Test cricket with remarkable composure and Australia have uncovered a real gem in North, who has been flaying attacks for Western Australia for years.
They retain the vast experience of Ponting, Clarke and Hussey, and may be tempted to abandon their search for an all-rounder following Johnson’s brutal 96 in the first innings. His batting average is now higher than his bowling average and Andrew Symonds’ return appears increasingly unlikely.
Australia have an attractive mixture of experience and youth. If the talents of Hughes, North, Siddle and Hilfenhaus can be integrated into the team, confidence restored and a winning mentality rediscovered, Australia - need we say - will be extremely tough to beat come July.
Though England are still searching for a first Test win on their tour of the Caribbean, there are numerous bright spots.
Both openers - Strauss, revelling in his new-found responsibility as captain, and Cook - are in fine form and the middle order have made strong contributions throughout.
Bopara, Shah and Swann have gained invaluable experience, Tim Ambrose has proved a capable stand-in for Matt Prior and the ever-impressive Kevin Pietersen continues to nudge his average upwards.
They will get another crack at the Windies in England in May and will aim to use that series to bed down their squad ahead of Australia’s visit.
As we have heard countless times before, winning the Ashes is a mental game. England triumphed in 2005 because they got under the Australians’ skins and the bowlers had the discipline to stick to a carefully prepared plan.
Eighteen months later, England were comprehensively beaten by an Australia outfit noticeably more determined, more ruthless and more united in their purpose.
Both teams face a similar challenge: how to integrate new talent and string together a series of victories to restore confidence. The side that manages the current state of flux best will be well placed to win the Ashes.