Ashes 2013-14: Mark Waugh predicts England's batting decline will mean hard-fought series
There is the inescapable feeling that this Ashes will go to the wire. Perhaps it is born partly of Australia's wishful thinking after three straight series defeats; perhaps a one-sided rubber would be bad for the brand, for that is what the old urn has become.
But it comes too from solid and rational thinking. Australia are at home, they are a more cohesive squad under the coaching of Darren Lehmann, and England were not that convincing for their 3-0 victory in the summer.
"This contest is very even, both teams genuinely feel they can win the series and I would be very surprised if it's one-sided," says Mark Waugh, a batsman of rare vintage who never knew what it was like to lose the Ashes. "There's not much between them so I'm going to sit on the fence and say it'll be 2-2."
That scoreline, of course, means the Ashes stay where they are. For the holder a level series is enough; the challenger has to prevail. The last drawn series was in England in 1972 when it finished 2-2, the Ashes staying with the home side. The most recent tied rubbers in Australia were both in the Sixties, both 1-1, when Test matches had become attritional affairs in which risk was frowned upon and the first priority of any self-respecting captain was not to lose.
Waugh agrees that winning is a habit. It was one with which he was well acquainted: of his 128 Tests, Australia won 72 and drew 29, and of the 37 series of which those matches formed part, they prevailed in 26.
"We're just going through a period where our players aren't as good as in the past," he says. "We had a lot of great players over the last 15 or so years and I suppose there was going to come a time when that was going to end. But I think we're still a decent side, we're still very competitive, we haven't quite got the world-class players in abundance we have had in the past.
"I suppose in the last series in England there were chances when Australia could have won the Test match but they just lacked that experience or that know-how to win. It's got to stop at some point, Australia have got too many good players not to be winning Test matches. Winning is a habit, so's losing."
Waugh is to be seen these days as a television pundit on the channel that holds the rights to the Big Bash in Australia. He is forthright, if not quite as elegant as when he was scoring 20 Test hundreds. He and his twin, Steve, appeared in 108 Tests together. Steve is less in evidence these days, though he sits on the MCC's World Cricket committee and was on an expert panel opining on the state of Test cricket on the eve of the first Test.
Waugh Jnr – Steve is the elder by minutes – does not share the general doom and gloom that is easy to spot in Australia. It explains why they have been talking up their team and sledging the Poms so fervently in the weeks before the Ashes – the barely admitted belief that it might all be going awry.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with the game generally in the country," says Waugh. "We've got great conditions, the weather and Australians are really good at sport. I think it's cyclical. It's a period where we just haven't quite got the quality there that we have had in the past.
"I think it will change though. You can't win all the time. I think the game is still really strong in Australia. Kids want to play cricket when they're younger, especially with Twenty20 now. That's getting kids involved in playing cricket and it gets parents interested because it doesn't go on all day. The interest is still there, the facilities are still there."
Waugh estimates that Australia's best hope of securing a win lies in what he describes as England's iffy batting line-up. He can see only one player repelling all boarders, with the home attack well capable of taking 20 wickets.
"I have looked at it quite closely," he says. "I don't know much about Michael Carberry, I haven't seen him play much. Alastair Cook is a very good player but I think the Australians have worked out how to bowl to him. Maybe he's not as damaging as he has been in the past.
"They have worked out some good plans for Jonathan Trott as well. He didn't look as confident or assured in the last series as he has done in the past. Kevin Pietersen is very dangerous on his day. I feel his footwork and sometimes his attitude is very loose. I don't think the Australians will be that worried about Kevin Pietersen. As for Joe Root, take out the hundreds and there's not much.
"Last summer, it was really only Ian Bell who looked good, he was so consistent he looked a class above all the other batsmen. He is the real danger. It's a decent batting line-up but I think it relies on Bell."
With that brutal estimate of Pommie deficiencies it was only a surprise that he thinks they can manage to draw the series and retain the Ashes.
The Ashes are part of an unrivalled winter of live sport on Sky Sports including Premier League, Champions League, Heineken Cup, the finale of the F1 season and the Ladbrokes World Darts Championships.
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