Australia keep on winning but have lost that magic touch

Ponting's team are upbeat ahead of Pakistan Test but, with one eye on the Ashes, England can also afford a smile
  • @stephenbrenkley

When the old bluffer himself speaks it is time to listen. Shane Warne, who spent an entire career tormenting England by suggesting what he would do to them on behalf of Australia and then doing it, has been talking up their chances in this winter's Ashes series.

If some of his compatriots are tempted to regard this as heresy another interpretation is that Warne was actually underplaying England's ability to retain the most prized trophy in the sport. With Warne it is always difficult to be sure, with or without ball in hand.

"England are coming good and they are doing really well at the moment," said Warne. "Australia are going pretty decent too so I think the Ashes series is going to be a really close contest. But this winter is probably England's best chance to win in Australia in the last 20 years. Certainly in my time it was often the case that when they came over they'd have to play their absolute best and we'd have to play poorly for it to be a close contest. This one coming is their chance to give it a real shake."

It seems to be true that Australia do not seem so formidable as they did when Warne was playing, but they do have a tendency to keep winning. There is a wonderful opportunity to see them at close quarters this summer because they are in the country playing a mini-series of two Test matches against Pakistan, the second of which begins in Leeds today. Australia won the first by a country mile against hapless opponents and everything seen so far, not disregarding Pakistan's mercurial talent to surprise, indicates that they will do likewise sometime by Saturday at the latest.

What it means for the Ashes is probably minimal. Australia have now beaten Pakistan in 13 successive Test matches but it does not necessarily bespeak much more than a confident, well prepared team beating one which is anxious and under-prepared. That would seem to be the case when a team surrenders wickets by the bucketload to irregular Test bowlers like Shane Watson and Marcus North, as Pakistan did at Lord's last week.

But Warne is not alone in assessing – given his conclusion of the likely scenario this winter – that Australia are not as good as they used to be and England are better then they were. Australia's bowling attack, like most around the world, still appears to lack a cutting edge, that magic ingredient given them for so long by Warne and Glenn McGrath. They will persist in playing a four-man attack which might yet play into English hands. Two of the quartet will almost certainly be Ben Hilfenhaus, who hopes to recover from a sore shoulder to play in Leeds, and Mitchell Johnson, the world cricketer of the year. But Hilfenhaus, excellent though he is, for his accuracy and late movement, is not yet McGrath (who is?) and Johnson is again going through one of his most notoriously inconstant phases.

There is a growing feeling among Australians that the spin place might go to leg spinner Steve Smith, the regular recent occupant, Nathan Hauritz being injured and recovering at home. Smith is a work in progress, much nearer the start of that than the end, and whatever else he might bring to the team it will not be Warne's capacity for trickery.

If Australia's batting appears to be settled it does not seem as potent as once it was. The recent averages show that neither Ricky Ponting nor Mike Hussey impose themselves on the opposition as they used to and that Shane Watson, a converted opening batsman, is starting to find life there fretful.

It was intriguing that Warne, who was speaking to the Press Association in his capacity as global ambassador for (he has started playing poker to pro standard since quitting leg spin bowling, exchanging one form of bluffing for another) alluded not to Australia's spin attack but to England's. He had already singled out Graeme Swann as England's most improved cricketer and yesterday said that he could give England their best opportunity of competing.

"He is the big key," said Warne. "He is probably the most improved player in world cricket. It's the first time England are coming to Australia with an attacking spinner who can take a five-for and win you a game on the last day. Guys like Ashley Giles did a great job for England but that element of attack is what they've lacked.

"Three or four wickets over here – Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane – all turn so you need a spinner who goes after wickets rather than just containing. He's one of a few new faces who haven't got a lot of scars from previous tours."

Before England's followers start preening themselves too far in advance it is worth reminding themselves that Australia, while dominant with Warne and McGrath, have hardly been pushovers without them. They have played 60 home Test matches in this decade and lost only six of them, including two against South Africa, their first home series loss for 15 years. Since Warne retired after the 2006-07 Ashes, Australia have played 17 home Tests and lost only three.

But it is the Ashes that it is all about. They are the reason Australia will not let their guard drop for a moment in Leeds. Everybody wants to be there at Brisbane on 25 November. As Hussey, one of the heroes of Australia's overwhelmingly successful home campaign four years ago, put it yesterday: "There is still so much motivation because one, it is a Test match for Australia and two, we are getting closer and closer to the Ashes series as well. I know all the guys want to be part of that Ashes series so everyone wants to perform in every Test match leading up to that to make sure they are on that team sheet in late November."

Murali snares Tendulkar for wicket 793

One down, seven to go – Muttiah Muralitharan trapped Sachin Tendulkar leg before to take his tally of Test wickets to 793. This is Muralitharan's final Test and he is desperate to reach the 800 mark. Sri Lanka made 520 for 8 and in reply India reached 140 for 3, with Virender Sehwag hitting an unbeaten, 98-ball 85.