Australia remain favourites, says Ashes stalwart

Keith Fletcher's Ashes fortunes fluctuated wildly as he pursued the game's greatest prize for more than a quarter of a century.

After he made his Ashes debut in a drawn home series in 1968, Fletcher was a member of Ray Illingworth's tourists who surprised Australia with a 2-0 triumph in 1970-71.

Four years later, after helping England to retain the urn in 1972, he was on the receiving end of a pace bombardment from Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson as the Australians regained the big prize under the captain, Ian Chappell.

Fletcher, who scored more than 3,000 runs and averaged nearly 40 in a 59-Test career, also played against the old enemy in 1975 and in the Centenary Test in Melbourne the following year. And in 1995 - seven years after he brought down the curtain on a 28-year playing career in which he led Essex to all the domestic trophies - he returned to Ashes action as team manager of Mike Atherton's tourists, who lost the series 3-1.

"So yes, I've seen Ashes cricket from all sides," said Fletcher, 61, whose autobiography, appropriately titled Ashes to Ashes, was published recently.

"Winning the Ashes in Australia was one of the best experiences of my career. In fairness, we weren't up against the strongest side they have ever fielded but no Aussie team is easy to beat and it still went right down to the wire in a seventh Test in Sydney.

"They needed 263 in the fourth innings but Illy [Illingworth] bowled well and we got home by 62 runs. We were a strong, well-balanced side with a lot of experience and we should have sewn it up before the final match.

"The 1974-75 series was very tough, the most difficult I played in. In Lillee and Thomson they had two of the fastest bowlers in the world and prepared pitches that suited them. We didn't really have an answer.

"Like a few England players I came out of that tour with a question mark over my ability to play fast bowling but that wasn't strictly fair. Anyone would have found it tough against those two at that time.

"Thomson was a bit of a freak in that he only stayed at the top for a short time - but in that series he was a real threat. And Lillee was a truly great bowler. I rate him and Fred Trueman as the best two bowlers I faced and men of that calibre are always going to take wickets, even against the very best batsmen."

With a new Ashes series only four weeks away, Fletcher said he believed Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne could pose similar problems for an England side hoping to regain the Ashes for the first time since 1987.

"Like Lillee, McGrath is a quality performer and he's always going to get good batters out," said Fletcher, who captained England in India in 1981-82.

"And Warne locks it all together for them. He takes wickets, doesn't concede many runs and can bowl all day. That gives the captain the chance to rotate the pace bowlers at the other end. Even though they have struggled a bit in the one-dayers, Australia have to be the favourites.

"Their top four are as good as anything in the game and to have a player of Adam Gilchrist's quality coming in at seven says everything about their depth. If we're going to have a chance, we have to be firing at 100 per cent from the first ball of the series, particularly key players like Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison.

"We're moving in the right direction, though, and it will be interesting to see what happens if Kevin Pietersen gets a chance.

"He's shown in the one-day game that he can dominate and really make the opposition worry. But can he do it at Test level when there are more catchers around the bat and you have to be far more selective in your choice of shot? We'll have to wait and see."

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