Bob Wills: No rabbits in the headlights like last time
Let's be optimistic because England could not be going into a tight, nail-biting series in better heart
Sunday 21 November 2010
Perhaps we will wake up soon to discover that it was all just a dream and wheels have been falling off left, right and centre. But with the start of the Ashes series now four days away, it is hard to think how England's preparations over the past couple of weeks could have gone much better.
OK, in an ideal world the captain Andrew Strauss and coach Andy Flower would have liked their bowlers to have had a bit of a longer run-out during the second warm-up match against South Australia, but bad weather is something even the best planners cannot control.
And then there is that old thorn in the side with regard to being sent to the Antarctic, sorry Tasmania, before heading up to steamy Brisbane, but England's hosts would say that because Hobart doesn't get a Test match it deserves to stage the Australia A game.
No, all in all I don't think England could be in better heart going into the First Test of what I expect to be a tight, tense and nail-bitingly close series. And that is certainly not something that would have been said of the visitors four years ago before a ball was bowled in that ill-fated and ultimately feeble attempt to retain the Ashes.
The one big debating point so far has concerned England's tactic of sending their four front-line bowlers to Brisbane, rather than letting them play in Hobart. I think it was perhaps over-cautious, and getting into bowling rhythm is better done in the middle – in a match situation – rather than in the nets.
But I can understand the decision, particularly if the change in temperature promised to be as dramatic as is sometimes the case when the thermometer shows early teens centigrade in Tassie and more like 40 in Queensland.
No doubt England's Australian bowling coach, David Saker, was consulted and I think it would have been Flower's plan all along.
I'm sure James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Steven Finn and Graeme Swann are being put through their paces pretty vigorously in Brisbane but my only concern is that they will have gone something like 11 days without competitive action by the time the First Test begins.
The bottom line, of course, is that if the four of them perform well in the opening encounter, it will have been the right decision – and if they appear a bit rusty, it will seem like the wrong one.
But I can see the logic behind the move and, whatever happens, I'm a huge fan of the head coach and his meticulous preparation. Flower eased into the job fairly slowly in the West Indies when he took over in 2009 and I thought he and Strauss were ultra-cautious on that tour.
Ending up losing the series 1-0 was a huge disappointment but I think since that campaign both parties have worked together superbly and I give as much credit to Flower for England's resurgence as I do to Strauss.
There is no bigger challenge, though, than an away Ashes series, and especially an opening Test in Brisbane. Because England have performed so poorly there over so many series, it is absolutely vital that they race out of the blocks this time – and don't have that rabbit in the headlights look which the whole team seemed to wear four years ago.
People who were on the spot in 2006 said the guys getting off the team bus and going into the Gabba on the first morning of that Test looked as though they were heading for the gallows, not a cricket match.
Steve Harmison's wide to second slip showed how the nerves were jangling but I don't think there will be any lack of focus from any member of this 16-man squad.
There are some concerns, naturally, with two players at opposite ends of the order – Alastair Cook and Jimmy Anderson – under the spotlight because both of them struggled on their previous tour of Australia.
Experience of Australian conditions is important, though, so I would expect the pair to perform better than they did four years ago.
Overall, I think England edge Australia on the bowling front with the fact that Swann is twice as good as any spinner that the opposition can pick making the difference.
And, on paper, the Aussies are perhaps slightly stronger in the batting department. Yet, despite that, my biggest concern is for England's bowling unit; not the quality of it but the number in it.
There are five Tests in six and a half weeks, most of the pitches are going to be pretty flat and England are not only committed to a four-man attack but they also think their number one bowling unit is able to get by in all conditions.
I'm not so sure they can in a series which has been shoe-horned into such a short period of time, and there is a danger that Swann will be on his knees by the fourth match of the series simply through bowling too many overs.
However, for the moment at least, optimism has to be the order of the day. England are in good shape going into the Brisbane Test, they are well-led and I think they've got just enough to cling on to the urn with a 2-2 drawn series.
Second-string attack is ideal cover – and Morgan is ready to step up
Time will tell whether England were right to send their first-choice attack to Brisbane for a bit of extra acclimatisation, rather than playing them against Australia A.
But the good news is that events in Hobart confirmed there is real strength in depth when it comes to the seam department.
Chris Tremlett has been transformed since he moved from Hampshire to Surrey and then got over an early-season injury. Bowling at the Bellerive Oval can be back-breaking work but he has done a good job, cast-off that "pea-heart" tag and now seems to relish the big challenge.
He did not let England down when he played three Tests in 2007 but it is just a pity this change didn't happen four or five years ago.
Ajmal Shahzad was probably a bit unlucky not to have made it into the official 16-man Ashes squad but he is just about part of the touring group now and I think he is a good prospect.
And as for Tim Bresnan, we saw in Bangladesh last winter – when it was really hard work for bowlers – that he has plenty of guts and determination.
I think the three of them are ideal back-ups and if injury hits any of the front-line seamers, England can call on a near like-for-like replacement.
One man who did not get a game in Hobart – and is only a broken finger or an illness away from playing in Brisbane – was Eoin Morgan.
Clearly the First Test XI is set in stone and the priority is to give the chosen top six batsmen every opportunity to find form and build confidence.
It is tough on Morgan, who needs to be ready to play at a moment's notice but may find his only chance comes in the one remaining warm-up match – between the Second and Third Tests.
I'm afraid that is the way of modern tours where there aren't opportunities for reserve players unless you pick them on compassionate rather than cricketing grounds. So Morgan will just have to bide his time, but I rate his temperament highly. I think he could cope with the situation of being lobbed into the Test team at the last minute.
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