Fresh faces offer hope as Aussies name Ashes men
So much seems to impede Australia. Of their much-awaited squad for the 2009 Ashes announced yesterday, 11 have never been on an Ashes tour, eight have played fewer than 10 Test matches, seven are more than thirty years old, only five were part of the team that hounded England from pillar to post and won 5-0 two years ago.
So much, yet so little. The other way of looking at their squad is that it consists of the most hard-nosed captain of the lot in Ricky Ponting, a man burning with vengeance; the world's best fast bowler in Mitchell Johnson, who has reached his resplendent maturity in time for this tour; and the most exciting new batsmen on the planet in Phillip Hughes, for whom, despite it being early days, anything seems possible.
Australia can field a formidable XI from the 16 players they named yesterday. They will not be as powerful as some teams of recent vintage, but nor will they be as brittle of some of those who came immediately before that. They will be thoroughly Australian, tough, uncompromising, going nowhere either quietly or quickly.
There are glaring gaps, of course. Not deficiencies exactly but weaknesses caused by the fact that the men who will arrive next month cannot expect to fill the shoes of those whom they have replaced. In no particular order, no Shane Warne, no Glenn McGrath, no Adam Gilchrist, no Matthew Hayden. No hope, an Englishman would like to think, but only in his wildest dreams.
Andrew Hilditch, the chairman of selectors said: "The Ashes squad contains an exciting blend of experience and youth. The core of the squad is made up of the side which won the Test series in South Africa."
Ponting has already declared his intent. On the eve of the squad announcement – an event in Australia greeted with as much fanfare as the Melbourne Cup – he spoke of targeting the England captain, Andrew Strauss. After it, he said: "They've obviously done everything very well in these last two Test matches against West Indies but I can guarantee that they'll be facing a stiffer opposition when we arrive."
Despite the whitewash of 2006-07, Ponting will view this tour as unfinished business. He has never quite enunciated in public how much it hurt to be the captain of Australia who, in 2005, relinquished the Ashes after a period – and he will know it precisely – of 16 years and 42 days.
Part of the redemption he sought came in the return in Australia. But only part. He will be desperate to lay the ghost of 2005. Another defeat would not quite diminish an accomplished career but it would rankle forever: Ponting, the man who lost two Ashes series. Only three months ago, he was up against it. Australia had been beaten in India and, horror of horrors, at home by South Africa. But they then toured South Africa and to general astonishment went 2-0 up in the three-match series, their new boys doing everything that could have been asked.
Johnson and Hughes were particularly prominent and much will be expected of them. Stopping them will be much on England's mind.
If Australia will rely more than ever on their top five to make most of the runs, most of those who follow can hold a bat with some assurance. Equally, if Johnson is expected to make the most significant incursions, he has sturdy support.
It is, as Hilditch and Ponting were at pains to point out, a combination of age and youth, of experience and inexperience. But they know that it is not like the old days, they know that this team can be vulnerable.
The balance of the team will take some calculating. There are two all-rounders but neither looks capable of holding down the pivotal No 6 position in the batting order. Do they, in effect, field three No 7s?
In scrutinising the probable team, however, it is impossible not to keep returning to the conundrum of what they do about spin. Warne has been gone for more than two years and Australia have won 11 of their Test matches since. But they have also lost six.
The Australians of 2009 are not the Australians of 1993, 1997, 2001 or even of 2005. They will probably win but they can be beaten. They know it.
Wizards of Oz: Players chosen to defend the urn
Ricky Ponting (captain) 34, Tasmania, right-hand bat. 131 matches, 10,960 runs at 56.21, 37 hundreds. Supreme and driven performer, perhaps softened by fatherhood. He wants revenge for 2005.
Michael Clarke (vice-captain) 28, New South Wales, right-hand bat, left-arm spin, 47 matches, 3,204 runs at 47.82, 10 hundreds. Known as Pup, he has added a mongrel's bite to his flamboyant style. May dislike the swinging ball.
Stuart Clark 33, New South Wales, fast-medium right-arm bowler. 22 matches, 90 wickets at 20.67 av, two five-wickets in innings. Poor man's Glenn McGrath, maybe, but not by much. Prodigiously accurate, dangerous in English conditions.
Brad Haddin 31, New South Wales, wicketkeeper-batsman. 15 matches, 901 runs at 37.54, one hundred, 55 catches, one stumping. Solid, but suffers by comparison with predecessor, Adam Gilchrist, for which England can be eternally grateful.
Nathan Hauritz 27, New South Wales, off-break bowler. Four matches, 14 wickets at 32.29. Not Shane Warne – and may not even be Graeme Swann. He's a tough competitor, and will need to be.
Ben Hilfenhaus 26, Tasmania, right-arm fast bowler. Three matches, seven wickets at 52.29. Quick, swings it away from right-handers. Dodgy back, but great things are expected if he stays fit.
Michael Hussey 33, Western Australia, left-hand batsman. 37 matches, 341 runs at 55.29, nine hundreds. His career's plateauing after a sensational start. Great accumulator, knows England.
Mitchell Johnson 27, Western Australia, left-arm fast. 21 matches, 94 wickets at 28.01, two five-wickets. World's best after sudden maturing last winter. Lethal inswinger. A problem for England.
Simon Katich 33, New South Wales, left-hand opening batsman. 38 matches, 2,649 runs at 43.43, seven hundreds. The comeback kid resuscitated his career after moving to opener. Poor 2005 tour. Had a recent dressing room spat with Clarke.
Brett Lee 32, New South Wales, right-arm fast bowler. 76 matches, 310 wickets at 30.82, 10 five- wickets. Veteran speed merchant and top bloke has recovered from injury but is not what he was.
Graham Manou 30, South Australia, wicketkeeper. No Test appearances. Ten years as state player, now elevated. Good gloveman, hugely improved batsman. Unlikely to play.
Andrew McDonald 27, Victoria, right-hand batsman, right-arm medium fast. Four matches, 107 runs at 21.40, nine wickets at 33.33. Did well in South Africa. He's solid, but may be just short in both disciplines.
Marcus North 29, Western Australia, right-hand bat, off-breaks. Two matches, 160 runs at 40, one hundred. Has represented five English counties without spectacular returns, but did superbly in the recent defeat of South Africa.
Peter Siddle 24, Victoria, right-arm fast bowler. Seven matches, 92 wickets at 27.66, one five-wicket. Muscular, bustling and properly fast, the former wood-chopper gets bounce and could well be a menace.
Shane Watson 27, Queensland, right-hand bat, right-arm medium fast. Eight matches, 259 runs at 19.77, 14 wkts at 35.50. Yet to fulfil glittering early promise, constantly afflicted with injury; may be now or never for his Test career.
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