Peter Roebuck: This Aussie side has its faults but Poms gloat at their peril
The Australian batting is wobbly - the opening pair are makeshift, North is a worse starter than pea soup - and the bowling can look threadbare
Friday 23 July 2010
What is this strange noise? Sounds remarkably like Englishmen gloating. Has Paul the Octopus delivered a favourable verdict on the forthcoming Ashes series? Or have Australia merely struggled a couple of times against skilled opponents during midwinter matches in foreign lands? Trounced on their last trip Down Under, England seems convinced the urn is in the bag. But, then, they fancied themselves in the recent World Cup in South Africa as well.
Yes, the Aussies have been poor in this series against Pakistan. Thanks to wickets taken by dubious types (Shane Watson) and runs scored by the resident grafter (Simon Katich), they did manage to beat their nomadic opponents at Lord's in the first Test. However, the batting has once again let them down in Leeds.
Naturally the calamities have produced ever broader smiles on local faces. After a quarter of a century of suffering England – more correctly Durham, the Dominions and a few sons – reckon they can beat the Aussies on their own patch. And so they can, but do not bank on it happening (not that banks are that reliable these days).
Plenty of faults can be found within this Australia side. Their captain Ricky Ponting is the only fair dinkum great cricketer amongst them, and he's in decline. By and large Ashes series are won by teams with greatness in their ranks. Mind you, England hardly have a surfeit. Kevin Pietersen can be a mighty force but, in the antipodean vernacular, seems to have lost the plot.
Indubitably, Australia's batting is wobbly. The opening pair of Watson and Katich is makeshift (though often effective) and the middle order is inconsistent. Michael Clarke is the most reliable scorer but he lacks authority. Michael Hussey's career was prolonged by a startling hundred made in adversity at the Sydney Cricket Ground, where Pakistan managed to lose a Test from a position of utter dominance back in early January.
Marcus North is a worse starter than pea soup and could be replaced by Usman Khawaja, a fine batsman with a penchant for big runs. The old stager's recent six-wicket haul at Lord's with his very occasional off-spin has confused the issue.
Australia's bowling has looked threadbare. Mitchell Johnson is a natural athlete but not a natural bowler. Most professionals can hold things together on the bad days. Johnson is either very good or awful. He needs a lot of work to get going. Still, England ought not to discount him. Doug "The Rug" Bollinger lacks the variety needed to take wickets in England but has been a tougher proposition on black soil.
The spinner Nathan Hauritz's surge has been due in part to Pakistan's incompetence when they were in Australia and in part to the revival of off-spin caused by the increasing domination of left-handed batsmen and bowlers. But he is no Jim Laker.
Not even the expected restoration of Brad Haddin behind the stumps and bowler Peter Siddle will significantly strengthen the Australians.
But none of that makes the Poms a shoo-in. England have never taken a series Down Under without a great paceman or a champion bowler such as S F Barnes. Has any been sighted? Once an ugly duckling, Graeme Swann has matured into an accomplished operator but he won't get many pitches like The Oval.
The Aussies are weak against swing, mostly because modern batsmen are encouraged to strike early and hard, but the Kookaburra ball does not curl as much as the Duke, and the skies are mostly blue. Andrew Strauss's men might yet have to work for their scalps. On their last visit, too, England lost 5-0. Admittedly the current side is better coached and led but they will meet an Australian side desperate for victory, playing in their own backyard and sharpened by gruelling encounters in India. It will not be a pushover. Ponting's own form will be critical. Nail him and half the job is done.
Pakistan may be about to discover the same. This Test is far from over with the pugnacious skipper at the crease. An escape and series sweep is a real possibility.
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