Ponting leads side trying to get back on front foot
Captain is not only tourist out of form but England still face struggle to lift urn
In assessing England's opponents in the 2009 Ashes it is essential to avoid two pitfalls. First, do not treat them as a great side like their predecessors because they are not. Second, do not presume that they are rubbish because they are not. Do not be overawed, but do not be cocky.
The initial conclusion to be drawn from the squad of 16 players announced last week is that Australia can be beaten. That said, they will probably romp home swaggering with their swag virtually before July is out. But England should constantly bear in mind what Australia were and what they are.
The simplest way of doing this is to look at the Australia of recent vintage. They have usually brought parties to England containing at least four players who would be serious contenders for an all-time XI. Everybody knows who they are: Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting.
Only Ponting remains and none of his colleagues would be in the frame, save perhaps for the bucolic wunderkind, Phillip Hughes, though it is much too early to say despite his electrifying start. Since Australia sneaked home in the Caribbean against West Indies a year ago (all right it was slightly more than sneaked but this is an Ashes campaign and propaganda is necessary) some individual performances have been fitful.
Take Ponting, their captain, now entering the grizzled veteran stage. His Test batting average is 56, achieved over 131 Test matches indicating greatness. But in his last 12 matches his average has dipped below 40 and although he led Australia to a noteworthy series win in South Africa three months ago (how they needed it) he had a thin time by his standards. Then there is Mike Hussey, who took to Test cricket as to the manor born, scoring runs as if he were a left-handed Bradman. From his fourth match on, his average topped 60 and stayed there and often well above until last December.
His return to the ranks of humanity began on that Caribbean tour when he scored only 137 runs in six innings. Since then, in 22 innings, he has scored 716 runs at 34 and gone 21 innings without a hundred.
Australia's selectors have recalled to the squad the whole-hearted fast bowler Brett Lee, who has indicated that he is as fit and raring to go as when he was 22, not 32. But in the eight Tests before he took his body off for re-assembly his speed was dipping, he was taking a wicket every 14 overs and was conceding 47 runs for each one.
There are other small areas of hope. Simon Katich has turned himself into a solid opener but he is not as good as Hayden or Justin Langer. Katich batted at No 6 on Australia's tour in 2005 and the likes of Marcus North or Shane Watson who will do so this time are not as good as Katich. Nathan Hauritz is a last-ditch punt as the side's only spinner. And then there are Mitchell Johnson and Hughes. Johnson is a bowler who has entered his pomp. It is a misconception that he is a tyro paceman, just plucked from the Queensland beaches. He will be 28 this year and has played only 21 Test matches. But he has learned his trade.
Having developed a quick, late in-swinger, Johnson has become the sort of left-handed fast bowler all teams crave and few possess. Only three have taken more than 100 wickets for Australia and they have all done untold damage to English psyches.
The last, joining Bill Johnston and Alan Davidson, was Bruce Reid. Johnson, on 94, is about to join them and should eventually overtake his near namesake's haul of 160, though hopefully not on this tour.
Hughes is unutterably exciting and his few weeks in England recently have enhanced his reputation. But he has played only three Test matches. The most annoying facet about his trip to England is not that Middlesex have given him the opportunity to acclimatise to English conditions in general. It is that he has been able to play at Lord's in particular.
This is a ground on which England have not beaten Australia in a Test since 1934 and need all the advantages they can get. It is a place that can intimidate as well as inspire – yet Australia's great new find has already played five innings there (two hundreds). Different occasions perhaps, but when he walks out to bat there in July he will have several fewer things to think of. Andrew Strauss, England's captain, is quite rightly refusing all blandishments to become involved in discussion about Australia's team and what England might do to them. But after seeing it the discussion he will be having with himself on a regular basis will be that England can win back the Ashes.
Australia squad: R Ponting (capt), age 34, Tests 131; M Clarke (vice-captain), 28, 47; S Clark, 33, 22; B Haddin (wkt), 31, 15; N Hauritz, 27, 4; B Hilfenhaus, 26, 3; P Hughes, 20, 3; M Hussey, 33, 37; M Johnson, 27, 21; S Katich, 33, 38; B Lee, 32, 76; G Manou (wkt), 30, 0; A McDonald, 27, 4; M North, 29, 2; P Siddle, 24, 7; S Watson 27, 8.
Today's one-day international
England are in the middle of a one-day series. The second match of three is at Bristol today. Not that you would have guessed this as Jimmy Anderson, the new leader of the side's attack, offered his thoughts yesterday. The only show in town is the Ashes. They are 44 days away but in the summer billed as the Great Exhibition, nothing else seems to matter.
Anderson, whom many suspect might be the key to England's Ashes campaign, said: "That doesn't really bother me. I've got my own expectations. I know what I can achieve in the Ashes."
He and Stuart Broad can provide a complementary cutting edge today and at Edgbaston on Tuesday. Eoin Morgan, the 22-year-old left-hander from Dublin, will probably make his debut. West Indies will be a different proposition in the short form but England should prevail.
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