The Australian angle: Hughes can get Australia off to a flying start

The tourists are vulnerable after a gamble on recalling players from injury backfired, but their gifted young opener may rapidly change the mood, writes Peter Roebuck
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The Independent Online

And so it begins, and in Cardiff. During his trial Thomas More informed a treacherous assistant giving false testimony whilst suddenly wearing the medallion of the Principality that "It lll-behoves a man to betray his God for anything... but for Wales?!" Over the years Englishmen have rarely crossed the Severn with any optimism but this time their hopes are high. They come in search not of coal or five-pointers but in pursuit of a disrupted Australian cricket team. They come seeking the Ashes.

Nor has anything been left to chance. Four years ago the first Test was played at Lord's, where visitors raise their games and England usually loses. Now the teams meet not at an historic venue but on a ground with blue bucket seats and stands that seem to have come from a DIY store. Apparently it's a ruse to stop the Australians bolting from the gates whilst at the same time placating the Welsh lobby, an altogether stiffer task. Meanwhile Trent Bridge, the best ground in the country, lies empty.

Although lacking the messianic zeal that gripped the population last time around, the hosts are desperate to put the visitors in their place. More than is sensible, and much more than their opponents, English cricket measures itself by results in Ashes series. It is an odd obsession that tells of respect, fear and parental regret.

Anticipation is rising because local supporters know their team can win. England has an astute leadership combination and a notably cosmopolitan squad. Apart from its two contrasting and conflicting champions, Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff, the rebel king and the bluff musketeer, the hosts field a lively attack containing more swingers than a jazz club, a spinner (a species under threat Down Under) and a boisterous batting order. Form has been patchy but signs of improvement have been detected and a full-strength side has been named. Now England expects every man to do his duty.

Clearly the visitors are vulnerable. Australia's gamble on including proven players returning from long-term injuries has backfired. It was a risky strategy that undermined the team that so recently subdued the South Africans in their own patch. Moreover it affected the balance of the party. The Australians brought a glut of speedsters and all-rounders but no spare batsmen. Upon arrival, the focus on Brett Lee, Shane Watson and Stuart Clark denied the rest an opportunity to prepare.

Now Ricky Ponting and his think-tank face the task of putting Humpty Dumpty back together. It's not going to be easy. To prevail, Australia needs to be on top of its game. That has not always been the case. Most particularly the tourists need to win the battles of the new ball. If Phillip Hughes and Mitchell Johnson succeed then all is not lost. Hughes can pave the way for a powerful middle order. Australia's distinguished opening pair failed in 2005 but they faced a formidable bombardment. These days England's bowling is frisky as opposed to ferocious.

If Johnson salvages his rhythm – he is a notoriously slow starter – then the attack will not appear as threadbare. Once he locates his best form he can generate speed, bounce and cut. Above all he needs to get his inswinger working. Peter Siddle deserves to be his main ally anyhow, so nothing has changed on that front. Presumably Clark will provide the back up, though he may not appreciate the benign pitches generally provided at Sophia Gardens. Alas, the spin department is weak but Australia ought not to forget about flight and guile.

In any event the time for speculation has passed. England has enjoyed a better preparation and begins as favourite. Australia has some superb players but appears disjointed. But things can change, an inspired moment, a great innings and suddenly the bubble is back. Let's just hope the first ball does not go straight to second slip.

A former Somerset captain, Peter Roebuck is now a regular cricket columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age