The cracks run deep for Australia
Bowling coach Craig McDermott fires first Ashes warning, but it cannot disguise the current state of the game Down Under
In case England were in any doubt whatever, they were reminded yesterday of the warmth of the welcome they can expect in Australia. The recalled fast-bowling coach, Craig McDermott, made it plain.
"I want to make sure we're bowling the right lengths mixed up with some really good bouncers and nailing the Poms as much as we can," he said. It does not sound as though he intends the Ashes to resemble a Sunday afternoon tea party.
If it was natural for McDermott to be trenchant – a trait he brought to his work while taking 291 Test wickets – his comments can hardly disguise Australia's fragility. They may be competing hard with India in a one-day series but the brutal truth is that they lost the Ashes to England last summer because they were up against opponents who knew how and when to react in the key moments of matches.
Indeed, almost at the same time as McDermott was speaking the Australia Cricketers' Association were expressing their displeasure about the measures taken to arrest the decline in standards at the top level.
Meeting in Sydney, more than 100 professional players seemed to be at odds with the way the recommendations of the Argus Report have been implemented.
The review of the country's cricket, instigated after the Ashes defeat in 2011, would ideally have produced immediate results. Instead, they lost the 2013 Ashes 3-0 and the whole country now fears that they will lose to England for the fourth consecutive time.
McDermott's return may prove to be sensible but it is also emblematic of the panic running through the ranks.
He resigned from the bowling coach's role 18 months ago, citing family reasons, and he has been brought back now to look after only the Test side, although such a move had been specifically ruled out only last month.
England leave for the tour on Wednesday and will play three warm-up matches before the Ashes start in Brisbane on 21 November. Their main concerns surround the No 6 batting position and how many of their gigantic fast-bowling battery to use. Australia have many more deeper worries.
The fitness of the captain
Michael Clarke's chronic back complaint has returned. It is doing so with increased regularity and requires constant care and attention.
Added to that is England's clear intention to bounce him at any given opportunity; his inherent dislike of the fast, rising ball is probably exacerbated by the state of the back. Clarke is Australia's best player by an outback mile and if he is exposed, there may be nowhere for the selectors to turn.
It took Australia until the third Test to pick the off-spinner Nathan Lyon last summer. He acquitted himself honestly but will for ever suffer from the fact that he is not Shane Warne, and it hardly matters that nobody else is either.
He should be more at home at home, as it were, but England's attacking middle-order will look to plunder him, especially if the fast men are putting the squeeze on. But the most important criterion is that Australia should recognise Lyon is the best they have.
Rest of the batting order
It was pretty clear from the frequent shifts in the summer that Australia have little clue of what their order should be or who should be in it.
They used three different first- wicket pairs and after stipulating that Shane Watson must open, saw him make 176 at the end batting at No 3. There is a lack of quality and patience probably caused by bringing a limited-overs mentality to the Test arena and finding it ruthlessly exploited by smart bowlers. David Warner also has much to prove after the travails of last summer.
Attitude of mind
The trouble with aggressive body language is that it looks daft if it is not backed up by ability. Australia are talking a good game – witness McDermott's comments and the belligerence of their coach Darren Lehmann – but their lack of cohesion is a more significant factor. This is demonstrated in their batting. In four of the five Tests last summer they had a first-innings lead yet still lost two of them. They may not like Stuart Broad much, but he has a focused fortitude that Australia lack.
This is putatively Australia's strength, and their system, almost despite itself, has thrown up a legion of tyro speed-merchants. But almost without exception they have struggled to stay fit, which has led to regular change and uncertainty.
Although there are more optimistic bulletins about James Pattinson after the back injury which forced his return from England, Pat Cummins will not be available and Josh Hazlewood may not be ready. A return for Mitchell Johnson could be either panacea or disaster. He may well roll up and win a Test, while contriving to be almost unbowlable a week later. Ryan Harris is a magnificent practitioner, clever and fast, but at some point he is bound to stretch the world supply of string and sealing wax with which his frame has occasionally been held together.
Ashes Test itinerary
First Test November 21-25 The Gabba, Brisbane - UK start time 00.00
Second Test December 5-9 Adelaide - 00.00
Third Test December 13-17 WACA Perth - 02.30
Fourth Test December 26-30 Melbourne - 23.30 (on December 25)
Fifth Test January 3-7 Sydney - 23.30 (on January 2)
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