Johnson piles pressure on Bopara
As expected for a man whose girlfriend is a karate black-belt, Mitchell Johnson doesn't intimidate easily. So the sight of England's No. 3 Ravi Bopara rattling off three consecutive centuries against West Indies hasn't worried him in the slightest. It's a sentiment shared by his captain Ricky Ponting, who believes England's recent success will count for little when Australia arrive.
Bopara was the standout for England in their home series against West Indies, when he scored 143 and 108, following the 104 he made during his only appearance in the Caribbean in February. He hasn't played Australia in a Test, just as Johnson hasn't faced England, but Australia's new spearhead is confident his attack can get the better of Bopara.
"I've seen Bopara in those two Tests against the West Indies where he scored those two centuries," Johnson told Cricinfo. "He looked good, but there is a big difference between a series against the West Indies and the Ashes. There will be much more pressure out there, so it will be interesting to see how he goes."
There's no doubt that facing Australia will be an enormous step up. For one thing, the West Indies captain Chris Gayle led by inglorious example in England, where he arrived late from the IPL and declared that he wouldn't mind if Test cricket died out. By comparison, Ponting has plainly stated that he is desperate to win the Ashes on English soil.
"They've obviously done everything very well in the last two Test matches against the West Indies," Ponting said of England. "I guarantee they'll be facing a stiffer opposition than West Indies when we arrive. It's been made pretty clear over the past couple of weeks that their captain [Gayle] doesn't really want to be there.
"England will be a very stiff and tough opposition, we know that. They always are when we play against them. The last series out here in Australia was a 5-0 result to us but it could've been a whole lot different had we not done some exceptional things."
One of the men who troubled England during that series was Stuart Clark, who with 26 victims was Australia's leading wicket-taker in a team that featured Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. Clark believes England have improved since then and, in any case, will be tougher to beat at their home venues.
Since the tour of Australia Matthew Hoggard and Sajid Mahmood have fallen by the wayside, Ashley Giles has retired, and Andrew Flintoff has battled ongoing injuries. Steve Harmison didn't play in the home series against West Indies, although Clark expects him to win a recall for the Ashes. He said the England attack would be tough to dominate.
"The bowling line-up is different but probably better [than 2006-07]," Clark said. "Steve Harmison is obviously a great bowler and Flintoff may come back into the team. But Graham Onions and Stuart Broad and James Anderson are doing a great job. I think from what we saw out here a couple of years ago they've probably improved and are at a higher level than what they were.
"They've played some good cricket. I'm not sure they're playing against the greatest competition in the world. They've still gone out and done a job. They beat the West Indies in three days, which is not an easy thing to do, even if the opposition isn't great."
The Australians, on the other hand, are coming off a 2-1 victory in South Africa against the No. 2 side in the world. It all adds up to a group confident of overcoming anything England can throw at them.
"You don't face many tougher tasks than playing South Africa over there," Ponting said. "That really excites me about what we've got coming up on this Ashes tour."