November 19, 2010

England's finest opportunity in two decades

There's little to differentiate the two teams, and England should fancy their chances of winning an Ashes series in Australia for the first time in more than 20 years

Through most of the last two decades, the result of an Ashes series in Australia has been a foregone conclusion even before the first ball has been bowled. England last won a series in Australia in 1986-87, by a 2-1 margin. Since then, they've lost five in a row, and each emphatically. In 25 Tests during this period, England have lost 18 and won three, one of which was a dead rubber.

However, there's reason to believe things could be different this time around, as much due to England's excellent recent form as Australia's problems with form and fitness. England are ranked higher in the ICC Test rankings, and have a better win-loss ratio in the last two years, winning 12 and losing four, to Australia's 12-6. In the corresponding two-year period before the previous Ashes series in Australia, Australia had won 15 matches and lost only two. Both those losses had come against England in 2005, but apart from that Australia had won almost everything, including beating South Africa in five out of six Tests, home and away, in 2005-06.

The batting and bowling stats between these two teams have never been this close recently, and that must surely fill England with hope. (The fact that Australia have named 17 players in the squad for the first Test shows how uncertain they are about their best combination.) In these last couple of years, there is little to choose between the overall numbers of the two teams, but one unusual number is the ratio of centuries to fifties for Australia - that's an aspect they're normally very good at, but during this period they've only managed to convert 24 out of 93 scores of 50-plus into hundreds; England have converted 27 out of 86.

Teams with bat and ball in Tests since Jan 1, 2009
Team Tests Bat ave 100s/ 50s Wickets Bowl ave Strike rate
India 17 46.50 34/ 52 257 39.66 73.8
Sri Lanka 15 44.99 24/ 37 202 42.18 76.2
South Africa 14 37.91 20/ 34 221 34.49 66.6
England 24 37.36 27/ 59 374 31.12 59.8
Australia 21 37.30 24/ 69 369 30.34 56.9
West Indies 16 29.25 16/ 32 187 46.06 84.3
New Zealand 13 32.76 16/ 31 195 43.35 79.9
Pakistan 18 25.69 9/ 42 266 36.33 65.8
Bangladesh 10 26.76 8/ 24 132 47.13 78.0

Australia's biggest advantage in the top five batting slots is in the opening position. Both the Australian openers who have played most Tests during this period, Simon Katich and Shane Watson, average a touch above 50, while Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook are in the mid-40s. The difference again, though, is in the conversion rates: between them, Australia's two openers have six centuries and 22 fifties in 63 innings, while England's have 10 hundreds and 13 fifties in 70. That also means, of course, that the Australians have been getting off to starts more consistently, which can't be a bad thing for the middle order. Not surprisingly, Australia's average opening partnership during this period is 57.65, while England's is only 43.40.

The overall averages for No. 3s from both teams are almost the same, but Jonathan Trott, England's current one-drop, has been in much better form recently than Ricky Ponting (though you obviously wouldn't rate Trott a better batsman than Ponting). However, England's overall average has been pulled down by the likes of Owais Shah and Ian Bell, who have also batted at three during this period.

The No. 4 batsmen from both teams have been disappointing, with the result that a slot usually occupied by the best batsman in the team has the lowest average. Kevin Pietersen, Michael Hussey and Michael Clarke are all struggling for runs: Pietersen has scored one century from 28 innings at this slot, which probably means he is due a change in fortunes soon. Clarke has slotted in at four for Australia recently, but he had a poor tour of India, with 35 runs in four innings. Clarke has done very well at No. 5, but the current incumbent, Hussey, has been no match for England's Paul Collingwood.

The biggest difference in averages is at the No. 6 slot, where the combined efforts of Matt Prior, Ian Bell and Collingwood have been much better than Australia's Marcus North, who has had a patchy start to Test cricket. In terms of average partnership for the fifth wicket, too, England's 56.72 is far superior to Australia's 45.48. In the battle of the wicketkeeper-batsmen, there's little to choose between Prior and Brad Haddin.

Position-wise batting averages for Aus and Eng since Jan 1, 2009
Position Aus - innings Average 100s/ 50s Eng - innings Average 100s/ 50s
Openers 78 50.08 8/ 24 84 44.14 10/ 14
No.3 38 42.59 2/ 12 40 41.89 4/ 5
No.4 38 35.77 2/ 8 38 32.91 1/ 9
No.5 38 49.70 5/ 8 36 47.19 5/ 9
No.6 37 36.97 5/ 4 36 51.38 5/ 6
No.7 34 37.43 1/ 7 36 40.96 1/ 10
Nos.8-11 112 19.26 1/ 6 118 20.45 1/ 6

The overall bowling averages are similar, but England have the clear advantage in the spin department, with Graeme Swann (105 wickets in 22 Tests, average 25.57) doing much better than Nathan Hauritz (50 wickets in 14 Tests, average 37.34). There's little to choose between the fast bowlers of both teams, though.

Bowling for Australia and England since Jan 1, 2009
Team Tests Pace - wkts Average Spin - wkts Average Overall ave
Australia 21 292 28.53 77 37.22 30.34
England 24 257 31.98 117 29.22 31.12

The Gabba factor
All of the above stats, though, don't take into account Australia's sheer domination at the venue that will host the first Test, the Gabba in Brisbane. In 20 Tests here since 1990, Australia have won 16 and drawn four; the last time they lost a Test here was in 1988 against West Indies, during an age when they were still a force in world cricket. The Gabba is one of 37 grounds that have hosted 10 or more Tests since the beginning of 1990, but it's the only one where the home team hasn't lost even once.

The extent of Australia's domination is clear from the numbers below: since 2000, Australians have averaged very nearly 50 with the bat, and have scored 18 hundreds in 10 Tests; overseas batsmen, on the other hand, average 21.44 and have managed only three hundreds - Sourav Ganguly, Jacob Oram and Adrian Barath are the only ones to achieve the feat.

Australian and opposition batsmen at the Gabba since Jan 1, 2000
Team Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Australia 5643 49.93 18/ 27
Other teams 3946 21.44 3/ 20

Head-to-head contests to watch out for
Which bowler will want to bowl to a particular batsman, and which one will he want to avoid? The table below offers some clues. Mitchell Johnson had a mixed series in England in 2009, and his head-to-head stats are mixed as well - plenty of success against Bell, pretty good against Cook, but poor against Strauss. Ben Hilfenhaus, with his swing and accuracy, will probably have a better chance against Strauss, having already nailed him four times in the past.

For England, their leading bowler, James Anderson, hasn't had much success against the Australian top order. Ponting has relished the opportunity to bat against him, and even Clarke, who has been dismissed by Anderson more often than any other Australian batsman, has a decent average against him. Stuart Broad has done superbly against Ponting and Hussey, but, for some reason, Katich has gone into overdrive against him, scoring at 5.31 runs per over without being dismissed once. England's best bet against the left-hand batsmen could well be Swann: he has dismissed Katich and North three times each, and Hussey and Johnson twice each. Against left-hand Australian batsmen he averages 28.80, and he has dismissed them 10 times; against right-handers he averages 69.75, with only four wickets in 459 deliveries.

Head-to-head contests
Bowler Batsman Balls Runs Dismissals Average
Mitchell Johnson Ian Bell 72 37 4 9.25
Mitchell Johnson Andrew Strauss 175 116 1 116.00
Mitchell Johnson Alastair Cook 95 67 3 22.33
Ben Hilfenhaus Andrew Strauss 269 116 4 29.00
Ben Hilfenhaus Alastair Cook 154 79 1 79.00
James Anderson Ricky Ponting 280 204 1 204.00
James Anderson Michael Clarke 164 121 3 40.33
Stuart Broad Ricky Ponting 136 83 3 27.67
Stuart Broad Michael Hussey 107 66 3 22.00
Stuart Broad Simon Katich 88 78 0 -
Graeme Swann Simon Katich 152 53 3 17.67
Graeme Swann Marcus North 184 113 3 37.67

S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo