July 5, 2013

Can England do an Australia?

Judging by their recent form, the hosts can push for 5-0 in the Ashes. But can they be ruthless enough to do it?
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A tri-series after the Champions Trophy, inevitably featuring India and Sri Lanka, has all the appeal of a civics class after a nice lunch. Inevitably then, the cricket world turns its eyes towards a contest that promises to be rich in character and which will be a great test of grit and temperament and all those other lovely words that we grew up associating Test cricket with.

And as the teams approach each other from corners so completely different to those they occupied for almost all of the last 25 years, I will be very interested in seeing whether England can do an Australia.

Between 1987 and 2005, and for one Ashes series after that, England were the side that turned up to be trampled over. Sometimes they tried, sometimes they gave the impression they were packing the white flag into their kit. Till the 2005 Ashes, a young adult in England wouldn't have known that beating Australia was possible. That wasn't only because the Aussies had an extraordinary collection of players, it was because they never let go. Let alone a window, there wasn't a sliver of light from below the door for England.

Now they come from different corners. England are marching forward as favourites, possessed of players who shouldn't ever lose. Australia are limping in, troubled by a sudden loss of batting talent. At the turn of the century, a similar difference in class would have meant a 5-0 win for Australia. Now do England have it in them, with this scarcely believable turn of events, to do an Australia? Shut them out 5-0?

Last year I saw both teams play in India, and though the conditions were very different from those looming in England, I saw two very contrasting traits.

England hadn't won in India since 1984-85, had a phobia of spin and a reputation for not being the best travellers. A turning ball carried the same fear as malaria. In the first Test, in Ahmedabad, India piled up 521 for 8 and England were bowled out for 191, before slumping to 199 for 5 in the second innings. "Four-zero" was on everybody's lips. Then Alastair Cook and Matt Prior added 157 in 60 overs, England kept India in the field for 154 overs, and even though they lost, the courage they had shown augured well. It was like losing a tennis set 5-7 from being 1-5 down.

Then in Mumbai, Kevin Pietersen played an unforgettable innings and Monty Panesar beat India on a track prepared for a home win. Cook scripted another epic in Kolkata, and England hung in grimly in Nagpur. This was a different England, not just ready for a scrap but seizing the opportunity in a land they didn't enjoy playing in.

Then I saw Australia. Like England, they lost the first Test too. MS Dhoni's double-century in Chennai, like Cheteshwar Pujara's against England in Ahmedabad, was demoralising. But you expected Australia to come hard thereafter, like they always do. You thought they would fight for every inch of territory. But they didn't. There was a dreadful inevitability to the next three Tests. Maybe the skills had declined - it always seems that way after a great generation has departed - but the fight seemed to have gone as well. They were playing like England had been expected to but hadn't. There wasn't a Cook or a Pietersen, or a Prior or a young Root, they could bat around.

Based on that evidence Australia are fragile. They give the impression that should they go a Test down, they will find the journey back into the series too daunting. They need all hands on board, including team spirit, the 12th player they claimed they always had on the field. It is this search for team spirit that sees them go back to a tough old-school man. There was a feeling that Australia had, in a sense, shed their traditional macho image for a more metrosexual air. Darren Lehmann will seek to take them back to their roots, and it will be interesting to see how much influence he wields. There is such a lot of talk about him but a coach neither bowls nor bats.

To be fair Australia have been proactive. You could argue that changing a coach two weeks before a major campaign isn't ideal, but they were going nowhere. Lehmann's appointment comes with another change that might be as significant. Michael Clarke will no longer be a selector, Lehmann will be, so the relationship between the two becomes critical, because the captain must get the players he wants without having a say in who they will be.

Just as Australia's ability to fight hard and to hang in there will be examined, so will England's ability to play frontrunner. Can they be ruthless enough? Will they go for 5-0 if the opportunity presents itself, or will they be happy with a series win of a smaller margin? Can they trample over Australia and inflict scars that could help them later in the year when another Ashes series comes around? Can they create an aura about themselves, like Australia used to? Can they seed hopelessness in the opposition ranks?

The essence of all sport lies in the mind of the competitor. It is there that the most fascinating battle will be fought this English summer. Assuming, of course, that there is a summer!

Harsha Bhogle is a television presenter, writer, and a commentator on IPL and other cricket. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • espncricinfomobile on July 8, 2013, 16:46 GMT

    If England win the 1st Test then they may just climb all over the Australian's confidence. From there 5 - 0 is a definite possibility. But if Nottingham goes to Australia then I predict a very close series. Possibly another 2005 in the making. You got to love Ashes cricket!

  • Shan156 on July 5, 2013, 23:27 GMT

    @ravi_hari, "if Watson, Rogers and Clarke come good, then England will have to do a lot of leather hunting", well, if Cook, KP, Trott, Root, and Bell come good, Aus. will have to do even more. The point is, if both teams play to the best of their abilities, Eng. should win narrowly. For Aus. to win, they have to play out of their skins and Eng. have to play ordinary cricket. Not impossible but I think Eng. will be as motivated enough to win the Ashes as the Aussies. The NZ tour was a blip and I got to admit that Eng. were way below their best. Even in the return tour, England batsmen, save for Root, were still not quite back to their best but I think the fire will return against the Aussies.

  • Shan156 on July 5, 2013, 20:52 GMT

    As much as I would want us to give Aus. a resounding thrashing, I am well aware that this Eng. team, while good, is not *that* good. The Aussies aren't *that* bad either. In fact, I think it will be a close series. If Eng. be brave and pick 5 batsmen + Prior + Bresnan + 4 bowlers, I would think we could win comfortably. However, Eng. will play safe and pick 7 batsmen + Prior + Bresnan + 3 bowlers which would effectively mean that the 3 bowlers would have a heavy workload since Bresnan would most likely not pick up any wickets while scoring a few runs lower down the order. That would mean that the bowlers are likely to pick up injuries which would affect our chances. The Aussies have a decent pace attack and I think Clarke will go with 5 bowlers or a 4 man pace attack since he knows that Lyon is unlikely to cause major headaches to the English batsmen. We should be ruthless but even then 5-0 would be a dream with the weather likely to affect some games.

  • YorkshirePudding on July 5, 2013, 15:28 GMT

    Who cares if we (england) win 5-0, as long as we win the series and retain the urn, thats all that matters. The only time Australia beat england 5-0 since 1990 was 2006/7 and that was because a great team pulled together to reclaim the ashes after losing them in 2005, add on that they were on home soil and england were pretty much at thier most disfunctional as a unit under Flintoffs captiancy.

  • ravi_hari on July 5, 2013, 13:48 GMT

    It would require a huge effort from England to win 5-0. Though Aussies have performed very poorly in India and in CT, they appear a very different side now. If one goes by their performances in the practise games, they are on the way up. With Lehmann at the helm, players seem to have come out of their shackles and are raring to go. Batting is the key for Aussies and if Watson, Rogers and Clarke come good, then England will have to do a lot of leather hunting. England have their own worries, opening, late middle order and spin with Swann being injured frequently. They will also find the Aussie pacers tough to handle if the pitches have green tops. Interestingly both teams have the most prolific batsman as captain and their performance will be the key to the series. Clarke's fitness and Cook's form will be the focus. Lyon's long hops can trouble England batsmen and Swann's wicket taking abilities will worry Aussies. I feel it wil be a closely fought series and 2-2 could be the end result

  • din7 on July 5, 2013, 11:34 GMT

    Nice article! bt i dont think it will be 4-0 though eng are most likely to win, but this is ASHES and aus are not goin to let them win easily. Also bringing lehamn in has worked for aussies...i think arthur didnt understand aus team culture that why he was involved in quite few controversies...lehman being an australian can undertsand their culture better and that will surely help aussies in long run!

  • Sunman81 on July 5, 2013, 11:31 GMT

    It will be the battle between English batsmen Vs Australian bowlers...Cook, trott, bell can test the young aussie bowlers patience while KP and Prior are more than capable of taking them part... I am waiting for the fun to begin... Lehman taking charge as a coach seems to have charged up the aussies... It will be a good contest slightly ….60-40 in favor of the host..

  • dummy4fb on July 5, 2013, 7:43 GMT

    Very good article. I think the major disadvantage for Aus is Michael Clarke. Believe Watson is a better captain than Clarke and if Aus can put their 3 best quickies on field - Pattinson, Cummins and Starc, they will beat Eng. My Aus IX wud be: Watson, Warner, Shaun Marsh, Cowan, Wade, Haddin, Faulkner, Cummins (or Siddle), Pattinson, Starc and Harris.

  • dummy4fb on July 5, 2013, 6:50 GMT

    Though England seem to be the side that will win the Ashes, I strongly doubt if they can dish out 5-0 to Aussies. Except India series last year , England did not play like champions. They struggled in NZ, WHITEWASHED in a neutral venue against Pakistan. In the recently concluded champions trophy final , they showed that they lack that hunger to be the winner. They do have the talent to retain the urns with them, but they lack that Aussie toughness or the Carribean magic of 80s. Australia might not have the likes of Pontings, Waughs, Warnes ,but they carry that Aussie attitude in their blood. I would love to see them fight in full spirit against their arch rivals.

  • dummy4fb on July 5, 2013, 6:11 GMT

    England are better side & favourites to win ashes but i think Aussies will fight hard Good they got darren lehmann as a cocach he will bring stablity to the team.Aussies have a good bowling attack dey ll take 20 wickets but their batsman have to work hard !! 5-0 no chance ..Great to see Watson coming into form hope he carries his form into the series Aussie batsman jus have to put on runs on the board!!Its shocking to see aussies to go into the series as underdogs !!Hope its a great ashes like 2005 !!Go Aussies GO

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