November 17, 2013

The Watson and Johnson question marks

If the two won't be fit and ready for the Ashes, how will Australia's selectors spread the bowling load and boost the batting?

I've reached an age where memory lapses become a concern, and I'm wondering if I only imagined Australia's recent heavy Test losses to India and then England. Didn't those 4-0 and 3-0 losses occur?

I only ask because ever since England landed in Australia, it's all been about the problems facing the tourists and how the home side is settled and in good shape for the upcoming Ashes series.

Sure, England have a few queries. There's Matt Prior's injury, the late change to Michael Carberry as an opening batsman, and also settling on a third fast bowler. Chris Tremlett appears to be down on pace, Steven Finn is inconsistent - fast and bouncy one minute and distinctly unthreatening the next - and Boyd Rankin is both unproven and a liability in the field. Nevertheless, that still leaves the bulk of the England side settled and successful.

Australia, on the other hand, with no recent success stories to fall back on, should have concerns. The two biggest headaches for them are the fitness of Shane Watson and the form of Mitchell Johnson. What if Johnson reverts to type and is profligate in an Ashes series? That will put an unbearably heavy load on the two critical fast bowlers, Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris, who both need to be at their best for Australia to remain competitive. And that doesn't even address the matter of the huge confidence boost it'll be for Alastair Cook if Johnson keeps angling deliveries on to his pads like he did at Lord's in 2009.

Watson is just as critical to the batting effort and his latest injury means he has had no time in the centre for a month leading into the first Test. That gives the England bowlers a distinct advantage, and a slow start for Watson with the bat could have serious implications for Michael Clarke and the middle order.

Despite some encouraging signs, Steve Smith still needs to prove he can consistently make big scores against top-quality bowling. He'll be further challenged if Australia don't get good contributions from the top-order players. Following Smith will either be an unknown quantity in debutant George Bailey, or Brad Haddin, who is showing signs that age is starting to win the battle when he's batting.

This is where the selectors face a real dilemma. Do they sacrifice a batsman to fit James Faulkner into the side to provide cover for any Johnson profligacy, or do they forgo variety and leave Nathan Lyon out and play the allrounder in an all-pace attack?

Lyon is a good bowler but too often the quality of his deliveries isn't matched by the results in the wicket column. Nevertheless it's a huge gamble to play a five-day game at the Gabba without a spinner.

Either way, the Australian line-up is desperately short of good catching men and it'll be a blessing for Clarke if Watson can't bowl, because they'll struggle to fill three slip positions adequately without him in the cordon.

There's potential for improvement in the Australian batting line-up and it'll be especially encouraging for the future if both Warner and Smith have a good series. The bowling is a pretty well-known quantity, unless Johnson does rediscover his best form. Then there's a real edge to the attack.

England, meanwhile, are tried and tested and what you see is what you get. The success of the batting will revolve around Cook and Jonathan Trott scoring heavily so Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell can take advantage of a good start to elevate the scoring rate. The bowling will live or die on the form of Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann.

If Joe Root continues to improve and Finn finds consistency at Test level, it would augur well for England's future.

There's always a lot of bluff and bluster in the lead-up to an Ashes series and the reality is there are generally more ifs and buts than certainties. On this occasion Australia have more ifs, while England are superior in the number of proven performers. And unless my memory's playing tricks, that means the tourists will start as favourites.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator for Channel 9, and a columnist

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on November 20, 2013, 12:59 GMT

    Ian Chappell as usual presents a realistic scenario of the current situation. Noone can predict the result with certainty, but he clearly explains the Australian fragility against a professional, but not brilliant English team. Oh for a Thommo - that X factor is what you need to really stir up good teams.

  • Riddhi on November 20, 2013, 12:55 GMT

    The final scoreline doesn't always present the true picture.. Yes Australia lost 3-0 in Endland, but could easily have won 2-1. It was only in the Lord's test that England comprehensively beat Australia.. All others were close contests..or draws.. The fragile Australian batting lineup managed to score 500+ in one test and 492 in another.. The brilliant English batting lineup couldn't cross 400 even once.. Maybe Australia will loose once again.but the English claims of being the best side in the world are just imaginary wonderings..

  • Dummy4 on November 19, 2013, 13:33 GMT

    We talk of a much vaunted batting line up on one side, the pace of Johnson, the form of Warner, but in the interests of discussion, are these drop in wickets going to have their say above all else? What are the effects in Australia, not having them at home we don't see the results as often as our Aus/NZ counterparts? Is it inconcievable to think that the more durable and creative bowling line up will triumph? In which case you would have to chose an English victory wouldn't you?

  • Suraj on November 19, 2013, 13:08 GMT

    @Martin Briggs, you are comfortably forgetting the fact that SA beat England 2-0 in 2012 in their own backyard and even in the previous series in SA, England were extremely lucky to draw 2 of the games with the help of last wicket pair.Nobody is challenging the fact that England is a good team but they are definitely not the best, that title belongs to SA. And the Ashes obsessed English fans want their team to be recognized as the best in the world just by beating Australia - which was ok in 2005 but definitely not post 2008 As far as India is concerned, the ageing team were annihilated by Eng and Aus but before that the same team had won in Eng (2007), drew in SA (2011) and retained Border-Gavaskar Trophy in Australia (2004) - against the pre-2008 Aussie team which no English team could ever do. The current Indian team is a new look team with good players of pace and spin and it wont be surprising if they at least manage to draw the upcoming series in SA and win in England.

  • Dummy4 on November 19, 2013, 11:30 GMT

    Inded, the media have done a great job to big this up into something that may become a contest. Australia will have to play to the maximum of their ability for the first 2 matches, because England know, that if they keep the pressure on them, Australia are only 1 session away from calamity.

    Their top 6 is so fragile, that if England bat first and get 450, the odds are they can lose 4 wickets in a session easily. Likewise, if Australia bat first, they might be all gone for 250. So, in the first two matches Australia's top 6 must fire, or the series will be over.

  • Dummy4 on November 19, 2013, 6:06 GMT

    What a horribly negative article! The point that Australia is much more settled than previously is in regards to the fact we have had the 11 all but finalised for about a month now, as opposed to the series in England when he had about 16 players floating around the 11, and it was never truly known what team we were going to go in with.

    We have a really good shot now, those 4-0 and 3-0 losses were played on pitches designed against us, but now we have the pitches to suit, the consistency in selection and the form of key players, Warner is in unbelievable form, Rogers and Smith have been great in the Shield, and Bailey brings a whole new dimension to the team and if he fires we will be well on the way

    If only Pattinson was fit

  • Simon on November 19, 2013, 2:10 GMT

    Like most critics bashing Johnson, Ian, you don't give credit to the mental side of the poms looking at the attack and saying we might get a few 'if' we get in against Johnson, but he is slinging them at pace and from an angle that takes concentration every ball. Pick Harris and Siddle to tie down the other end and let Johnson exploit his superior strike rate to bowl them out twice. Get rid of the pie chucker Lyon and give Agar a series to develop and we'll have a spinner for the future who can actually regularly turn a ball. Let Agar play with the experienced Harris & Siddle and he'll compliment Pattinson, Cummins, Starc, et al for more than a decade. Stop listening to the Barmy Army tools who are only impressed by themselves and let Johnson loose, just like Thomson, Merv and Brett Lee were. Their strike rates are more important than their averages, that's for line & length bowlers.

  • W on November 18, 2013, 21:15 GMT

    @Train Stationer, train left without you buddy. No more timeless tests so no chance of England reaching 500 lol!

  • Dummy4 on November 18, 2013, 20:38 GMT

    @ Suraj Krishnaswamy, it may have escaped your attention but England won 2-1 in South Africa in 2004-05 and drew 1-1 on their last tour. Considerably better than anything India have ever done SA or anywhere apart form their own backyard. And roll on the upcoming series when the hyped-up Rohit Sharma, Kohli et al won't be served up the diet of half-volley lollipops that they've just received from the West Indies (barely the standard of one of the weaker counties) and Australia 2nd XI with all the bowling restrictions that ODI's bring...

  • Ian on November 18, 2013, 11:04 GMT

    Yes Ian you are correct. You can,t take much notice of the banter prior to the beginning of a series.Bill Lawry said you were the best batsman in the world before a test series in South Africa and look what happened.

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