Gooch has faith in England's competitive spirit
England's batting coach, Graham Gooch, believes that the leadership partnership of Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower has instilled in the squad a competitive edge that has been lacking on previous tours of Australia, but says that their hopes of mounting a successful defence of the Ashes for the first time in 24 years will hinge on the intensity of their preparation in the three warm-up games leading into the first Test at Brisbane on November 25.
"The experience of taking on Australia is always fantastic feeling for an England player," he told ESPNcricinfo's Switch Hit podcast. "They have been the No. 1 side for most of the past decade, and they have a competitive spirit that some would say is unmatched by many other sides, although I do believe that England at the moment are approaching that sort of standard. The way they have been playing of late, they go with a lot of confidence, knowing the challenge ahead but relishing at the same time."
Gooch, 57, is embarking on his sixth tour of Australia, four of which came as a player between 1978-79 and 1994-95, and one as manager in 1998-99. In 1990-91, he led from the front as captain with 426 runs in four Tests including a century at Adelaide, but found that, despite forging a close bond with the coach of the time, Micky Stewart, he was unable to transfer his own formidable work ethic to the squad at large.
Twenty years on from that trip, however, Gooch is confident that every man in the current England squad understands the levels of professionalism expected of them on such an arduous tour, and credits Strauss and Flower for cultivating the necessary attitude. "The two individuals have very astute cricket brains," he said. "They are disciples of the game, they both love the game, and they are both well respected, and that's a vital starting point for any relationship and any leadership scenario.
"Both men are very fair with the players, very balanced, and they can both communicate with the players," he added. "They know how to get the best out of each individual, and Flower in particular is very meticulous, and doesn't leave anything to chance. Everyone in that team knows that England are only going to Australia for one reason. They are not going for the weather, they are not going for the hospitality, they are going to win the Ashes, and that will be the focus."
After an arduous season that was made all the more mentally draining by the match-fixing allegations that overshadowed the ODI series against Pakistan, the majority of England's cricketers are currently enjoying a well-deserved break. However, with the squad set to depart for Perth on October 29, the down-time is fast coming to an end.
"The players are in as good condition as they can be," said Gooch. "The guys who play all forms only finished on September 22, so they need a few weeks off, because you can't work every minute of the day. But in my experience of touring Australia as a player, coach and manager, you've got to get up to speed quick, and in past tours, we've started to play cricket after the first Test, if you see what I mean. You've got to hit it at the first Test because that sets the tone."
In terms of his day-to-day role as England's batting coach, Gooch believes that the mental side of the job will be every bit as important as the technical. "For guys at this level, you're not trying to reinvent their game, you just want to give them tips and good advice, and shape them in a slight direction," he said. "I think it's very important to keep talking to players about their game whether their confidence is low or whether they are playing really well, so that you can reinforce what it is they are doing well."
That said, there are few men in the English game who relish the hands-on nature of coaching quite like Gooch, who spent the latter stages of the 2009 season helping his Essex protégé, Alastair Cook, remodel his technique, and also spent a week at Lord's this summer working one-on-one with Kevin Pietersen. In recent months, he has added a new weapon to his coaching armoury, a plastic throwing arm called the Sidearm, which has been developed by a local entrepreneur in Essex, and with which Gooch spent many a happy hour beasting his charges in the nets.
"It's a bit like a dog-ball thrower," he explained. "It's just like giving normal throwdowns, except it imparts more pace and is more realistic for a net session. People say it saves your arm, and that is one aspect, but because the ball comes out quicker, and swings as well, it gives the net session more intensity. In the past, England have practised using Merlin [the spin bowling machine] and all that, but those are not exactly easy to carry around."
Nothing, however, will be more important to England's preparations than the three warm-up games at Perth, Adelaide and Hobart, the first of which gets underway at the WACA on November 5. "Middle practice is invaluable," said Gooch. "The England team's work ethic and attitude to preparation has been first-class since I've been involved, but you only get confidence from scoring runs and taking wickets, and as a batsman, you need to get your feet moving, and see the ball going between fielders.
"You need to play solid defensive shots, and leave the ball well," he added. "Your judgment needs to be good, and you need to hone that in the middle, because that's where your confidence comes from. As a batsman you don't lose your ability, what you lose sometimes is your confidence in that ability, and confidence plays a big part in life, not just cricket. Do you feel good about yourself, and are you in the right frame of mind?"
Pietersen is one notable batsman whose confidence has been down in recent months, and his Ashes preparations began this week with the first of two first-class fixtures for the Durban-based Dolphins in South Africa. In general terms, however, Gooch is convinced that the batsmen who has been chosen for the Ashes are ready for the challenge, despite a Test series against Pakistan in which ball dominated bat to an often dramatic degree.
"I have a great belief in the collective skills of this batting unit," he said. "The English conditions this summer were conducive to fast bowling in particular, and there were some low-scoring games, which often produce exciting Test matches. It's fair to say they'll need to be at their best to beat Australia in their own conditions, but those conditions will be slightly different. There will be more bounce and carry, but the wickets themselves will be flatter, and you've got to get runs on the board to be competing in each Test."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.