The Investec Ashes 2013 July 8, 2013

Ashes tradition cannot disguise flaws

There is no amount of marketing or jingoistic hubris that can dress up the Investec Ashes series as a battle between the two best Test sides

While the careers of most England and Australia players will be judged disproportionately on their performances in Ashes series, it is worth putting this encounter into context. England are currently No. 3 in the Test rankings; Australia are No. 4. There is no amount of marketing or jingoistic hubris that can dress this series as a battle between the two best Test sides.

It is, like the Glasgow or Liverpool derbies, an encounter dripping with tradition and significance for those involved but, in the grand scheme of things, it is another step on the journey for both sides as they seek to retrace their steps on the road back to former heights. England cannot claim to be No. 1 again until they defeat South Africa. But defeating Australia would represent a decent step in the right direction.

They are expected to do just that. Not since 1978-79 have England gone into an Ashes series as such overwhelming favourites. On that occasion, when England went on to win 5-1, Australia had the valid excuse that their squad had been weakened by World Series Cricket and could therefore dismiss the result as something of an aberration. This time, neither side can have any excuse.

It is worth reflecting on how that situation has arisen: how a side that for many years beat England with almost embarrassing ease has sunk to arguably the lowest point in its history and how an England team that, less than a decade-and-a-half ago, sunk to the bottom of the Test rankings, has risen to touch - albeit briefly - the top spot in the rankings in all three formats.

The root of the answer is in the question. England were so awful for so long that there was, eventually, a realisation that things had to change. The defeats were so painful and so damaging to the ECB's hopes of developing the game commercially that it was agreed - at long last - that the England team had to be prioritised and every act in domestic cricket geared towards ensuring the success of the national team.

So, central contracts were introduced in 2000 to help ensure that players reached international cricket in the physical and mental condition to give it their best. Two divisions were also introduced to the County Championship in 2000 to introduce a tougher competitive edge to domestic cricket, while the ECB also invested in a very well-equipped national performance centre in Loughborough and more age-group and A team tours to help bridge the gap between the domestic and international games.

They invested in better facilities and the best coaches; they invested in longer tours and better planning; they identified the best players at a young age and they tried, wherever possible, to stick with them whatever the fluctuations of form and fortune. In short, a game that was still amateur in many ways in 1999, has been dragged into the professional world by 2013.

It would be stretching a point to suggest that Australia have gone in the other direction. But, while England made a point of toughening up their domestic cricket, Australia introduced an age qualification into their second XI competition, so that only three players in each team could be aged over 25. As a result, there was an exodus of wisdom and experience in Australian domestic cricket.

Meanwhile, they altered their academy system so that, instead of identifying the best young teenage players in the country, they started to concentrate on those who had already started their professional careers.

And while England have made a point of consistency of selection over the last decade, Australia are just hours from the start of an Ashes series yet it remains almost impossible to predict the identity of their side. They have changed their coach, their keeper, their opening batsmen and their new ball bowlers in recent months and, since the retirement of Shane Warne, have given a Test cap to every spin bowler in Australia with a pulse and bladder control.

There are some lessons there for England. County cricket is currently awash with rules that incentivise counties for picking young players and regulations that render it increasingly hard to register non-England qualified cricketers.

Equally, there are ever fewer appearances from the best international players in domestic cricket, reducing not only the quality of competition but the ability of young players to learn first hand from the best in the business. While the motivations for that are admirable, they are in danger of compromising the standard of the domestic game which may well, in a few years, manifest itself in a weaker international team.

The current team is benefitting from the tough domestic scene that pervaded about a decade ago. It was that environment in which Kevin Pietersen, who arrived in the UK as a modest spinner and has developed into one of the best middle-order batsmen England has ever selected, learned his trade. It was that environment in which Alastair Cook, who has already broken a host of England Test batting records and has much power to add, learned his trade.

It was that environment in which James Anderson, England's most skilful swing bowler since Sir Ian Botham, and Graeme Swann, their best off-spinner since Jim Laker, honed their trade. And it may well prove to be that environment that makes the difference between the two side in this series.

There are concerns for England. England's slip catching has, of late, been fallible and they have never adequately replaced the fielding of Paul Collingwood, in particular. They may have some issues, too, over the potency of the attack on a Trent Bridge pitch that is not expected to help conventional swing or spin bowling. Reverse swing, a skill with which England probably hold the edge, may prove crucial in the first Test.

Jonny Bairstow is also a concern simply due to the fact that he has not enjoyed enough cricket to find any form; he has one innings in competitive cricket since the Test series against New Zealand ended in May and that was in a T20 match.

England are favourites. But a series between Nos 3 and 4 in the rankings should not be by any stretch of the imagination be considered a mismatch.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo