Australia v England, 1st Test, Brisbane November 20, 2013

No fear for England as four in a row looms

Whatever the pitches and whatever the attacks, England appear to have the stronger side, while Australia's bluff and bluster seems a sign of insecurity

It says much about the relative success of the current England side that they enter this Ashes series with the chance to emulate feats not achieved since the days of WG Grace.

It was 1890 when England last won four successive Ashes series. The days when this England team talked about 'legacy' are largely in the past, but Alastair Cook and co, with victories in the last three such encounters, may well never have a better opportunity to create a slice of Ashes history.

On the face of it, England should be strong favourites for this series. It is not just that they have won the last three Ashes series but they are also unbeaten in their last 13 Tests against all opposition and have won seven of the last 11 Tests against Australia. Australia, by contrast, have one win in 11 Tests against England and none in their past seven. They have won only one Test this year - in the first week of January - and have lost seven of the subsequent nine.

And yet there is a sense of a revival in this Australian team. After a series of panicked selections in the England summer - Phillip Hughes, Ashton Agar, Usman Khawaja et al - they appear to have found a unit that should see them through the series and, after the chaos that preceded the defeat in England, they at least have a settled coaching set-up now.

It remains to be seen how they react to adversity and setbacks - key characteristics of winning teams - and there must be some unease at the level of reliance upon a player as unpredictable as Mitchell Johnson. But this is a team with two fine quality, proven seamers in Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris, several good quality batsmen who should enjoy these conditions and an unbeaten record at this ground that stretches back a quarter of a century. The gap between them and England may well have narrowed.

There are some chinks in England's armour, too. They have yet to settle upon the second opening position or the No. 6 position since the retirements of Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood respectively. While Michael Carberry is an experienced, hungry cricketer, he has much to prove at this level, and there are lingering doubts about the potency of Chris Tremlett, who looks likely to return as England's third seamer. There is little evidence that, after a couple of serious injuries, he can recreate the form that rendered him so impressive in 2010-11.

Most of all, though, England's top order have to prove that their struggles of the previous series were an aberration. Jonathan Trott and Alastair Cook, who averaged 29.30 and 27.70 respectively in England, will need to deliver far more if their side are to prevail here. Much of the success of 2010-11 was built upon the top three seeing off the new ball and it remains a key ingredient to success.

"That's certainly an area we knew we'll have to do better in this series," Cook said. "We were 30 for 3 a number of times in England and I was partly responsible for that. It's an area we've spoken about and we know we have to get better. I'm happy with how I played in these warm-up games. I feel in a good place."

England's experience in Perth on the last tour might also encourage Australia. Confronted with an unusually quick and bouncy wicket, England were blown away by Harris and Johnson. If they are confronted by such pitches throughout the series - and they will certainly be a great deal quicker than those seen in England - England will have some tricky questions to answer. Generally, though, most of their bowlers and batsmen should enjoy such conditions as much as their Australian counterparts.

One problem that looks to have been resolved is the keeping issue. Matt Prior came through another vigorous training session on Wednesday without obvious reaction and looks very likely to play. As vice-captain, experienced player and a sound head on DRS calls, his availability will be a substantial comfort to Cook and co.

To read much of the Australian media in recent days, you would think the England team were a pretty hopeless bunch. Amid the storm of bluff and blunder, England have been accused of fear of Australia's bowling, a lack of pace with the ball and, variously, an arrogance and disregard for the rules of the game. Kevin Pietersen and Stuart Broad, in particular, are goaded and ridiculed at every opportunity.

But there is a sense that the tide of propaganda is a sign of insecurity. Certainly the best sides, the West Indies of the '80s and the Australians that followed, did not bother with such tactics and it was noticeable at the captains' pre-match media conferences that while Cook was calm and assured, Michael Clarke appeared more tense. It's hard to avoid the impression that much of the hubristic talk emanating from the Australian camp is an attempt to compensate and mask deep insecurities. Australia underestimate England at their peril.

Certainly the days when England approached a series in Australia with trepidation are gone. It is likely that nine of the 11 who play at the Gabba will have experienced Ashes success in Australia before. They know they can win here now.

"There's no reason to feel intimidated," Cook said. "A lot of players in this squad were here in 2010-11, so we've all got experience of winning in Australia. We're trying to use that to the best of ability and we know how important this game was last time for setting up the series."

Indeed, such is the sense of the Gabba as one of the last remaining fortresses in Australian cricket, that it is possible that defeating the hosts here could prove a fatal blow in terms of the rest of the series. The self-confidence they talk about at every opportunity can only be thin as it rooted in belief rather than achievement.

And there's the rub for Australia, for whatever the pitches and whatever the attacks, England still appear to have the stronger side. There are, by a generous assessment, four great players involved in this series - Pietersen, Cook, Swann and Clarke - and three of them play for England. Australia may well be on the rise and England may be coming towards the end of their period of success, but in this series at least, they should still have just about enough to retain the Ashes.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • dexter on November 21, 2013, 1:42 GMT

    I wonder what the first day attendance will be at the GABBA, I hope that cricket's number one fan "EMPTY SEATS" does not show up at the stadium and spoil the first day of a great series the Australian people need to stamp him out early and show their patriotism and love for their team and get out there in full support. Come on Aussies dig your hands deep into your pockets and show your patriotic side get to the ground.

  • Milind on November 20, 2013, 23:15 GMT

    If a couple of the Aussie bowlers can fire - they might able to turn the table on England. And no Siddle won't do. A lot rests on Johnson. Too bad Pattinson is injured.

  • James on November 20, 2013, 21:43 GMT

    I have to say that there is a great deal of uncertainty about this game - mostly for Australia, but some for England too, given some of the recent issues with top order batting, and seeing how Swann and the third seamer perform. Tis Australian team is a bit of a hodgepodge of untested or underperformance players both old and young, so anything could happen. They will need to get off to a good start to get the self-belief going. Whoever wins the toss will bat, but they could be in for a testing time.

    Can't see how Bailey will do anything but fail in the long term. But hopefully he might strong together some good scores in the short term. You'd think the selectors would have learned from picking players like North, Marsh and Cowan, who all had sub-par first class records before being picked. Anyway, hope he proves me wrong. But I doubt it.

  • Cameron on November 20, 2013, 20:03 GMT

    Here's some news for youEngland have rolled into Brisbane both undercooked and unsure of their best XI, softened up by slow pitches and inexperienced attacks in the tour matches so far. Jonny Bairstow has never before kept wicket at this level.Likely third seamer Chris Tremlett, he of 17 wickets in three matches in the last Ashes series down under, has taken just one wicket in the warm-up matches

  • Dummy4 on November 20, 2013, 17:57 GMT

    You can add Ian Bell to the list of great players involved in this match: four centuries in his last six Ashes matches.

  • Michael on November 20, 2013, 16:48 GMT

    History very much regards the Gabba as the venue of broken dreams and hopeless ventures. It is termed 'The Gabbatoir' for a real reason. QAsk Hussein,Flintoff and many players stretching back. There is also a street named to show exactly what this place is about. The Vulture Street End. It is one of Australia's most precious venues against all comers. It is 27 years since Eng;land won there with Beefy doing the doing the damage. The record desperately needs correcting in England's favour though on the 2010/11 tour it became the place where England established a massive batting superiority over Australia wit 535-1. The toss is important but the first ball shenanigans something which all players and followers would be wise to exorcise from their mind. It is the scene of Cook's greatest triumph if not biggest innings,with the highest ever score an Englishman. If they do nothing silly in the first 2 days they may yet repeat the 2010 superiority throughout.

  • Jason on November 20, 2013, 16:29 GMT

    @xtrafalgarx, if you have no interest then why comment.

    In terms of other nations greats, Botham was the leading wicket taker of his era, and gooch at one point was the 3rd/4th highest run scorer of his generation with only Alan Border and Sunil Gavaskar ahead of him.

    As for the relatively poor record of england in the 1990's that is well documented and mainly due to a selection policy (revolving door and not putting faith in youth) along with a generally poor standard in County cricket.

  • James on November 20, 2013, 16:19 GMT

    @Its.Rachit: Age is over-rated, it's all about performance. Look at the ages that we have seen batsmen retire at lately, Sachin/Dravid/Laxman/Punter/Hussey, all these blokes were 37+. You talk about Bailey at 31...Mate, he could play 6/7 years if he gets it right, that could take us till 2020..By which time Australia hopes its young talent has come to fruition and we arn't in a 'transition phase' as it has been put.

    You can be 17 or 37, if you are performing better than everyone else, you should be in the Australian Cricket team. That's how we work, that's how it has always worked and that's how it should continue to work. Ricky Ponting didn't get picked when he did simply because he was young, he was topping the shield tables....simple as that.

  • James on November 20, 2013, 16:03 GMT

    @Yorkshipudding: Couldn't care less about the English stats who have struggled to produce great cricketers in the modern era, no way i would double check on them. Besides my point is still relevent, those blokes are no where near the standard of other cricket nation's greats.

    @Landl47: If you think performance in cricket is defined by some sort of negative linear progression, you're mistaken. Many a cricketer have been performing at their peak when they retire, Mike Hussey was in the form of his life at 37/38 when he retired. Misbah ul Haq is playing as good as he ever has at 39/40, your spinner Graeme Swann is nearing 35 and is bowling as well as he ever has.

    Australia being on the rise is nothing to do with England. Whether they are rising or falling, we couldn't care less, the fact is after 5/6 years of floundering in international cricket, we have finally reached some sort of platform from which we can begin to plan our future, and another great era for Australian cricket.

  • John on November 20, 2013, 16:01 GMT

    Love these debates re who is/isn't great. Re Broad - he has the potential to be great (depending on what you call great) for sure. Much depends on how much he learns over the forthcoming years and also if he can remain injury free. I'm not saying either way if Jimmy is great or not but if you're saying Jimmy is great then I'd be interested to know how many wickets he had taken and what his average was when he was 27 years and 149 days (Broad's current age) and compare the stats with Broad's present stats of averaging just above 30 and with 217 wickets

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