England v Australia, 1st Investec Test, Trent Bridge July 9, 2013

Swann and Anderson can expose Australia's cracks

It may not matter hugely in Bangalore or Bridgetown, but in England and Australia, in cricket at least, nothing matters more than what is about to begin
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It says much about the enduring appeal of the Ashes that, at a time of economic pressures, at a time when Test cricket's popularity is waning in many parts of the world and at time when neither team can claim to be the best in the world, just about every day of this series will be played in front of full houses and to vast audiences on TV, on the radio and on the internet.

Whatever the economic importance of series against India and the ranking importance of series against South Africa, the vast majority of players on both sides will have grown up dreaming of playing in the Ashes. Rightly or wrongly, it is performances in such series that continue to disproportionately define the careers of players and coaches. The UK government reacted to England's Ashes success in 2005 by bestowing MBEs on the whole team; no other series would have generated such rewards.

The ICC rankings were designed to provide context and interest to Test series that were struggling to capture the public imagination. The Ashes doesn't need such marketing strategies. Like Christmas and the NHS, familiarity may have bred a parasitical side-industry, but it has not bred contempt.

Conventional wisdom suggests that Australia, unburdened by expectation, go into the series without pressure. It is nonsense. The sacking of Mickey Arthur and Robbie Deans - the Australia cricket and rugby coaches - within the last few weeks suggests Australia are not so sanguine about sporting failure as some might like to suggest.

Darren Lehmann might survive an early failure, but some of the players will not. England supporters, by contrast, were weaned on unrealistic expectations and put to bed by disillusionment. They are familiar in dealing with the sting of disappointment.

Besides, England possess significant advantages. While two of their batsmen, Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook, will surely go down in history among the greatest players to have represented England, it is two of the bowlers that provide the real edge.

In James Anderson England have a supreme athlete at the peak of his career with an ability to swing, reverse swing and seam the ball allied to a control very few can match. MS Dhoni credited him as "the difference between the teams" in the series in India. If he can prove so valuable on Indian wickets and armed - or disarmed - with an SG or a Kookaburra ball, then he can be devastating in conditions offering him even a little assistance in England and with a Dukes ball.

But perhaps more relevant is the presence of Graeme Swann. It is Swann, arguably the best finger spinner either of these nations has produced since Jim Laker, who represents the key difference between these sides. Both teams have talented batsmen; both have dangerous seamers: only England have a champion spinner who has shown, against all opposition and in all conditions, that he is a match-winner at this level.

It is generally unwise to try to predict England's plans. Under Andy Flower they are guarded with a level of security that even Edward Snowden could not unpick. But the evidence has mounted in recent days that they see spin and reverse swing as their key weapons.

For a start, Swann was rested in the crucial stages of the Champions Trophy despite his willingness to play. England, however, prioritised the Ashes over the final of the global ODI tournament they have never won and refused to take any chances with Swann's strained calf.

It was interesting to note, too, that the pitch at Trent Bridge has, despite unbroken sunshine and no chance to rain, remained under covers in the two days ahead of the Test. In the current hot weather, it is unthinkable that there would be any attempt to keep the pitch green and appears more likely that a surface, already unusually dry, is being preserved to ensure it does not deteriorate too early.

While the ball rarely spins on the ground, England are acutely aware of the likelihood that the Australia side will contain five or six left-handed batsmen and at least one left-arm bowler. The combination of footholes, the off-break turning away from the bat and the fact that, on a green pitch, Australia have the bowling weapons to hurt England, is likely to see this series played in conditions more like India than any previous series in England.

There is an obvious contrast between the approach of the two camps ahead of the series. Australia, reflecting the new laid back approach that Lehmann has instilled, had an optional net session on Tuesday, while England trained as normal.

The sense is that, while Australia's mood has been lifted by recent events, the England dressing room remains just a little intense; an environment where every action and reaction is noted and analysed. It is professional, certainly, but whether it is relaxing or conducive to fearless cricket is another matter.

Not that many in this England team play fearless cricket. With the exception of Pietersen and, to a lesser extent, Swann, England's strength is consistency. They will attempt, in this series as in so many others, to grind Australia out of the game; to build up pressure until their opposition snaps; to make fewer mistakes.

In Jonathan Trott, Cook and Anderson, they have supremely talented attritional cricketers. Lehmann and co. might be the more engaging company in a bar but, just as is the case when picking a surgeon or a pilot, substance often takes precedence over style.

The careers of England and Australia players are often bookended by Ashes series and it just might prove that way with Flower. While Flower's reputation is unquestionable - success in India might yet be remembered as the greatest achievement of the finest coach England have ever had - there seems of late, just a hint of a suspicion that he is tiring of the baggage that accompanies his high-profile position. Perhaps the players, subconsciously at least, are also yearning for a little more freedom and joy.

There is only so often any leader can repeat the same wisdom without his words blurring in the ears of his followers and there was an impression that, under Ashley Giles, the limited-overs team appeared more relaxed and less intense. Flower has earned the right to go when he feels the time is due, but nearly everything has an expiry date and Flower may feel, after the Ashes tour of Australia ends in January, that he has reached his.

Such issues can wait. There has been much talk of legacy in England cricket over the last few years and, over the next seven or so weeks, the players of both sides have the chance to build their own. It may not matter hugely in Bangalore or Bridgetown, but in England and Australia, in cricket at least, nothing matters more.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Naresh28 on July 10, 2013, 14:29 GMT

    Anderson poses the most questions to all test playing nations. He is gem of a player. The Australians have done great preparatory work under their new coach. Hope to see an Oz revival in this ashes series. They have always had a bunch grafters but will miss Michael Hussey the most. If Oz can survive the initial overs from Anderson they can put up a good challenge.

  • sachin_vvsfan on July 10, 2013, 12:08 GMT

    @TheBigBoodha "Indian conditions are a pointless indicator, and if you don't know why then you don't know cricket."

    Well the indication that i got is that Aussies batting has become worse from poor by loosing Hussey and England strengthened their batting by including Root. This was the conclusion of India series. You can talk all you want about that Series against SA but you cant deny the fact that you are weaker with out Hussey. Not that he will changes the fortunes of ashes but he reduces the margin in the series result.

    Lets wait and see.

  • Occidental_Observer on July 10, 2013, 10:14 GMT

    @ Big Buddha: I'm detecting a case of sour grapes here. Just because England were able to win in India while the Australians were royally whitewashed (no one's going to forget that memorable performance by the boys from down under any time soon) doesn't mean that the Indian flavour of cricket needs to be discredited. Australian cricketers would do well to learn how to play quality spin bowling from the English.

    Anyhow, I am predicting Australia to do well this Ashes. They can't do worse than they did during their last test series in India.

    Having said that, I'm sure the Australians still have the ability to surprise me.

  • harshthakor on July 10, 2013, 8:14 GMT

    I back the Australian team to regain the Ashes in this series as they are the underdogs.The pressure of favourites will tell on England.The Aussie pacemen like Pattinson can be lethal with the support of Starc and Siddle.If Michael Clarke is in full flow he could cause a major dent to England.England has been inconsistent off late as they showed in New Zealand.England is better on paper without doubt with stronger batting.However the superior Australian fighting spirit could well play a major role in the destiny of the Ashes.This series may well spark an Australian resurgence with their talented youngsters.

  • Rowayton on July 10, 2013, 8:10 GMT

    I hope landl47 is wrong. If we want test cricket to flourish Ballance should play for Zimbabwe.

  • Simoc on July 10, 2013, 6:04 GMT

    Looking forward to a good series. It would be great to win the toss and go out and put 300 runs on day one. A solid step in bringing the Ashes back to where they belong.

  • SamRoy on July 10, 2013, 5:51 GMT

    I predict England will win this series easily (unless they are overconfident) but they will not win the return series in Australia. Australians are too proud a cricketing nation to lose to England twice at home in two visits.

  • SamRoy on July 10, 2013, 5:47 GMT

    @landl47 I absolutely agree with you. I think Jonny Bairstow is the poorer version of Yuvraj Singh and we all know how Yuvraj Singh did in test cricket. Test cricket is not just about attractive stroke play, you need to survive as well. In terms of attractive and aggressive stroke play Yuvraj is probably as attractive as Lara and more attractive than Tendulkar, Pietersen, Ponting and Laxman. We all know what a failure he has been in test cricket.

  • TheBigBoodha on July 10, 2013, 3:10 GMT

    One of the problems for England is media reports like this, which virtually demand that the series play out as they expect. But what if it doesn't? It is clear that despite some claims , that the entire media and the England team are pretty much expecting to roll up and win, as if it is a divine right. As Geoff Boycott noted, they are simply not that good. They couldn't get a win in NZ, and looked far worse vs SA than did AUS. Indian conditions are a pointless indicator, and if you don't know why then you don't know cricket.

    I also have to wonder what would happen if either or both or Swann and Anderson got injured.

  • heathrf1974 on July 10, 2013, 2:23 GMT

    The key for this series is the Australian batsman. We know England should perform well as they are well coached and highly consistent. If the Australian batting goes well we might have a competitive series. If not England should win the series comfortably. My prediction is England 3-1.