Peter Roebuck

England aren't favourites

They have a settled side and a united leadership, but they haven't been as impressive away as at home, their bowlers are unproven and their batsmen far from impregnable

Peter Roebuck
Peter Roebuck
Kevin Pietersen and Eoin Morgan are both in need of runs after struggling in the third Test, Lord's, August 24, 2010

Pietersen and Morgan will hold the key for England  •  Getty Images

Everything has been going England's way. According to the pundits a glorious victory awaits. As far as they are concerned, the Australians are in disarray and ripe for the taking. In part, the optimism is justified.
Previous touring teams took little heed of preparation. They'd turn up a fortnight before the first Test, play a three-day match and then expected to beat the hosts on their favourite hunting ground, at the Gabba. Last time around England played three games, including a 14-a-side match against New South Wales, the most powerful provincial team in the world. It made them look timid. They arrived in Brisbane badly underdone and were mauled.
However, preparation is essential. On the surface the cricket looks much the same but it demands different skills, and players need time to adapt. The light is brighter, the grounds are harder, the ball swings less, the bounce is higher, and so forth. Accordingly batsmen use the full blade, flingers hit the pitch as opposed to seeking swing, the pull shot is effective, and bowlers tend to seek outside edges more than leg-befores. Several of the current Australians bowlers have failed in England but that does not mean they cannot take wickets in their own backyard. The reverse also applies. Only two of the tourists have taken Test wickets down under, and one of them averaged 82.
Accordingly these visitors were wise to give themselves several weeks to acclimatise. One box has been ticked. Andy Flower's first remarks on landing were also helpful. Many sporting teams are alarmed on landing in Perth to discover that the local newspapers work along the lines favoured in another arena not so long ago by Dennis Lillee. As far as locals are concerned "Have a go, yer mug" is a way of life. Certainly it has found it place in the fourth estate. Previous England teams have been warned about the horrors of the Australian media - not that their own is entirely beyond reproach - and as a result have retreated under shells. It is not much of a way to spend a few months in a large, sports-loving and mostly hospitable country. South Africa used to make that mistake. On one tour the younger players were hidden as long as possible, and Boeta Dippennar was not allowed to speak to the press until the last match of the tour, whereupon stunned reporters asked, "Why have they been hiding this bloke? He's just given the best presser of the year."
Flower has made it clear that he wants his players to enjoy themselves and to embrace the local ways - including knockabout teasing. No more hangdog looks, room service and precious ways. England's victorious World Cup rugby team adopted the same approach. They roared with laughter at every barb and returned them with interest. No one knows how to handle a woman, but that is the way to handle an Australian. As Flower pointed out, a tour of Australia is both a great challenge and experience. It's not to be turned into an ordeal.
No less importantly, England has arrived with a united leadership. Australia cannot be conquered by the fractured. It exposes and exploits weaknesses. Flower and Andrew Strauss convey maturity and determination. Probably Strauss could stop talking about himself as a winner on the grounds that cricket, let alone life itself, is not to be tempted, but mostly he is restrained. Flower can be prickly but is also one of the giants of the game. His courage in protesting, not once but twice, the iniquitous regime in power in Zimbabwe was subsequently balanced by his acceptance that the white population had not done nearly enough and was in no small part responsible for the backlash. Sport has no role to play in party politics. However, it cannot ignore tyranny. No one can.
Moreover, England has a settled side. At present all the talk down under has been about the stresses and strains in the home team, the need for generational change, even a change of captain, and the fact that the old hands are hanging on and that the youngsters are pressing but lacking experience. Every day of every Shield mach is closely examined. Not so long ago the Australians could name their side for the series before a ball had been bowled. Now several positions and the balance of the side are under review. A spinner or four speedsters? Horses for courses? Meanwhile the Poms go quietly about their work.
Even the selection panel has been changed. Greg Chappell has been added to the list and Merv Hughes has been dumped. Chappell has been appointed as national talent manager, a well-paid position, and his task is to ensure that Australian cricket keeps going forward. Although his promotion was critically acclaimed, his record is patchy and his judgement has been called into question. However, he might be in the right place at the right time because he is impatient for youth and so is his cricket community. Hughes was a rough diamond ditched in favour or more polished, more compromised, operators.
To make matters worse for the hosts, Ricky Ponting, the only incontestably great cricketer on either side (though Graeme Swann and Kevin Pietersen have greatness in them), seems to be in decline. As captain, too, he is under intense pressure. Already he has had the misfortune to lose two Ashes series. Now he has to try to regain the urn with an ageing side that has fallen to fifth in the rankings. Failure might overshadow his long list of achievements.
Any Australian contemplating the troubles faced by the home side and the contrasting harmony in the visiting camp might feel down in the dumps. Introspection does not suit the national temperament. However, all is not lost. Sooner or later the credentials of the visiting team will be more closely examined and then the mood will change.
England's task is formidable. As much can be told from the fact that only four England cricket captains since the Second World War have toured down under and emerged triumphant. Two of them had great fast bowlers at their disposal in Frank "Typhoon" Tyson and John Snow. The others encountered a host nation torn apart by defections to World Series and South Africa. Strauss enjoys no such advantages. He has a capable but not devastating attack at his disposal, and the hosts are in decline as opposed to disarray. It's no use winning the silly war.
Any Australian contemplating the troubles faced by the home side and the contrasting harmony in the visiting camp might feel down in the dumps. However, sooner or later the credentials of the visiting team will be more closely examined and then the mood will change
Nor have England been as impressive overseas as on their own patch. By all accounts they were lucky to square the series in South Africa last winter. Australia beat South Africa in their own country. Mind you, the hosts had lost momentum after their own success a few weeks before in the antipodes.
Strauss's bowlers remain unproven with the Kookaburra ball. In no other sport is the ball as important as in cricket. Whereas the Duke balls used in England swing considerably, the Kookaburras are less inclined to leave the straight and narrow. To that end England have chosen a lot of tall bowlers capable of pushing the batsmen back, hurrying them into their shots and surprising them with extra bounce. Tis a shrewd selection but that does not mean they can outplay the hosts at their own game
Nor is England's batting exactly impregnable. Alastair Cook has not scored runs on harder pitches and Jonathan Trott failed in South Africa. Pietersen and Eoin Morgan hold the key. Morgan is an inventive and personable batsman, whilst Pietersen plays a high-stakes game and leads a high-stakes life. Amongst the batsmen, Pietersen is the likeliest to dominate, but he is also quite capable of falling flat on his face.
In any event it is premature to write off the Australians and to regard England as a mighty outfit. Ponting looked sharp in India and once the selection issues have been resolved the team can settle down. And the Barmy Army might not be as vociferous. Last time around they teased the locals about getting "three of your dollars for one of our pounds". Now the exchange rates are much less favourable.
Curiously the series seems to matter more to the visitors than the hosts. English cricket has talked about nothing else for years, and continues to regard Australia as its yardstick. It's a throwback but it's also a mistake. Australia is fifth in the rankings. A certain resentment lingers. Contrastingly the Australians are more relaxed these days. Old jokes about dry towels and warm beer are rarely heard and the phrase "whinging Pom" has fallen out of usage largely because it has become untrue. The colonial cringe and the colonial resentment mean nothing to younger generations. The shocking truth is that Australians quite like the Poms and are looking forward to a good, hard tussle with them. But then, they also relish good battles with the South African and Indians, teams that have challenged them home and away, a feat England have not managed since 1986-87.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It