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Russell Jackson

Older Australia, stronger Australia?

Their batsmen are well seasoned going into the Ashes - like on other recent visits to England. It is a trend that has worked in terms of run-scoring, if not overall results

Russell Jackson
Russell Jackson
Five Australians who made centuries on Test debut: (From L-R) Fielding coach Greg Blewett, captain Michael Clarke, Adam Voges, Shaun Marsh and national selector Mark Waugh, West Indies v Australia, 1st Test, Roseau, 2nd day, June 4, 2015

Batsmen in their 30s often get the job done for Australia in the Ashes  •  Getty Images

I never quite imagined a day in which my primary concern as the Australians played an away Test series against West Indies would be England, but the result in last week's first Test in Dominica at least proved that I might not have been the only one with my mind elsewhere.
I saw a stat during that Test, something that got me thinking about the upcoming Ashes. By the time the first ball is sent down in Cardiff, the average age of Australia's first-choice line-up will hover close to 32, while England's will be nearer 27.
At a basic level, that just represents two teams at differing points of their life cycle. Australia are asking for one last campaign out of trusty old hands, while England, in a batting sense at least, barely have any old hands left. Australia's selectors are telling us that it's in the twilight of his career that a batsman knows his game best. Notwithstanding the Kevin Pietersen imbroglio, England have identified the batsmen and allrounders who will take them through the next half-decade and beyond. Both approaches involve a degree of bravery and at least the appearance of faith in personnel.
That leaves Australia with the batting options of Chris Rogers (37 years old, almost 38 by the end of the English summer), Michael Clarke (34), Adam Voges (35), Shane Watson (34), Shaun Marsh (32), wicketkeeper Brad Haddin (37), the younger but well established David Warner (28), and Steven Smith (26), plus allrounder Mitchell Marsh (23).
England will again select the batsmen and allrounders for their XI from a pool that includes Alastair Cook (30), Adam Lyth (27), Gary Ballance (25), Ian Bell (33), Joe Root (24), Ben Stokes (24), Jos Buttler (24) and Moeen Ali (27).
You could say that the theory behind the Australian squad - and remember that the snubbing of 26-year-old Joe Burns for late-career statistical wonder Adam Voges was justified in emphatic style this week - is that it's best to pick in-form batsmen who are capable of big scores in big games. Australia are fighting this war, not the next one.
Australian Ashes centurions have tended to be 30-plus and the only two first-choice batsmen in their 20s this time around, Warner and Smith, have enjoyed periods of sustained excellence of late
When considering the likelihood of the mature Australian batsmen succeeding and contributing to Test wins, though, it's informative to take a stroll through the last four Ashes trips, where hundreds haven't always equated to success. The 2009 series is the classic example, of course - a series in which Australia lost the Ashes despite having eight centurions to England's two. All bar Michael Clarke (28 at the time) were north of 30 and none older than 34-year-olds Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey.
The last four Ashes series in England throw up some interesting statistical combinations in that regard: 2001 made perfect sense; Australia won the century count 9-2 and the Ashes 4-1. In 2005 things were far different. England edged their opponents 5-3 in tons and took a classic Ashes series 2-1. In 2009 we had the anomalous and aforementioned situation of Australia's batsmen blitzing their opponent in a statistical sense but still losing the Ashes 2-1. In 2013 England scored five centuries to four - theoretically close - but took the Ashes 3-0.
All of this is to say a few things; in the last 15 years bowling attacks have been the cornerstone of Ashes series wins, even if the individual brilliance of batsmen has turned a few notable Tests. Also, tail-end batting partnerships are often just as useful as a big hundred from one of the top three, and have often decided results.
The Australians have scored a combined 24 hundreds in the last four Ashes series in England and for those wary of the Dad's Army selection strategy, the breakdown of the ages of the batsmen scoring them is interesting reading. Thirty-six-year-olds (okay, the Waugh brothers) scored four, 35-year-olds one, 34-year-olds three, 33-year-olds two, 32-year-olds two, 31-year-olds one, 30-year-olds four, 29-year-olds three, with only Steven Smith (one hundred at 24 years of age in 2013), Ricky Ponting (one as a 26-year-old in 2001) and Michael Clarke (two when he was 28 in 2009) not veterans when they posted a ton.
In a nutshell, Australian centurions in series results good and bad have tended to be 30 years plus and the only two first-choice batsmen in their 20s this time around - Warner and Smith - have in the past 24 months both enjoyed periods of sustained excellence in the Test arena.
But here's the thing. England's centurions in the victorious 2013, 2009 and 2005 campaigns skewed as young as their line-up this time around. Of the 12 centuries scored by Englishmen in those three series, nine were by men in their 20s, and of those, six were made by a batsman 28 or younger.
I know all of this from tooling around on Statsguru for a couple of hours in the hope of shaping some kind of clever narrative about how experience really does tell in Ashes Tests, but as is almost always the way with these things, I was more wrong than right. Australia might score nine centuries to four and still lose the Ashes 2-1. Maybe Nathan Lyon and Moeen Ali are players I should have spent hours analysing.
And this is the beauty of Ashes cricket, something that makes its permutations so joyful amid all that's gloomy about modern sport; that commanding and unforgettable 180 from cherub-faced 22-year-old Joe Root at Lord's two years back was the opposite of what I had expected, just as I hadn't banked on 36-year-old Mark Waugh winding back the clock for two vintage tons in the 2001 series.
Maybe this time around Ben Stokes will score hundreds in three different Tests and England will still lose all of them. Perhaps Chris Rogers will challenge Hammond's and Bradman's series run-scoring marks and Australia still lose the Ashes. Both could be dropped by Edgbaston. Either way I'm sure we'll again be confronted by the one eternal and truly comforting certainty of Ashes cricket: nobody has the faintest idea how it's going to pan out.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sport in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian Australia and Wasted Afternoons. @rustyjacko