2015 Ashes preview

The 2015 Ashes starts tomorrow in Cardiff as underdogs England look to claim their fourth successive home Ashes triumph and snatch the famous urn from holders Australia.

Given both teams’ recent form, the Aussies will win 5-0 and that will be all she wrote. Or will it?

With Australia packing plenty of pace into their attack, England can expect some short stuff but they will find the likes of Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc easier to play on England’s slower pitches.

Add the likely omission of star Ashes performer Peter Siddle from the visitors’ starting XI and England will be breathing a little easier.

Elsewhere, bookies odds of 2/5 for an Australia series victory look especially stingy given the historical Ashes records.

Of the 68 Ashes series, 32 have been won by Australia, while England have snared 31 winning four of the last six. It’s not a clear cut Australian win after all.

England

England’s situation has improved markedly since their 5-0 humiliation in the 2013-14 series.

There is continuity and renewed confidence amongst their batting line-up, with the long-vilified Alastair Cook returning to something near his best form in recent series against the West Indies and New Zealand.

Adam Lyth is his likeliest opening partner, while Joe Root has rapidly improved – he looks England’s most fluid runscorer at present.

England’s middle order is more fragile, Root aside, as Ian Bell and Gary Ballance have struggled for runs recently while Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali and Jos Buttler provide plenty of threat but little dependability.

The hosts have also reinforced their bowling unit, with ever-presents James Anderson and Stuart Broad leading a line which is bolstered by the express pace and steepling bounce of Mark Wood.

Wood is a tricky customer as not only do opposing batsmen have to contend with his 90mph snorters he also likes to vary the angle and length of his run-ups – tactics more commonly seen in shorter formats of the game.

Perhaps the main weakness of their attack is Moeen Ali, who has struggled to fill the spinning boots of Graeme Swann, often proving expensive. Ben Stokes will also concede many boundary balls but showed signs of greater control against New Zealand.

Australia

Arguably, the form of Steve Smith is Australia’s most potent weapon.

Since October, the right-hander has scored 1,226 runs at an average of 102.17, notching five centuries and five fifties.

His first-innings average of 89.64 places him second on the all-time list behind Don Bradman. England be wary.

Smith will almost certainly bat at three behind the aggression of opener David Warner, while Michael Clarke will provide formidable company at five provided he remains injury-free.

Australia coach Darren Lehmann also faces a tough decision over which wicketkeeper to pick.

The decline of Brad Haddin is well documented, but he consistently peaks for Ashes series and could fight off a strong claim to the gloves from Peter Nevill, who has been in good knick with the bat in Australia’s brief warm-up games.

Following on from a trend they set a decade ago, Australia bat deep into the line-up with the ability to transform scores of 150-7 into a 300+ score. Just ask the West Indies what that felt like a few months ago.

And, after the tail wags, the bowlers can rip through any batting line-up as Johnson, Starc and new recruit Josh Hazlewood get stuck in with the new cherry.

Like England, spin is their weakness with Nathan Lyon looking every bit as vulnerable as Moeen Ali amongst both sides’ star contingent of seamers.

So, the moral of this preview is not to believe the early predictions. Both sides look a match for each other but perhaps Australia carry the greater confidence into the series.

That could well translate into an early series lead, but can we write off England after their recent improvement? Definitely not.

This could be one doozy of an Ashes series.

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England melt in Ashes obliteration

Before the 2013/14 Ashes series started, much of the build-up surrounded the scoreline by which England would win the series.

Sir Ian Botham was in typically boisterous mood, predicting a 5-0 whitewash for the visitors against an Australian side who, without attracting attention, deserved more respect than they had been afforded.

The warning signs were there during the summer. England’s 3-0 victory managed to sufficiently paper over the cracks of some flaky performances – and the foolhardy had not even noticed there were cracks in the first place.

Perhaps the most common theme of England’s summer Ashes campaign was that of the bowlers rescuing their side after some flatulent displays from the batsmen placed the team in precarious positions on more than one occasion.

Too many times England were reduced to 30-3 as captain Alastair Cook’s weakness outside off stump was badly exposed and Joe Root’s inexperience gravely exploited.

Australian seamer Ryan Harris was made to look world-class by some imprudent strokeplay, while Peter Siddle dismissed Kevin Pietersen more times than English fans care to remember.

On the face of it, Botham’s prediction was mischievous and unduly confident but few could have foreseen a dismantling of such gigantic proportions that would see his 5-0 prophecy inverted in Australia’s favour.

England started the series well and probably shaded the first day, reducing Australia to 132-6. Where the tide began to turn however, was when England were skittled for 136 to concede a first-innings deficit of 159 runs.

The two Australian innings had finished and started on the same day, such was the level of England’s collapse.

It was a collapse masterminded by the resurgent Mitchell Johnson, who terrorised England’s batsmen with vicious pace, bounce and accuracy.

The latter quality had always been Johnson’s nemesis. Too often he had the tendency to drift wide – at times embarrassingly so – and he was consequently taunted by the Barmy Army.

However, in this series he made them watch with great pain as he continued a rejuvenation which had begun in April in India. Playing for Mumbai Indians in the Indian Premier League, he delivered a string of highly impressive bowling performances.

He had finally been able to rid himself of the inconsistency which had plagued his game and was showing great control of line and length in partnership with his more renowned pace and bounce.

Johnson was suddenly the cricketer England feared he would one day become, but when the two sides met in Brisbane for the opening Test the visitors were hopelessly underprepared – and they never recovered.

The left-armer succeeded in mangling numerous English innings throughout the series, stripping batsmen such as Jonathan Trott – who later flew home due to mental health problems – and Matt Prior of their confidence and rampaging through the tailend with a cruel ease.

Johnson took 37 wickets during the series – two more than Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad combined – complete with three five-wicket hauls and having snared 15 more wickets than Ryan Harris, who with 22 also had a superb series.

While it’s easy to focus on the brutality of Johnson’s form, England’s dire batting should also be spotlighted.

The previous Ashes tour was an incredible one for England as they routinely pulverised the Australian attack. They even broke records, memorably when they scored 517-1 in the second innings of the first Test in 2010.

Cook (235*) and Trott (135*) were the men chiefly responsible, while Andrew Strauss weighed in with a century himself.

How that form changed in just three years. In the 2010/11 series, England were scoring centuries almost at will. In the 2013/14 series, they mustered just one – Ben Stokes’ 120 at Perth.

Stokes, competing in his debut Test series, was by far the brightest light of England’s gloomy tour. He scored 279 runs at an average of 34.87, which was just 15 runs less than the reckless Kevin Pietersen despite playing four of the five Tests.

Australia were better than England in every department, but especially so at the crease.

The top six series runscorers were all Australian, while David Warner’s tally of 523 runs was only four runs short of the combined tally of his counterparts Alastair Cook and Michael Carberry.

Australia also notched ten centuries against England’s one, which is the most telling statistic of all.

Much credit should go to Australia coach Darren Lehmann, who has transformed the fortunes of a side who had lost seven of their last nine Tests before Brisbane.

He has crafted a new generation of cut-throat cricket, instilled a winning mentality into his side and constructed a batting line-up capable of scoring fifties right down to numbers nine and ten.

That depth of batting was perfectly illustrated by Brad Haddin and Johnson. Haddin, in particular, was a constant hindrance. He scored 493 runs at an average of 61.62 and counter-attacked at crucial times.

Just when England were looking to bowl Australia out for around 200, up popped Haddin with a typically aggressive half-century to further demoralise the English attack.

Lehmann will also be pleased that from Haddin down to Nathan Lyon at 11, Australia’s tailenders plundered 874 runs between them.

When matched against England’s top three runscorers Kevin Pietersen (294); Michael Carberry (281) and Ben Stokes (279), Australia’s tailenders outscored them by 20 runs – a truly harrowing statistic for England coach Andy Flower to ponder.

Flower will be pondering plenty after this series, for as worrying as England’s reliance on their bowlers is their lack of emerging talent.

So far only Root and Stokes have made plausible claims to a regular starting spot, but the likes of Carberry and Jonny Bairstow have not flattered themselves in a dismal situation wherein a run of confident displays could have cemented their Test berth.

The fact that Graeme Swann, England’s second-most prolific Test spinner after Derek Underwood, retired after three Tests of this tour also turns attention towards England’s spin talents.

Scott Borthwick did himself no harm by taking 3-33 in the Sydney Test, but Monty Panesar has had a damaging tour having taken just three wickets in the four innings he has bowled.

Flower and Cook have a massive rebuilding process to go through and must analyse the gory details of the series, extracting any positives they can.  England’s golden era is over, but after this Ashes obliteration Australia’s is only just beginning.

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