Reflections on the Ashes

5-0. It has been 86 years since Australia humiliated England in a similar way. Australia's team was probably one of the best in its history - one in which a good England team could not hope to challenge.

Yet there are some very worrying signs that all will not be well for Australian cricket by the time the next Ashes series comes around in 2009. The retirements of McGrath, Warne, Langer and Martyn will not easily be covered. Moreover, the England team which lost to Australia has some very good talent that will learn from their experiences.

My argument is based upon the experience of the 1986-87 Australian team which were unable to wrest back the Ashes from Mike Gatting's England team. Consider the Australian players who were in that series: Steve Waugh, Allan Border, Craig McDermott, Bruce Reid, Merv Hughes, David Boon, Dean Jones, Geoff Lawson. The next Ashes series - the famous 1989 tour - contained most of these top notch players who had lost to England previously, and managed to overcome them. The lesson? Even players who have experienced the worst of losses can manage, over time, to develop into high-class cricketers.

Think of the current England line-up. Pietersen will certainly be around in 2009 and will score heavily in the meantime. He is, based upon his batting average, the best England batsmen since Ken Barrington retired in 1968. The openers - Strauss and Cook - still boast enviable first class records and still have Test batting averages in the 40s. Once back in England and facing Test teams boasting attacks two notches below Australia, their form and confidence will return. Bell can also be put into this category.

I'm not sure that Paul Collingwood can really hack it as a Test player in the long term - and this is based upon his first class form alone. Collingwood averages around 35 with the bat and has done so for ten years. His recent bout of good form will probably be mixed up with future failures, and he will probably leave Test cricket with a sub-40 batting average.

Flintoff is of concern. His performances during the 2005 series were nothing short of inspiring but he was unable to reproduce that form - with either bat or ball - in the series just finished. Flintoff's figures show that his bowling is not as penetrative as people think. On average Flintoff bowls 19 overs every first class match he plays, compare this to 28 for James Anderson, 33 for Steve Harmison, 36 for Glenn McGrath and 42 for Shane Warne. Flintoff's first class figures indicate that he averages 35 with the bat and 32 with the ball - neither of which would, by themselves, be considered excellent. Ian Botham, the player he is often compared to, averaged 34 with the bat and 27 with the ball - and averaged 26 overs in each first class match. On figures alone Botham appears to be the superior player - however Freddie still has time on his side and players may often perform well as they age.

As far as bowling is concerned England probably did a good job in picking who they picked - except Giles of course... the King of Spain should've been dropped from the England side years ago. Who would've guessed that Harmison and Flintoff would have lost form so drastically? Hoggard played well and should remain as part of the side for years - however players like Mahmood and Anderson did not take the opportunities that were handed to them and were treated as cannon fodder by the Aussie batsmen. I can't understand why players like Jon Lewis, Dimitri Mascarenhas or Kabir Ali keep getting overlooked.

England have not produced a world-class paceman (a sub-25 bowler) since Bob Willis. Plenty of bowlers since Willis' time have been good pacemen (such as Ian Botham, Andy Caddick, Darren Gough, Matthew Hoggard, Steve Harmison, Angus Fraser, Phil DeFreitas, Graham Dilley, Dominic Cork, Devon Malcom and Simon Jones) but none of these has been as effective as a McGrath, an Ambrose, a Malcolm, an Akram and so on. World-class pacemen do not come around often but England, it seems, has had to wait longer than most.

Like many I love Monty Panesar - but wickets mean success and I am not yet convinced that Monty won't turn out like other third-rate England spinners of times past. Left arm finger spinners have not been turning the world upside down since the days of Derek Underwood - but Warne certainly revived Leg Spin so it would be great if Monty could do a similar revival in England.

England should stick with Read behind the stumps. Unless a player like Gilchrist can come along, the man behind the stumps should be the best in the country.

So, that's England. What about Australia?

Australia have lost Martyn, Langer, McGrath and Warne during this last Ashes series. In the next 12 months they will likely lose Gilchrist and Hayden as well.

Ponting, I believe, will continue to score heavily for Australia. He will pass 10,000 runs and, for a time, be the world's highest run scorer. It would be great if he could average in excess of 60 as well, which would show beyond doubt that he is actually a head above the rest of the best.

I've never been a fan of Clarke. Maybe I'm getting old and crabby but Clarke still looks like a kid. Nevertheless I think that runs will talk loudest and Clarke has scored well this season. He didn't do too well in England in 2005, but neither did many Aussie players. Clarke will have to develop into a serior player in a shorter time frame than he would like. Time will tell whether he will make it or not.

Brett Lee, I believe, will not cope without McGrath around. As an unabashed critic of Lee I think he will lose a number of tests in the future and watch his bowling average blow out beyond the already unacceptable 32 that it is already. Without Lee spearheading the attack, who can Australia turn to?

Stuart Clark has had a great 12 months but I am not convinced that he will end his career with a bolwing average of 17. At some point in the future his performances will even out and he will find it difficult to accept the tag of being the "new McGrath".

Stuart McGill may get a run as Australia's leg spinner but he is quite expensive on occasion. He probably won't make it to 2009.

Nathan Bracken is one of my favourite players, and I'm hoping that he will be picked to replace either McGrath or Lee in the future.

But who else is there we can rely upon? Cameron White's Legspin is not as wonderful as many had hoped - even when one takes account of his young age. Jason Gillespie may make a comeback but I can't see him winning tests in the same way as McGrath has done. Then we have the promise of Mitchell Johnson and maybe Shaun "Eric Bana" Tait. But the bowling cupboard is looking increasingly bare.

Batting is looking good, however. I'm reasonably sure that Jaques will be an adequate replacement for Langer. Voges is a good player as well. Katich is waiting in the wings for another chance. Cosgrove is exciting. Love may yet return to the test side, as may Brad Hodge. Symonds will find it difficult to maintain good form. Dominic Thornley is a dark horse, as is Carl Rogers.

Haddin will be able to replace Gilchrist, and maybe even be a better batter than Ian Healy. A return to a traditional keeper will be hard to handle - but players like Gilchrist come around only once in a generation.

So what are my predictions for Ashes 2009?

I wouldn't be surprised if England wins, but I wouldn't be surprised if it turns into a batting fest. England and Australia are strong on batting depth but not as strong in bowling depth. Simon Jones or Stuart Clarke may turn into world-class pacemen but it is way too early to tell. I think a scoreline of 2-1 (from either side) or 1-1 is likely.


Paul W said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul W said...

Great post, Neil. And New Year's greeting to you, Anna and your children.

Can you now provide this kind of analysis of the future of my beloved Black Caps? Will we ever be a test force or One-Day fore ever agan?!?