Saturday, 18 November 2006

So many questions

One of the most intriguing aspects of the forthcoming Ashes series is the number of unknown quantities. The starting XIs are still undecided, despite Duncan Fletcher's suggestion that the England team that are currently playing in the last warm-up game against South Australia would be the line-up for the first Test. The England coach has added more fuel to the debate over which spinner will play by saying that Monty Panesar's selection is 'not set in stone', though it should be as the young slow left-armer is a potential match winner.

The Australians are in even more disarray with the very balance of their team undecided. If Shane Watson is unable to play, as seems increasingly likely, Australia will have to contemplate a return to their four bowler policy, which served them so well for so many years, but which is now considered risky, as it demands too much of McGrath. The alternative would be Andrew Symonds, whose bowling can be containing, but offers little wicket-taking threat. Dilemmas, it seems, for both teams.

Even more interesting, though, is speculation on the form of several key protagonists. Steve Harmison, Andrew Flintoff and Glenn McGrath are all returning from injury and have played little Test cricket recently. None of the England batsmen have played a Test Match in Australia and they have had little time to adapt to conditions there before the first Test. Fortunately, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood have scored some runs in their few opportunities and gained some invaluable confidence.

Matthew Hoggard is a much better bowler than when he last made an Ashes tour, but questions will still be voiced over his ability with the Kookaburra ball on Australian pitches. Brett Lee has been excellent at home this year, but his average against England is poor. It will be interesting to see whether his current form can be translated against a side who have usually scored freely against him.

Ricky Ponting, who has been in the form of his life in Test cricket since the Ashes defeat, averaging 78.05 in 12 Matches and smashing 8 centuries, has been oddly out of form recently. One suspects he will rise to the big occasion, but his average against England is surprisingly low compared to his overall average. Add to that the weight of captaincy and the expectation of the home supporters and one can only imagine what pressure Ponting is under.

Much has been made of the age of the Australian team, with seven of their probable first XI being over 35. Whether their experience and proven Test records will count for more than their ageing limbs and slowing reflexes is anyone's guess. What is certain is that when age catches up with a Test player their fall can be spectacular.

Shane Warne, for one, does not seem to be diminishing with age. He may not spin the ball as much as he once did, but his guile and cricketing intelligence make him as dangerous as ever. More doubts will be cast over McGrath, whose nip and stamina are not what they once were. Whether his ageing frame can withstand the toil of five Tests in as many weeks is one of the key issues of the series.

Matthew Hayden has been in fine form since his disappointment in England and Justin Langer is a pugnacious as ever. Damien Martyn, recalled and likely to play, injury permitting, has also been in good form recently, though his concentration is still apt to wander, something England will look to exploit.

Adam Gilchrist, however, has struggled over the last year, despite playing every Test for a winning Australian team. When he faces the England bowlers who tormeted him last time around he will not have the confidence of runs in the bank. He is still a fine player, but no longer the fearsome destroyer he once was. England will not treat him lightly, but they will not be in awe of him, as they were last time they played in Australia.

Conversely, many of England's players are inexeperienced in Australian conditions. If they fail to adapt quickly they will surely lose the series. In Panesar they have a match-winning spinner, whom the Australian's will be concerned about, but he has never bowled in a Test Match on Australian pitches. Though the pace and bounce is likely to suit him it is by no means certain.

Harmison, Hoggard and Flintoff are proven performers, though not in Australia. And as none of the English batsmen have played a Test in Australia, they will all be making a journey into the unknown against a team who have not been beaten at home for 13 years. How they fare will be one of the most important factors in deciding the series.

All these imponderables have made for a fascinating build up to this hugely anticipated contest and how they are borne out will surely be extremely interesting. I, for one, cannot wait to see that first ball bowled and for all those questions to be answered.

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