For most of us, the last time England were installed as heavy favourites for an Ashes series is beyond living memory. Growing up through our childhood years an Ashes pummelling was a biennial ritual and it requires a sharp adjustment in mind set to overcome the fact that England are no longer the underdogs.
Part of that ritual would be Glenn McGrath’s prediction of an Australian whitewash, which was part psychological wind-up part serious prediction. This year is the first in which McGrath has refused to predict an Australian victory of any kind, whilst on the other side of the fence Ian Botham has crowed of a 10-0 victory to the Poms, factoring in the back-to-back series. Whilst not suggesting for a minute that Botham is completely sincere in his forecast, his bullishness does nonetheless reflect an unsettling complacency festering within the English camp.
Although the personnel of the current English side has changed little since that outstanding victory down-under in 2010-11, chinks have appeared in almost every subsequent series and several players have undergone alarming dips in form. The batting line-up that produced ton after ton and double ton after double ton down under now looks alarmingly prone to lapses in concentration. England can only hope that some of their key batsmen can miraculously regain their form in order to combat a potent Australian seam attack.
The home side’s prospects have not been helped by the hasty decision to drop Nick Compton after an unsuccessful home series against New Zealand. Compton had acquitted himself well in both India and New Zealand and two matches at the start of a summer is no basis to judge the potential of an opening batsman’s test career. Compton’s method may not be pretty but it is effective and after 17 innings together he and Cook averaged 57.93 for the first wicket, higher than legendary partnerships such as Greenidge and Haynes and Hayden and Langer. By dropping Compton and moving Root to open, the English selectors have created more problems than they have solved as they now have to find a new solution to the no.6 position, which had seemingly been so successfully filled by Root, whilst there is no guarantee he will succeed up top. Compton had the application and technique required for a mentally challenging Ashes series but the addition of Jonny Bairstow to the batting line-up only seems to add another hit and miss batsman to an already brittle order.
England’s batting problems aside, the issues surrounding Australian cricket in recent months may have given a slightly warped perception of their current condition. A couple of key changes may well have put the Aussies on a more even footing once more; the addition of Chris Rogers as opener gives what was once a fragile looking front four a great deal more solidity whilst the replacement of Mickey Arthur with Darren Lehmann as coach gives the dressing room a fresh start and a togetherness that was once so important to the Aussie aura.
All that said, Botham is right in his conviction that England are stronger in every department than the Australians, but what many believe to be chasms in class are in fact much closer than parochial commentators such as Sir Ian may suggest. The essential message is this: it is not the English way to boast of one’s superiority before the contest has got under way, we can leave that to the Aussies. The 2005 victory was made all the sweeter because it made a mockery of arrogant Australian forecasts. The gap between the two sides is nowhere near what it was in the 90s and early 00s. The best way to win in sport is to be dignified off the pitch and embarrass your opponents on it. Australian bravado does not suit English cricket and if we start to adopt it now it may well come back to bite us.