"The Ashes is massive. It has colossal importance. It is the marvel of test cricket. It is one of the greatest sporting rivalries."
How often have you heard all of the above phrases? I bet many a times. And not more so than the recent few years when they have been a two-way road instead of the Australian domination for nearly 2 decades. For a neutral fan like me, it indeed is a must-follow, and it becomes more of a wonder being in England where cricket hardly ever dominates the sports section of the newspapers. Come Ashes, it takes a front seat like none (even a World Cup of cricket has not much significance as go the tabloids and electronic media). Yes, it is of such prominence.
Here, we will make an attempt of analysing the major factors and chances of both the teams, who I have followed pretty closely in the last few years, and not more than the summer that has just gone by.
So starting with England, who does not know that this Ashes is being tipped as the best shot for England in the last 20 years when it has been played Down Under. With a formidable batting line up, which consists of few of the most impressive stroke players of the present era, and almost all of them in good rhythm, they should come across as a hard-boiled unit for the Aussie bowling line up. Moreover, their bowling attack is being deemed as more sound than it has been in the previous visits to Australia, both quality and form wise. With a worthy pace attack and a world-class off spinner, it is acknowledged as one of best test attacks in the game today.
Furthermore, the quality of management and coaching they have, has been of high caliber and has resulted in considerable success in recent times. The Flower effect is a massive factor. He has given England a face lift which in recent history has been paralleled by only few world over. Apart from his first series which England lost to West Indies, he has been in-charge of a commendable run which has seen them win against West Indies, Australia, Bangladesh and Pakistan and draw with South Africa. The T20 World Cup honor and a serious force in ODI are other medals of success he has helped England to. With Graham Gooch, David Saker and Mushtaq Ahmed as his wingmen, they form a safe umbrella for the England team.
For all those English fans in a fix and deliberating the night vigils, let me assure, this one is as close as you will ever get to retaining that little urn Down Under, and you know it well. So much so that this winter and Christmas can easily be taken to another level by your lads if they stick in there. And as the pundits and critics are putting it, this should be the time when the Aussie aura is ultimately going to give in.
Indeed, Aussies are struggling, or let me put it fairly, in a mess. Their top batters are basically nowhere when it comes to the form factor. They have not had the prettiest of phases in world cricket of late. Even their bench strength does not seem to possess the quality we have been accustomed to for the last couple of decades. Yet, to take their batsmen as walking wickets would be delusional. Remember, Form is temporary, Class is permanent. After all the years of analyzing this game, if you are unable to comprehend this phrase, one would really think of you as a Walter Mitty.
Yes, Aussie bowling lineup is probably the feeblest it has been over the few decades. They have been unable to dislodge even the most fragile batting line ups as easily they used to till the last few years, yet to think their bowling does not hold the potential to put up a serious challenge, even on their own decks, would be too immature.
Now for the man who probably matters the most in this duel and for whom this series could define his legacy and his greatness. For sure, he has struggled to put up ever since the Warnes, McGraths, Gilchrists, Haydens and Langers bid farewell to the game and without doubt, his tactical moves, shrewdness and composure have been criticized many a times. Yet, to think he and Australia would be a walk over under the pump they are in, should not be taken as granted at any cost.
Make no bones about it, Australia in its backyard is a beast which hardly gets tamed and even the last few years (post-McGrath, Warne) which has seen them field their most fragile bowling line ups, they have been able to put up decent performances, and baring the series loss to South Africa, they have remained unbeaten at home. Their batting has the firepower capable of dominating any bowling attack in the game. It is just a matter of time they come good and get their flow back.
A personal take
See, I'll be mighty honest here. My head says it will be England but my heart has a drift towards Australia. The former for their consistency, confidence and the aplomb they are carrying into this series, and the latter for the aura they can back on, quality of certain players and this being played in their own hood. Australia is cornered, lets put it simply. Ponting is at a critical crossroad, as a great of the game and as a captain. What more can you ask for the Aussies to know where they are standing? What more can you question the Australianism with? Nothing more, one would believe. This is exactly where the legacy of a great cricketing nation will be under observation, hence making it a prospect of a fascinating viewing.
So, brace yourself for the next few weeks. This is going to be a spectacle, trust me, even if the standard and quality might not be the same as one would expect. It would be a battle that has a lot at stake, not only for Australia but for England too. As for neutral cricket followers, it should be charming enough to keep you glued to your tv sets. Its all set for you to get enthralled.
Let the show begin!