England are a greatly overrated Test team
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England batsman Alistair Cook celebrates reaching 200 runs on day five of the first Ashes test. AAP Image/Dave Hun
Amid the frenzied analysis and criticism of the Australian Ashes squad, England’s shortcomings have largely been overlooked.
Predictions of back-to-back Ashes cakewalks for the Poms have been made by pundits apparently oblivious to the changes in the Test cricket landscape the past two-and-a-half years.
England is a budding superpower no more. Since their 3-1 domination of Australia in the 2010-11 season, they have not produced performances to match their hype.
Instead, they have gone backwards.
Such an assessment is not a knee-jerk reaction to their recent travails against New Zealand who, while clearly on the rise, remain an ordinary side with a lack of star power.
Rather, it is a reflection of the fact England have won just six of their 19 Tests since the start of 2012. The only member of the side to have shown improvement is wicketkeeper Matt Prior, who has piled up runs and maintained his tidy glovework.
England’s fielding, which was superb in the last Ashes, has declined in standard considerably. Dropped catches proved particularly costly in their lost home series against South Africa last English summer.
Most significantly, both their batting and bowling units have struggled for consistency and relied on too few too often.
When future generations look back at the scorecards of the 2010-11 Ashes they will likely fixate on the batting exploits of Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen, who all churned out huge volumes of runs.
But make no mistake, the key to England’s ascendency was not its batting but its pace attack. James Anderson, Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan confounded the Australian batsmen with their relentless accuracy and the movement they gained through the air and off the pitch.
It is easy to forget Australia were on top heading into the fourth Test of that series in Melbourne, having just thrashed England by 267 runs at the WACA to level the contest at 1-1.
The entire country was behind Aussie openers Shane Watson and Phillip Hughes as they strode to the middle of the MCG at the start of the Boxing Day Test. The Aussie camp was brimming with confidence.
Little more than three hours later, the Ashes were all but lost after Australia collapsed to be all out for 98. England’s aforementioned pace trio had brutalised its opponents, delivering a psychological blow from which the Aussies could not recover.
In its final four innings of that series, Australia was dismissed for an average score of 229 as they suffered consecutive innings defeats. The Poms again proved the theory bowlers win Test matches, not batsmen.
But the England pace brigade has since been battered and bruised.
Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan have had significant injury problems, and Anderson’s effectiveness has been blunted by the lack of support he has received from his fellow quicks.
Tremlett’s last Test was 17 months ago, while Bresnan recently returned from elbow surgery he hoped would improve his dreadful Test form, which had seen him collect 16 wickets at the inflated average of 55 since the start of 2012.
The other two pacemen likely to feature prominently in the Ashes, Stuart Broad and Steven Finn, have put forward indifferent performances in the past 18 months.
Broad has snared 52 wickets at an average of 32 in that time and Finn 30 wickets at 34. Those are ordinary returns.
Broad’s form has been up and down like an elevator. Cook can never be confident of what he will get when he brings on the experienced quick.
Likewise for Finn, who continues to be far too expensive. His career economy rate in Tests of 3.63 runs per over is outrageously high and makes Mitch Johnson (3.35 rpo) appear frugal by comparison.
The beanpole speedster’s profligacy makes it difficult for his bowling partner to build pressure and draw a false stroke from the batsmen.
It was for this reason he was dumped from the England side after the third Test of the last Ashes series, despite being their leading wicket taker to that point.
Anderson has been hampered by such inconsistency among his pace colleagues. Despite bowling well, the wily veteran has not reaped great rewards over the past 18 months because he has too often been a lone ranger.
His return of 58 wickets at 31 during that time is solid at best. In the last Ashes, Anderson regularly earned wickets by enticing ill-conceived, aggressive shots from batsmen who had become frustrated by the manner in which the English attack had dried up the flow of runs.
Since that series, opposition batsmen have too often been happy to block out his overs without risk, safe in the knowledge they would receive ample opportunities to score at the other end.
Graeme Swann has been Anderson’s most reliable partner. The off-spinner offers few bad balls or poor spells and can shackle the run rate.
However, Swann has a dismal record against Australia. In 10 Ashes Tests he has taken just 29 wickets at an average 40. In both the 2009 and 2010-11 Ashes series he bowled accurately but without penetration.
Swann is, however, flattered by the Ashes record of his spin partner Monty Panesar, whose 11 wickets against Australia have cost him 45 runs apiece.
Australia’s weakness against spin is often misunderstood and misrepresented. After they were crushed 4-0 in India this year, many commentators and fans were quick to reinforce the stereotype that Australian batsmen wilt at the mere mention of spin.
But the Aussies’ woes against spin largely have been limited to matches played on dusty wickets in the subcontinent and the West Indies, where drastically uneven bounce more so than exaggerated turn has been their downfall.
On the firmer surfaces found in Australia, England, South Africa and New Zealand, Australia’s batsmen have in fact prospered against spin.
Spinners of the quality of Rangana Herath, Daniel Vettori and Ravi Ashwin have all found the going tough away from home against Australia in the past two years.
That is not to suggest Swann won’t cause headaches for Australia, as he is a world-class bowler capable of turning a match in the space of an over. But claims Australia’s batsmen will meekly fold once Swann takes the ball are fanciful.
Similarly outlandish are predictions that England’s batsmen will murder the Aussie attack in a repeat of their heroics in 2010-11. The gap between the quality of England’s batting and Australia’s bowling has narrowed greatly since that series.
Peter Siddle is a vastly improved bowler, as evidenced by his return of 76 wickets at an average of 26 since the last Ashes.
James Pattinson has been a huge addition to the Aussie attack and is comfortably the best young quick in Test cricket, having overtaken Siddle as his country’s most incisive bowler.
Ryan Harris is a world-class opening bowler when fit, while Jackson Bird and Mitchell Starc have been very impressive in their limited appearances at Test level.
The final element of Australia’s frontline attack, Nathan Lyon, is one of the most maligned players in Test cricket. But his deficiencies are frequently overplayed and his career record is solid if unspectacular.
Lyon’s role in the Ashes will not be to make regular breakthroughs but rather to hold up one end while Australia’s intimidating pace battery goes for the throat.
Almost equal to the improvement in Australia’s bowling ha been the decline of the English batting.
The Poms lost two cool-headed veterans in former skipper Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood and are yet to find an adequate replacement for either.
Nick Compton, who has taken Strauss’ opening role, struck two valuable tons against New Zealand but has been worryingly boom-or-bust for England’s liking.
The man who would perhaps take Compton’s spot at the top of the order should his inconsistency continue is Joe Root, who himself is still trying to find his feet at Test level.
Root made an impressive Test debut in India in December before faltering in his following three Tests against some quality swing bowling in New Zealand, where he averaged just 18.
The 22-year-old strokemaker was admirably composed on a difficult pitch in the recently completed Test at Lord’s against England. However, his position in the side is far from cemented and he is yet to experience the kind of scrutiny and pressure which accompanies the Ashes.
Ian Bell’s position in the side is also uncertain thanks to his erratic performances since the start of last year. His 825 Test runs at 34 in that time do not represent the kind of form which will leave the Aussie bowlers sleep-deprived.
Ian Trott likewise has not been at his best the past 18 months, with his average of 41 in that period well down on his career mark of 50.
With two rookies trying to prove themselves at Test level and two old heads significantly down on form, England have been prone to horrendous collapses. Such capitulations saw them come perilously close to losing their three-Test series in New Zealand and were again evident in their most recent outing.
Cook, Pietersen and Prior are shouldering the burden of such failures. This trio of champions manhandled the Australian bowlers in the past series. Their battle with the Aussies aggressive pace unit will decide the outcome of the Ashes.
Pundits predicting England will have little trouble in winning both of the upcoming Ashes battles are clearly viewing the contest through the prism of two series – England’s victorious campaigns in Australia in 2010-11 and in India late last year.
But, in reality, neither series has great bearing on the forthcoming Ashes battles.
England’s historic 2-1 win in India was a marvellous effort which contrasted starkly with Australia’s subsequent 4-0 pounding in the same country.
The Ashes contests will, however, be played in vastly different conditions in which Australia will be far more comfortable.
As for the 2010-11 series, both Australia and England are now almost unrecognisable from the outfits which took to the field two-and-a-half years ago.
There can be no argument the Aussies are a rejuvenated, combative outfit. England, contrastingly, are weary and vulnerable.
Forget the predictions of an Ashes drubbing by England. The Poms have plenty to worry about.
Ronan O'Connell has been a professional journalist for more than a decade, including 9 years at daily newspapers in WA, with 7 of those at The West Australian. He is currently traversing the world while working as a freelance sports and travel journalist. Follow him on twitter @ronanoco