Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Can England retain their Ashes title or will Andrew Srauss’ side burn-out in the heat of Australia?

With just 24 hours to go until England begin their Ashes title defence down-under, Hannah Duncan casts a critical eye over the visitor’s chances.

Having touched-down in the ‘convict colony’ nearly a month ago, Andrew Strauss’ side have got their Australia tour off to a flyer – with two dominant victories either side of a draw against South Australia.

But it’s all well and good playing neat cover drives and manufacturing more spin than the government’s PR department against second-rate opposition, but it remains a tall order to replicate the form England have enjoyed for best part of 2010 against Ricky Ponting’s Australia side determined to claim back the little urn on home turf.

For the average cricket fan (or at least the average overly-optimistic England fan), the visitors probably go into the first Test tomorrow as narrow favourites for the series, although Bet365 currently have England down as 7/4 underdogs, with an Australian victory at 21/20 and a draw at 9/2.

And in a sense it’s easy to see why. England have not won a series in Australia for 24 years. The conditions don’t really suit our bowlers very well as it will be tough to gain much in the way of swing, making the lives of James Anderson and co. very difficult. And potentially most tellingly, Kevin Pietersen has yet to find the form he and the selectors promised he would.

Before the squad departed England, I spoke to former England captain Alec Stewart about the form of Pietersen and he insisted that he’s “England’s best player in all forms of the game.”

But whilst it’s nice to see support for the team collectively and as individuals, the positive words won’t offer much comfort if the South African-born batsman continues to be dismissed cheaply.

Nevertheless, Stewart maintains, “Pietersen wants to do well. I expect him to score very heavily in the Ashes series. I’m a huge fan of his.”

And the former Surrey man – where Pietersen now plies his County trade – believes, “He’s gone through a run of bad form but very good players come out of those little dips in form. Pietersen will come out of that dip and I’m sure he’ll hit the road running as soon as the Ashes begin.”

One player who seems to have regained form since landing down-under is captain Andrew Strauss, who has struggled to really make the sort of impact with the bat from which he gained so many plaudits prior to taking on the captaincy. But with two formidable centuries under his belt in the warm-up matches (in one of which he remained unbeaten), Strauss’ form could be returning to its peak at just the right time.

And with Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood all chipping in with solid innings and the odd flamboyant century (helmets off to Bell for his superb 192 against Australia A), the batting order look to be settling into the Aussie wickets nicely.

With the ball, no individual has really shone consistently, but each of the bowling attack has contributed fairly evenly, hopefully boosting the confidence of the group without being too reliant upon one or two stand-out bowlers, unlike in previous series’.

All in all, it’s been a successful start to the Australia tour for England. Andrew Strauss and his team have so far hit the wicket running but a far from easy ride lies ahead over the next few weeks. And whilst the big grey cloud continues to linger over Kevin Pietersen and his bat, England cannot rest on their laurels. A tough winter is certainly set to be in store for the Ashes holders, but it still looks to be our best chance for many a year down-under.

Whether that says more about England or Australia remains to be seen.

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