Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Pre-Ashes Optimism (Or why England might do better than expected)

Tuesday, 7 July 2015
I'm optimistic ahead of this Ashes series. There, I said it. It might be foolish, looking at the form guides and looking over results from the last 12-18 months, but the optimism has sneaked in there somehow. And even so, it's a fairly pessimistic sort of optimism - I'm not sure I'll see England winning the Ashes this series, I just think they'll do better than expected. That they do have the potential to cause problems for Australia, that it won't be a simple walk in the park. Maybe it could even be a draw.

I know I have a habit of letting myself get sucked in, of getting my hopes up before the main event. I did it before the World Cup, and I certainly did it before the last Ashes (though perhaps with slightly more justification). I really can't help myself. I don't think England are just going to roll over and die in this series, I don't think Australia will find it easy at all. I've seen enough this season, enough to give me that bit of hope and believe that England can compete and spring some upsets. Of course, Australia are the massive favourites, coming in off the back of a World Cup win and having won the last Ashes with a whitewash. They have the number one batsman in the world in their armoury in Steve Smith, a bowler who gives many players nightmares in Mitchell Johnson. They have the players who can get under England's skin, players who will come at them hard, bowlers who can genuinely swing the ball and cause the batsmen heaps of problems, and batsmen who can and will pile on the runs. Australia have won four of their last five test series and England just one - and much of their progress since the last Ashes has been of that 'two steps forward, one step back' variety. Most pre-Ashes predictions have been favouring Australia, and, on the evidence, it's not difficult to see why.

So why am I optimistic about England's chances? Well this time, I think that step forward could be the start of something more. Over the series against New Zealand, there seemed to be this new attitude around the camp - this greater sense of self-belief that we've been waiting for. It was especially visible during the ODI series, albeit with a largely different group of players, but in the tests too there were signs - the approach of Root and Stokes when England fell to 30/4 on that first morning springs straight to mind. Players like these, Jos Buttler being another, are the sort that can really make this happen. Root is the sort who is always busy at the crease and can easily wind up the opposition just existing, whilst Stokes and Buttler have that X-factor, the ability to turn games around and win them by themselves. Leading the bowling attack are proven performers in Anderson and Broad (Broad can be a bit off and on, but against New Zealand, he certainly looked on). Mark Wood, though inexperienced, has really impressed me and is another that has that something about him, an ability at times to make something out of nothing (though it might be best to wrap him in cotton wool, too).

And, importantly, the captain is making runs again. Cook can lack in tactical nous and innovation, but he can make up for that in part by leading with the bat. When he makes stacks and stacks of runs, England often do well, and it will be crucial that he can do this. Lyth has got off to a good start in his test career with a century but has still played just the two tests, and Ballance and Bell have been struggling for runs of late - so Cook really has to lead that top order. With Australia having an off-spinner in Lyon and England having a lot of left handers (including all of that top three), avoiding early inroads will be important and Cook will be a big part of that. And if Lyon can't get at new batsmen, then England should be able to take advantage and press the attack.

There are though many areas that can be improved upon. The thing that has caused perhaps the most frustration in recent months has been the fielding, and specifically the catching. Catches were going down in the slips especially, and at times it seemed like an epidemic - one person drops a catch, and everyone else follows. There have been mistakes with the bat and the ball, errors of judgement that can be accepted from a team where many are still learning on the international stage - but the amount of drops recently has been inexcusable. I'd really like to see Adam Lyth join the slip cordon, having been doing the job brilliantly for Yorkshire, though England seem to be doing it on experience rather than, perhaps, merit. There are also questions over spin too, after a few poor tests for Moeen Ali and with the man waiting in the wings, Adil Rashid, not yet trusted by the captain and without test experience.

England will have to be at their best, their absolute best, to get that sniff. They really need to start the series well and not be walking away from Cardiff having been defeated, and letting themselves be drawn into a rut. Because maybe they can spring some upsets, and maybe things won't go so smoothly for Australia. Maybe Chris Rogers, playing his final series, might then be playing with one eye on the end; maybe Steve Smith will have problems up at number three against the Dukes ball, and maybe Mitchell Johnson will struggle again when it's in his hand. Maybe the players aren't quite at their best right now: Haddin has struggled for form recently, and Watson looks set to be preferred over Mitchell Marsh when the latter is perhaps more deserving of a place. The retirement of Ryan Harris for Australia is also far from ideal, having been such a brilliant performer who will be greatly missed from the international stage. Maybe then there are the odd chinks in the armour for England to poke at.

Or maybe I'm desperately clutching at straws. I have a lot of hopes for this team - maybe they're inexperienced and unproven, but there is a raw talent there. They won't find it easy and they will lose games - but I really hope the press don't hound them when they do because it is a work in progress (I have been as critical as any in the past, but this is their greatest test yet). And if they do play well, they might just sneak something out of it. As unlikely as it might seem, I don't think it's completely out of the question. The optimism has found its way in.

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