England Back Down Under

Tension is slowly mounting around the country as one of the oldest rivalries in sporting history begins to unfold once again. There will be literally tens of people in this country who intend to follow the Ashes this winter, and for those who are prepared to catch the live coverage between midnight and 8am every day, you have my respect and veneration. Less dedicated cricket enthusiasts will have to make do with combing through match reports and scheduling days around truncated television highlights afforded a generous 45 minute slot on channel five.

However, the contest itself promises to be as hard fought as always. The 32 man England squad, complete with the South African contingent of Pietersen, Trott and Kieswetter, are due to fly to the antipodes on Friday and have their first fixture against Western Australia on 5 November. The team have certainly been put through their paces in the warm up to this classic encounter, having recently returned from a rigorous boot camp. Drill Sergeants Strauss and Flower decided to mentally and physically prepare the side for a tough Australian summer by squeezing in a few rounds of boxing before all the cricket. Logical? Yeah…probably. Although putting the thin and wiry James Anderson in a ring was possibly a mistake as he now convalesces with a cracked rib. Was the damage done by fellow bowler and robustly built Yorkshireman Tim Bresnan? We can only speculate, although sidelining top seamer Anderson would certainly help Bresnan’s chances of improving his currently peripheral place in the squad.

The Australian side have been typically verbal during the pre-series build up as they prepare for a long summer of relentless sledging which will no doubt be punctuated intermittently by games of cricket. Undoubtedly there are reasons for the Aussies to feel complacent at this early stage. The talismanic Kevin Pietersen has been woefully out of form for the past twelve months despite a brief resurgence during England’s impressive Twenty20 campaign earlier this year. Having nobly condescended to play county cricket again at the end of the summer, Surrey fans would have been justifiably underwhelmed by KP’s lacklustre month with the club, as he tried and failed to steal late glory for both himself and the south England side. His short time with South African team Kwa-Zulu Natal Dolphins has been equally unimpressive; Pietersen’s hometown return has seen him make just 36 followed by a two-ball duck in two first-class innings.

Elsewhere there have been concerns over the temperament of paceman Stuart Broad, whose latest outburst of petulance resulted in him throwing a ball at unsuspecting Pakistan wicket keeper Zulqarnain Haider. However, this should not detract from Broad’s recent success with both bat and ball. Having produced some fast and aggressive spells of bowling he seems to have recaptured some of the batting pedigree – no doubt inherited in part from his father and former Ashes winner Chris Broad – which makes him such a valuable asset to the side. But if he hopes to retain the coveted urn and claim the elusive bragging rights over his old man then Broad and excessively tall teammate Steven Finn will have to find a way of dealing with the sweltering heat of the Australian summer without resorting to hurling balls at the opposition.

For all the Australians’ pre-game bluster, the Antipodeans have hardly had the most impressive run of late themselves. Having lost to India in both the Test and One Day series hosted on the subcontinent, Ricky Ponting’s claims that the England side is vulnerable with a few “noticeable cracks” seems somehow less threatening. Certainly the side has suffered in recent years following the departure of several mainstays including Shane Warne, Glen McGrath and Matthew Hayden, to name but a few of the legends who have now moved on from international cricket.

Former Australian coach John Buchanan has also questioned the strength of his former team, whilst long-serving English batsman Mark Ramprakash has said of the Ashes: “I think that England are on the up, and Australia are at a point where … they’re not the cohesive unit we saw for so long with all those greats in the side”. He has also backed recently called-up Surrey teammates Steven Davies and Chris Tremlett to perform well down under.

Meanwhile the BBC’s resident pundit Jonathan Agnew has optimistically tipped England to take the series 3-1, arguing that they are better prepared and have decent back-up from the likes of Monty Panesar and Eoin Morgan. Aggers has also praised the selectors’ decision to drop Kevin Pietersen. Certainly it sends out the message that no places are assured – if KP (ICC World T20 Man of the Tournament) can be dropped, then anyone can be dropped.

The beginning of the series now looms ever nearer as these two titans of the sport prepare to do battle for six long weeks in order to lay claim to what is perhaps the world’s smallest urn. The England squad will no doubt be cramming in a few last valuable hours of boxing training in preparation, possibly followed by a casual game or two of Aussie Rules football. But if all goes to plan then in just under a month it will be James Anderson storming in to bowl the first ball at Brisbane as England prepare to take on the King s of Sledging and eradicate painful memories of their last trip to the country.

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