Comparing the sides
With England announcing a 16-man training squad for the first test in Cardiff on Monday, it's a good time to measure the teams up against each other. Not sure the Aussies will agree, but from here it looks like it could be a lot closer than some pundits are predicting.
England will feel a lot better about this particular area than they did at the turn of the year, with Alastair Cook getting over his allergy to centuries and Andrew Strauss hitting a streak of run-scoring not seen since before the last Ashes. Still, technical difficulties driving outside off stump remain for both players and the Australian opening bowlers will fancy their chances if they can bowl well. They would do well to watch out for Stuart Clark if he plays- he got the pair out four times each in five matches in 2006/07.
Australia, meanwhile, seem to have found a real gem at the top of the order in Phil Hughes. The 20-year old has been churning out copious amounts of runs everywhere he's played so far and finding a fault somewhere in his unorthodox technique will be a priority for England. Joining him at the top of the order will be Simon Katich, looking to make amends for his poor tour in 2005. Katich has an equally unorthodox technique, but few in Australia doubt his ability. Notably, both sides are using two left-handed openers- good news for James Anderson, Andrew Flintoff and Graeme Swann, all of whom excel against lefties.
Australia have the edge.
The middle order of each side is an assortment of proven batsmen in poor form and unproven batsmen in excellent form. Ricky Ponting, an all-time great batsman, hasn't quite been at his best for a while now and Michael Hussey has gone downhill so dramatically in the past few series that his once Bradman-esque average is now 'only' 55. Meanwhile, Michael Clarke will hope his recent failings in shorter formats of the game don't translate to the test arena, because he's now one of the most experienced players in the side. Rounding off the top order at number six will be either Shane Watson or Marcus North. Watson, if fit, is a genuine all-rounder but his batting is yet to take hold at test level so I suspect Marcus North's impressive debut century against South Africa will mean he pips Watson to a position in the starting lineup.
England, meanwhile, have Ravi Bopara coming in at three with a century in each of his last three test innings. Currently in the form of his life, the 24-year-old is an excellent prospect but lacks the experience of his opposite number. Kevin Pietersen, England's undisputed best batsman, will come in at four. Paul Collingwood, another batsman troubled by Stuart Clark last time round, enters the series in good touch and will come in at five. Matt Prior rounds off the middle order with few remaining doubts surrounding his batting ability. In case of injury, Ian Bell has been lined up to step in and try to prove he can score difficult runs against good attacks.
England look fairly solid, but Australia have more quality.
Lower Order Batting
Australia have long prided themselves on batting low, and the tail wagged regularly against South Africa in the two recent series. Brad Haddin is a counter-attacking wicket-keeper batsman sure to make an impact at number seven and Mitchell Johnson is now a genuine all-rounder having scored his maiden test century against South Africa in his last test. The selectors may choose to further strengthen the tail with the inclusion of Andrew McDonald, allowing the side to bat even lower. Brett Lee, too, can hold a bat, as he showed last time he toured England with some big contributions under pressure.
England can't match that, but their tail isn't as fragile as it once was. Flintoff is a lot more suited to batting seven than six, and Stuart Broad is very handy at eight. Graeme Swann can certainly play a few shots and James Anderson is notoriously limpet-like despite his lack of ability. Their tail may not make the significant contributions Australia's can, but it's not going to roll over.
Australia take this one comfortably. They have that little bit more quality all the way through their batting card.
English fast bowling has enjoyed a bit of a revival in recent months with Stuart Broad maturing into a quality bowler seemingly overnight. James Anderson has finally found some desperately-needed consistency and Andrew Flintoff's ability with the ball is never in doubt. Joining these three in a four-pronged pace attack will be one of Ryan Sidebottom, Graham Onions and Tim Bresnan. Sidebottom has been plagued by fitness problems for almost a year now but looked to have finally recovered during the World Twenty20. It's a big if, but if he can maintain his pace and intensity for a five-day game, England will be in the rare situation of having four very convincing fast bowlers all playing at once. Onions looked a useful bowler against the West Indies, taking a five-wicket haul on debut, and is in the form of his life having been tearing up the county circuit consistently this season. He's still inexperienced though, and tends to go for a few too many runs at times. Bresnan looked nothing but an honest county pro against the West Indies and is only likely to play again if two of the other fast bowlers are deemed unfit.
Australia hedged their bets when picking their squad by mixing the young attack that did a fantastic job in South Africa with older, more seasoned campaigners. Mitchell Johnson will surely take the new ball, having slowly matured into the complete fast bowler over the past year. Johnson has everything- he swings it both ways, gets plenty of bounce, bowls with a lot of aggression and is fast enough to scare the pants off batsmen. The quality of the rest of the attack is open to debate, but Johnson is comfortably the best bowler in either side this summer.
Joining him will be two or three from Stuart Clark, Brett Lee, Peter Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus, Andrew McDonald and Shane Watson. I suspect Watson will be too much of a fitness risk and McDonald's added batting will be surplus to requirements with Johnson in the team, so Australia could end up with a four-pronged all-out pace attack too. Hilfenhaus, having struggled in South Africa, will be the man to miss out unless the selectors feel Lee or Clark are yet to recover fully from long-term injuries. Lee has a poor record in England, and his style of bowling isn't especially well-suited to England, but on the other hand he's undoubtedly a quality bowler. Siddle is an awkward proposition for any batsman, while also looking less than perfect for playing in England on paper. Clark is the player whose style seems to fit the country best, but there are question marks over whether he'll ever be able to reproduce his form from the start of his international career.
England are a lot more settled entering the tournament, and home conditions could swing this one in their favour.
The only spinner in Australia's squad is Nathan Hauritz. While legend has it that he has once turned a ball, presumably on the Australian outback, it's unlikely that he'll provide any real threat here. Even to England's notoriously vulnerable lineup. Should Hauritz not play, as will probably be the case unless a pitch looks like it'll offer a lot to spinners, the slow bowling will be taken up by Marcus North's back-to-basics off-breaks, Simon Katich's unusual left-arm wrist-spin and Michael Clarke's left-arm darts.
England have included three spinners in their squad- the excellent Graeme Swann, erratic all-rounder Adil Rashid and the out-of-form Monty Panesar. Rashid is somewhat unconvincing, and Panesar in truth should be nowhere near the squad having taken six wickets @86.66 in the County Championship this summer. Swann, however, is a quality player and will be boosted by the number of lefties in Australia's side. He'll chip in when the going is tough and if one of the pitches is a genuine turner he could cause a lot of trouble.
The one area of the game that England should take easily.
Fielding and Captaincy
Australia's fielding's not quite what it used to be, with Matthew Hayden retiring from first slip- the most important field position in the five-day game, especially in England- and Andrew Symonds missing out on the squad. They're still very efficient though, with Ponting and Clarke excellent infielders. There's no real weak link, with even fast bowlers Lee and Johnson excellent in the field. Ponting's captaincy is often suspect under pressure, but his experience is invaluable and he evidently has a great influence on his young team.
England meanwhile are a solid enough side with regards to fielding, but they do have one very obvious weak link in wicket-keeper Matt Prior. In truth it's been a while since he's dropped any terrible, costly clangers, but his presence still fills English fans with dread- particularly when James Foster has shown him up so badly with some awesome keeping in T20 games. I'd be very surprised if he doesn't drop at least one important catch over the course of the five matches. Strauss failed to convince with his captaincy in the Caribbean, but England will be hoping he's learnt from the experience and can lead his side to some success.
Australia are the better fielding side with England no more than decent.
There's no doubting Australia's overall superiority, especially with the bat. England will be hoping that home conditions and support will balance that out and lead to a close series between two quality teams. Australia are relying on a lot of young players delivering and old players recovering their best form, but I still expect them to scrape a tight series 2-1.