England seems better prepared

Fallen on hard times... In 2006-2007, Ricky Ponting and his men handed England a 5-0 drubbing. But thereafter, the Australian team has not been the same. Will the 'Punter' be able to lead his team to victory in the 2010 Ashes?-AP ?

England, the holder, has won its last eight international series; Australia, the recent world champion, has lost seven of its last eight games. Though the Aussies will point to a mismatch within these figures since some of their defeats were in India and some of England's wins were against Bangladesh, indications are strong that the latter would emerge victor. By Ted Corbett.

All the facts, the stats, the wisdom of the opinion makers, the background and the players and backroom staff of both sides indicate an England victory when the Ashes series is played over the next seven weeks.

England, the holders, have won their last eight international series; Australia, the recent world champions, have lost seven of their last eight games. The Aussies will point to a mismatch within these figures since some of their defeats were in India and some of England's wins were against Bangladesh.

No matter. We all know which set of figures we would like to boost our confidence in our statistical review whatever the strength of the opposition.

In one stat you can be absolutely confident. There are far more English cricket writers than Australian scribes and naturally they have plumped for an England win.

There is no profit in telling your readers — 14 million newspaper readers a day in England and only 20 million men, women and children in the whole of Oz — their team will lose. As to background England have won two of the last three Ashes series; balance that against the 5-0 whitewash they suffered at the hands of Ricky Ponting's men in 2006-7, the last time the sides met Down Under. But that southern summer Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath still reigned. This summer they will be watching although they will certainly not be quiet.

England have better coaching, a bigger support team and more seasoned players now. The old days of hit and miss seem to have been laid aside and been replaced by detailed, thoughtful planning.

For instance, this time, instead of meekly trotting off to cool Tasmania to play the final warm-up match — there is an irony in itself — in a breeze originating in Antarctica, the four main Test bowlers have been sent off to Brisbane to acclimatise in the sub-tropical heat.

Someone is thinking, and seeing that he is a quiet man who plays his cards closer to his chest than any England coach in history I suspect it must be Andy Flower who has pulled off this stroke.

In fact, there is barely a problem on the England front. Minor injuries — Flower has to take the blame for Jimmy Anderson's broken rib which came in another mismatch — have cleared up. This time it was a boxing bout with the giant Chris Tremlett, always the favourite on the length of his arms alone, which damaged Anderson.

Boxing looks simple but it is not for the untrained. I used to be a newspaper colleague of a national champion boxer who feared only one man — an Olympic finalist. “He's got timing,” he used to say, “and the guy who can time his punch makes you wary.”

So, as the game against Australia A drew to a close, England were clearly the better prepared. I have expressed my doubts about the captaincy before but Andrew Strauss will make up for his lack of tactical acumen with plenty of runs and there is no one else to lead the side.

Australia's doubts are brought to the fore by their decision to pick a squad of 17. Not for the series; just for the first match.

If ever there was a sign of uncertainty, of a lack of quality within the group, a dithering among the selectors — without the long serving Merv Hughes but headed by Greg Chappell — it is that figure.

What will they do with 17 players? Try to sneak all of them on to the field? Use the extra men to fill out the sparse crowds or to act as barrackers, a famous Aussie tradition? Or employ half a dozen drinks waiters?

It brings me to the most significant change to the trip so far. England used to play against the whole nation and the classical tour of Australia used to begin with the Immigration man's greeting at the airport.

“Ah, a Pommie cricketer/cricket writer/fan. You must be a sadist, here to see the biggest thrashing of all time. Enjoy your stay and you can offer your apologies on your way home.”

Aussies on the field have always been lippy. “Who is this little guy? You got permission to bat here or did you just lose your way to the toilets? You see that guy with the ball. He's here to knock your head off. We can deliver your last words to your mum.”

If this barrage is delivered as you are worrying about your first ball, it can be a big strain on the brain.

So far in 2010 it has been quiet, the grounds have been empty, Test tickets remain unsold and even those radio disc jockeys who used to spend 50 minutes of every hour insulting the touring cricket side seem to have lost interest.

I don't know what the cricketers felt but by about day three I was usually fed up with the incessant banter, the repetitive jokes and the tales about soap being hidden and showers left dry by Poms who would not know how to clean their body if their life was at risk.

Perhaps, now that they do not win every Test before it begins, now that Warne and McGrath are mouthy by-standers and that they are no longer top of the world league tables, Australians are searching for another way to express their loneliness as they float at the bottom end of planet earth.

When I went on the last tour I became aware of another trend in Australia; security, tough security, everywhere.

The rules are inflexible. I saw a heavily pregnant woman forced to walk to a far gate by a woman guard when surely the world would not have stopped spinning if she had allowed her to walk through the gate two feet away.

A male security guy ran to close a gate and ordered me to walk another 100 yards. No harm to me but a clear sign of his thinking. Finally there was the family of young Asians too near the platform edge who were instantly threatened with prison because a guard thought they might not use the bridge to the opposite platform.

Far from the jolly country I toured in 1982-3 and 1986-7 but a reminder of the strength of the Aussie mind, a hint from the people of this young nation that every man has to prove his worth every day.

For all their poor record recently, for all their captain is 35 and their leading players are either old or raw, Australia will be a difficult side to defeat in their own country.

The Aussie seems to be all out front, easy to assess and, to be frank, not all that bright with his overuse of industrial quantities of street language and strong drink. But they might just be kidding us, leading Strauss and his men into an ambush.

It might be time to expect another Australian victory in their wide brown land where they have won series against England on all but four occasions since the Second World War.

I might even have a Royal Wedding florin on their success myself.

Mohandas Menon