Light brigade versus ageing warhorses

Ricky Ponting , like several Australian captains before him, is promoting the idea of decapitation. He reckons that if Flintoff could be stifled, the Englishmen would be demoralised.-

Nobody, not even the English press sounds convinced about its team's prospects; and if there is hope, it is to be found not so much in England's strengths as in Australia's weaknesses, writes Vijay Parthasarathy.

England hasn't won a series in Australia in 20 years, what could disturb this state of inertia over the next couple of months? Notwithstanding England's great win last year — its first since 1986 — on current form, the Ashes shouldn't even be a contest, never mind a close one. The English have showed definite symptoms of decline. Meanwhile, the Australians, defying the stereotype of the collapsing Roman Empire, have gone on to win nearly every Test they played. What is to prevent this injury-hit England team from getting steamrolled by a side bent on revenge?

The answer appears to be a bit of an anti-climax, really — very little. Not even the English press sounds convinced about its team's prospects; and if there is hope, it is to be found not so much in England's strengths as in Australia's weaknesses.

This series pits England's light brigade against Australia's ageing warhorses, a relatively inexperienced leader against a rumouredly unimaginative one. Flintoff, who played such a crucial role last summer — he was England's highest wicket-taker and third-highest run scorer — has since been saddled with the captaincy; while his performance as captain in India on his maiden tour was inspiring, of late he has had to cope with an ankle problem and loss of form.

The essence of captaincy is difficult to capture. But, as Simon Barnes suggests, the secret to leadership in a sense rests not so much with the leader as with the follower, who suddenly discovers he is doing all he can to play to his potential. Flintoff is yet to display serious signs of tactical subtlety, obviously an essential demand that the job makes. What he has managed to do is lead by example, earn the respect of his men and instil a sense of professionalism in this fledgling side.

Ponting, like several Australian captains before him, is promoting the idea of decapitation. He reckons that if Flintoff could be stifled, the Englishmen would be demoralised: "He's such a vital part of their side, if you happen to keep him down for a few Test matches in a row or a few performances here and there, it might drag a couple of their other players down with him. It is important that we do that with him, more so for his playing abilities than his leadership.

"We all saw last time around that he can be dynamic with the bat and the ball. I think their team really does run off him a little bit. If we can restrict him and put him under pressure right through the series, then hopefully a few of their other players might start feeling the pressure as well. If we can start taking more than one player down, it gives us a great chance of winning."

On the other hand, Ponting's own tendency to rely on collective opinion has drawn criticism from former players like Ian Chappell, who said in the aftermath of the 2005 Ashes debacle that Ponting had failed to stamp his authority on the team. "He's got to take control and I think what will help him is if there were a few changes to the side," Chappell had said, then.

"Then it would be his team and not the one he inherited (from Steve Waugh). But whichever way it goes, whether he's still got the inherited team or whether he's got his own team, he's got to take control and that's the only way he's going to succeed as captain. He needs to take a leaf out of (Mark) Taylor's book. One of the reasons he had so much success, and he was in a similar position to Ricky, was that he let everyone know he was in charge and he made the decisions."

Since then, a largely unchanged Australia has gone on to win 11 out of 12 Tests. Nobody has complained about Ponting's batting in that period. As if trying to exorcise his demons after the Ashes defeat, the Tasmanian went on a run riot, clouting centuries in each innings thrice in a space of five months. His predecessor, Steve Waugh, believes that Ponting will hold the run-scoring record by the time he retires.

Flintoff is yet to display serious signs of tactical subtlety, obviously an essential demand that the job makes. What he has managed to do is lead by example, earn the respect of his men and instil a sense of professionalism in this fledgling side.-

Ponting will hope to continue this good run. The responsibility of curbing his enthusiasm lies primarily with Steve Harmison, the standout bowler for England last time. James Anderson will have the luxury of targeting Ponting's chest region without getting called for straying onto leg-side.

And what of Monty Panesar, that much hyped, fresh-faced entrant? Even Shane Warne had a few good words for him. The Sikh spinner says that he hopes to form a bowling partnership with Ashley Giles, but chances are, one or the other will play in each of the Tests. As an attacking spinner, Panesar is arguably a better option than the experienced Ashley Giles who is making a comeback after a hip injury.

Giles is an underrated wicket-taker, a superior containing bowler, and certainly a better batsman and fielder than Panesar. But the latter likes to pitch the ball up and is more likely to make full use of bounce and spin as the pitch wears out.

As an aside, he is quite a character, this Panesar. In celebration he cuts an endearingly comical figure, flapping his hands, missing his team-mates' high-fives, and generally racing across the pitch in the manner of an excited chicken. The Australians will typically attempt to browbeat him, undermine his confidence. The revelation that Panesar has been talking to a psychologist will probably set him out as a bigger target.

Whoever bowls to Adam Gilchrist must throttle the drive and pull, both bread and butter strokes for the greatest wicketkeeper-batsman in Test history. The spinner in particular should try and cramp the left-hander (or tempt him with loop), and, in essence, seek to replicate the success England encountered against Gilchrist last year. Gilchrist's lack of runs prevented the kind of lower order resurgence that has, in the recent past, characterised Australia's come-from-behind wins.

In the absence of Michael Vaughan, England's batting will revolve around the openers, Trescothick and Strauss, and Ian Bell and the gifted Kevin Pietersen. Runs from Flintoff will be a bonus, especially if Australia's tactics against him are largely successful.

Depressingly for England, Australia's own middle order has been further reinforced with the addition of the prolific Mike Hussey. Importantly Hussey won't carry any of the scars from the last defeat. The 31-year-old Western Australian had not yet played his first Test — a fact that in hindsight seems ludicrous, given his subsequent performances in both Tests and one-dayers, and, also, considering his record in domestic cricket where he had already racked up more than 15,000 runs.

Hussey broke into the side as Australia's most experienced debutant in history, and has since averaged in the mid-70s in both forms of the game. In Tests, Hussey has only had to contend with a strong South African attack so far; he milked a relatively weak West Indian bowling attack on his debut tour, and the Bangladeshis, on his way to becoming the fastest player to reach 1000 Test runs. But so far Hussey has looked equally comfortable, equally aggressive on the front and back foot. On paper, Michael Clarke, he and Adam Gilchrist make up one of the strongest lower middle orders in contemporary cricket.

If they fire, England will have a tough time retaining its grasp on the Ashes.