Pieces are falling into place

Published : Jul 04, 2009 00:00 IST

Until recently the 2009 Ashes series seemed destined to be dull. With every passing day, though, the sides gather strength and the prospects of a gripping contest increase, writes Peter Roebuck.

Every day or so, the odds shift slightly about the forthcoming Ashes series. Not that he was in the squad, but the demoralising effect of Andrew Symond’s injury seemed likely to weigh down the tourists. A rapid exit from the ICC World Twenty20 tournament — so splendidly won by Pakistan and so nobly lost by Sri Lanka — made the Australians appear vulnerable. Although hardly earth-shattering, the news that Shane Watson was injured drew attention to the parlous state of a squad lacking a spare batsman.

Hereabouts England’s chances seemed to be rising. Admittedly the hosts had headaches of their own, not least in the persons of their two most dynamic players, Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff. The former had lost momentum since losing the captaincy and the all-rounder was short of cricket. Moreover both had been hurt whilst collecting their large IPL cheques. Then runs started flowing from the South African’s bat and the bluff Lancastrian began rolling over an arm and all seemed well. Add a comprehensive series victory over the West Indians, the return of Ryan Sidebottom, last year’s most successful Test bowler, and the improvements in the spinners and local optimism appeared to be justified. In some opinions England were emerging as slight favourites.

Accordingly, reports arriving from Brighton that Brett Lee and Stuart Clark had taken wickets could not have been more timely. Australia’s selectors gambled in their construction of the touring party. Nothing is more likely to bog down an aspiring outfit than the attachment of frustrated older players. Australia’s win in South Africa had been achieved by a fresh side. And Lee and Clark were short of a gallop and liable to break down. Loathe to ignore players of their calibre, the selectors took them anyhow.

Doubtless Ricky Ponting and company were vastly relieved to discover that Lee’s sting had not been removed and that Clark could still make the ball climb and cut awkwardly. Test cricket is another matter but at least the veterans lasted the pace. Hitherto the Australians may have felt obliged to retain the attack that subdued the Proteas, a group whose whole was better than its parts. Now Ponting has plenty of options.

A fortnight ago Australia’s bowling seemed to depend upon Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle, an excellent partnership but unlikely to dominate a tightly-packed series. Now he can hope to maintain aggression all day. Although it will go against the grain he may also consider fielding four fast bowlers and leaving spin in the hands of part-timers like Michael Clarke and Simon Katich. At such times, it’s worth considering the outlook of opposing batsmen. Would they prefer to face Clark or Nathan Hauritz? On the other hand, slow over-rates have been a problem, a weakness India was able to exploit in Nagpur in November last year.

Australia’s batting is a different case. Everyone knows who will play, but not how well. Michael Hussey has been scratching about, Clarke’s back requires constant attention and Ponting’s batting has lost its edge. Amongst them, the captain’s contribution will be crucial. Ponting has reached the ripe old age of 34 and may hereafter need to take that into account. Although his caution provoked criticism from the Peter Pan brigade, Sachin Tendulkar recognised the restrictions imposed by slowing feet and eyes and changed his approach. Ponting may likewise need to take stock.

In both camps the pieces are starting to fall into place. The 2005 series stood out because colossal cricketing characters could be found in both sides. Until recently the 2009 Ashes series seemed destined to be duller. With every passing day, though, the sides gather strength and the prospects of a gripping contest increase.

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