The Ashes: Looking ahead

There is no doubt that without Michael Clarke's skills both in captaincy and stroke-making Australia are half the side says the author.-AP

England is set to keep the Ashes, even in the Australian heat, even against the brain of coach Darren Lehmann, even if England are not sure who will bat at No. 6, even if there are question marks against the wicket-keeping skills of Matt Prior, writes Ted Corbett.

We barely seem to have finished the British summer — and as I write the sun shines, the temperature is balmy and the wind warm — when the next chapter in the Book of the Ashes is upon us.

My belief is that England will retain that tiny urn yet again. As someone remarked at the lunch I attended recently — who can they find to challenge our superiority?

The key to this series may well lie with the captains. Michael Clarke, the clever Australian leader, has already declared he is not fit to tour India which will not make his fans in the sub-continent unhappy much as they pretend to miss his fluent and elegant batting.

There is no doubt that without his skills both in captaincy and stroke-making Australia are half the side. No-one else among those likely to be chosen can be relied on to bat for long periods and there are few in the world — M. S. Dhoni must be one — who has his touch of genius when his side are in the field.

England have Alastair Cook, a boss without compare in run-scoring but whose mastery of the art of leadership is less adroit. I blame his upbringing. The great England captains had a mass of experience before they took charge of the Test side.

Len Hutton played for Yorkshire from the mid-1930s to 1952 before the selectors realised he was the most accomplished tactician in the country and pushed aside the amateurs to make way for his vast knowledge; Mike Brearley had many years learning and leading with Middlesex; Ray Illingworth had, aged 37, spent time at both Yorkshire and Leicestershire to gain a grasp of the art of captaincy; Michael Vaughan was the surprisingly good captain out of nowhere; Tony Greig was a natural, never at a loss for a word or a gesture.

Cook has not shown any hint of Vaughan’s leap to fame. He seems to need a committee meeting of such veterans as James Anderson, Ian Bell and Tim Bresnan or a dash to the pavilion to consult the coach Andy Flower and I feel he has not learnt his trade at a lower level and carried the ideas into the Test world.

Perhaps that is more difficult in these days of instant celebrity although no-one can accuse Cook of being unfit for purpose when he bats.

He was, in my hearing, recently compared to Bradman and Tendulkar, as a run-scoring automaton even though the Australians seemed to keep him under control this summer.

Instinctively I feel that the comparison with those two immortals is out of order, that they are supreme and stand apart from all the men who have donned pads, helmets and gloves to face fearsome bowling.

Just look at Cook’s figures and remember that he is far from 30. “We have never had anyone of his calibre,” said an old Test batsman recently. “If he comes off England win, it’s as simple as that.”

I fear he over-simplifies Cook’s effect on the results but there is enough back-up to make an Ashes victory a certainty. Jonathan Trott, Bell, Kevin Pietersen and the stout tail will surely produce enough runs to give England 500-plus frequently.

As for the bowling, it is based on the simple premise that four tall, strong fast bowlers will find an advantage in Australian pitches and, particularly if Clarke cannot play, brush aside enough batsmen to make way for the off-spin of Graeme Swann to have an easier task against those who are left standing.

So England to keep the Ashes, even in the Australian heat, even against the brain of coach Darren Lehmann, even if England are not sure who will bat at No. 6, even if there are question marks against the wicket-keeping skills of Matt Prior.

A bold prediction, especially as I am as well aware as anyone that sport is — happily — a less than predictable science. Just this week-end I watched bottom-of-the-Premier League Sunderland gain a 1-0 lead against Manchester United and threaten to hold out until somehow, desperately, United gained the upper hand through a lad of 18 who, I am promised, will leave his mark on the game.

A few minutes later — at Old Trafford, funnily enough — Warrington, the underdogs by a wide margin looked to have the beating of Wigan, the Rolls Royce team of the Rugby League, in that code’s Grand Final. Wigan stormed back in the second half just as the commentators wrote off their chances. Sport is unpredictable so you will have to be compassionate if I finish with egg all over my face.

That is, of course, the duty of the sport writer: to make forecasts as he knows they may go wrong.

I have plenty of previous convictions for this offence. In 1989 I wrote an article which predicted England might keep the Ashes after a tight home series. Wrong on both counts. Australia won 4-0 and my career at that newspaper came to an inglorious end.

My suspicion is that, at home, in front of their fans, able to swap players around at the last minute and with the knowledge of what happened last summer Australia will put up a stronger fight and not only win one Test but perhaps keep the series wide open until the final match. Let us just hope it is a lot of fun finding out.