After the 5-0 Ashes humiliation Down Under a year and a bit ago, there was a spiteful autopsy within English cricket in which fingers were pointed at various outlets; from players and coaches to support staff and media figures.
The eventual scapegoat, Kevin Pietersen, was given the bullet by the decision-makers, and whilst that may have been for the best in the long run, at the time it smacked of desperation and papering over the cracks: the problems within the England cricket team were far more deep-set then that.
And then there was that catastrophic World Cup campaign earlier this year, where England were humbled largely for their refusal to embrace the changing nature of one day cricket. Nowadays, there is no such thing as a par score; hitting the ball to the fence as often as possible is the du jour.
This was something that was lost on Team England – and Peter Moores paid the ultimate price with his job shortly after. A drawn winter series with the West Indies – a side who hot favourites Australia would thrash with consummate ease shortly after – did little to capture the imagination, and so many were fearing the worst when a talented young New Zealand side awaited the Three Lions back on home soil in the spring.
But something had changed. England took the Kiwis on, matched their aggression and youthful vigour and looked the better side for the vast majority of the mini-series.
This continued into the ODI campaign too, with the board of selectors finally listening to the masses and blooding several talented young bucks who specialise in the white ball game. They did not disappoint. The appointment of Trevor Bayliss as coach, a tough old Aussie who has a sparkling record in ‘management’, was greeted in positive fashion as well.
Suddenly, taking on Australia in the Ashes didn’t seem so daunting at all.
A Question of Confidence
And so the First Test proved: England were far from overawed at the prospect of taking on those snarling Aussies. They had been on a training camp in Spain where they had worked on nothing but their fielding – at the behest of Bayliss – and the improvement was marked.
Alastair Cook, a passive ‘hand-on hips’ captain in the Caribbean, was a man re-born: inventive field placings accounting for the first innings wicket of Steve Smith, currently the world’s number one batsman if you believe the hype. Few would pick him ahead of Joe Root right now, however.
England, arguably, boast the best batsman in world cricket at the moment, the best swing bowler and the best middle order – that foursome of Root, Stokes, Buttler and Ali able to destroy a flagging bowling attack with assassin-like precision over the course of a session. If they can tie up some of the other loose ends, this is now a team to be reckoned with.
Compare and contrast that to the Aussies: an ageing batting line-up, scarred from prior Ashes thumpings on English soil, looks fragile and short of swagger. A bowling attack that looks short of penetration – Mitchell Johnson took a combined 2-180 in this test, as opposed to the 9-103 he picked up in the last Ashes opener.
Brad Haddin, so often a torn in England’s side, is creaking around behind the stumps at 37-years-old and has lost a bit of vitality with the bat. This is an Australian team whose virtues include vulnerability, weakness and timidity – not the first that usually spring to mind when describing an Aussie cricket XI.
Of course, they’re an optimistic/cocky bunch, and many will be predicting that this is a mere hiccup on the way to a 4-1 series win. But, deep down, there is fear: and England can sense it. Remember, this Australia side has won only 2 of their past 15 test matches on English/Welsh soil.
Lord’s Looms Large
For an England side that has won 9 of their past 13 games at Lord’s, the Second Test is an opportunity to extend the early advantage.
Whether by coincidence or design, the track at Cardiff was benign and bereft of life – negating the impact of Mitchell Johnson’s brutal bounce and enabling the likes of Root and Bell to flourish. Captain Cook’s men will be hoping for a similar deck at the home of cricket this week.
England will, barring injury, name the same starting eleven as in the First Test, and that is a collection of players who are growing in confidence and stature on a game-by-game basis.
The Aussies, by contrast, will make changes. Peter Siddle will come in – possibly for Mitchell Starc should his ankle injury not have sufficiently healed, whilst there are plenty of calls in the Australian media for Mitchell Marsh to replace Shane Watson LBW in the middle of the order.
They have insufficient depth in their squad to make changes in the top five however; and that will have English cricket fans licking their lips in anticipation of another famous win.