A Gloriously Uncertain Summer Awaits

If nothing else this summer, we’re about to discover the value of a sound preparation in the scheme of modern cricket tours. For the first time in a long time, England have picked a squad with credible back-up in all areas, arrived early, played serious warm up games well, and appear genuinely ready for what lies ahead.

This isn’t Nasser Hussain’s team of 2002, who arrived full of bold public pronouncements, but immediately revealed their insecurities by sending Australia in on a Gabba road and crumbling to a 384 run loss, setting the tone for the summer. In 2010, public statements have been nondescript, but there’s been meaningful action in the place of words. If England don’t fare well this summer, it won’t be for lack of readiness.

Judging by much of the media coverage, Australia’s preparation could hardly stand in starker relief. To much public chagrin, the selectors resolved a long way out to stick to the Dad’s Army batting order that came up short in 2009. Playing Shield games on a succession of green-top wickets, few of them have shown inspired lead-up form. Injury concerns over Katich, Clarke and Bollinger have also clouded proceedings and dominated headlines.

But on the eve of the Brisbane test, it remains to be seen how much of the proceeding hoo-ha really matters. For once, the world rankings seem warranted; 4th vs. 5th is just about right on revealed form. And it’s precisely this evenness that promises one of the more intriguing series of recent Australian summers. If you want cricket of the highest calibre, you may have to look elsewhere. But if it’s a contest you’re after, then it would surprise if this summer disappoints.

Most of England’s squad have prior- if not pleasant- experience of Australian conditions, and they largely reflect their captain in their general air of solidity, without enormous amounts of flair. If they were playing the Aussies of 2006, you wouldn’t rate them a chance.

Sadly, Ricky Ponting’s team show few signs of those lofty heights. This will be a battle between two solid, but largely unspectacular line ups, with the biggest question mark being the hosts’ ageing warriors. Do Punter’s veterans have one last hurrah in them? Failure to reclaim the Ashes will almost certainly mean cricketing death for several. Whether this concentrates minds or rattles nerves will be crucial.

Looking for individuals who could decide the contest, it is hard to go past the respective all-rounders. Mitchell Johnson remains the biggest wildcard in world cricket. Which Mitch will we get? The one who just demolished Victoria on their home patch? Or the erratic,  disconsolate looking slinger of many recent test spells? Aussie fans will be hoping family harmony has been restored, attentions are refocused, and the man who destroyed South Africa at home is returned. If Johnson struggles, it’s hard to see Australia consistently bowling opponents out, unless the rain continues, turning the series into a bowlers’ picnic.

Chris Broad is still an up and coming cricketer. Will he fully arrive for this series? Recent performances with bat and ball promise much, and the English attack looks in need of a real spearhead. If he could provide it, and  match or surpasses Johnson’s output, it could prove decisive.

Speaking of wild cards, which Kevin Pietersen will turn up? England won in 2009 without a meaningful contribution from their most explosive batsman, but it would seem a harder proposition if his batting slump continues this time. The Australians will still be sweating on his wicket, and their fans would pray plans have been well laid. For a player who’s always loved drama, no cricketing stage offers more chance to strut than the Ashes.

In the batting stakes, the form and fitness of the increasingly maligned Clarke may be critical to Australian hopes. You suspect continuing speculation over his appropriate blokiness to be Australian captain may emanate from Ponting supporters, but of more immediate concern is whether his dodgy back will allow him to bat to his best potential. If Swann lives up to his reputation, then the vice captain’s dancing feet may be a crucial antidote.

From some of the write ups he’s been getting, Graeme Swann could be mistaken for Jim Laker incarnate. He certainly would seem to represent an England edge in the spin department. But it should be remembered that many a well credentialed English offie has left Australia disappointed, including the aforementioned Laker. It remains to be seen if he has a real impact.

On past history, the more crucial factor would likely seem to be England’s tall timber bowling versus Australia’s Dads Army batting. England will be hoping they don’t like it up ‘em. Hussey, North and others know careers ride on proving the naysayers wrong. You expect the Poms to thoroughly test out Punter’s hook shot early. You also expect the Australian captain to have a steely resolve not to lose to England for a third time. That wouldn’t look so good on the record.

When things are finely balanced, mundane topics like catching and fitness start to loom larger in calculations. Both bowling attacks will need good support in the field; dropped chances may be decisive. As is the modern trend, the scheduling of the tests leaves little room for recovery from injury. In Tremlett and Panesar, England seem to have decent back up. Australia have several bowlers with recent injury worries, and some likely outside contenders are already unavailable for selection. Luck in this regard will be essential.

The first test of a series is always important, but in these circumstances it seems doubly critical. With the wet spring experienced, it would surprise if the Gabba pitch didn’t assist the quicks, making a result almost certain. Whoever should lose would seem likely to struggle to make up the ground lost. If England was to win in Brisbane, things could get ugly in the Aussie camp. The winner of the toss tomorrow faces an exquisitely crucial decision.

Early indicators favour England, but the conditions and history suggest  Australia. Twenty-two years undefeated in Brisbane cannot be ignored, but history is no guarantee of anything: we hadn’t lost at Lord’s for 75 years until 2009. A series loss will bring a seas change in Australian cricket. Can Punter’s twilighters resist the tide?

Oh glorious uncertainty, give us a real battle.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has passed his 40th year as a Carlton member.


  1. I would kill to see the in-swinger Mitch Johnson bowled to get W.G. The Terrorist Amla LBW in Durban. What the hell happened to that ball? The only other time I have seen it was when he got Pies Collingwood at Headingley last year.

  2. JB – what do you think of my 12 for Brisbane

    12 – Starc or Khawaja

  3. Tony T, one of the great unanswered questions of cricket is what has happened to Mitch Johnson since that SA tour.

    Dips, mine would be different. I’d have Paine for starters. And Johnson. I think Australia has to gamble initially on him, because they lack other impact players.

    McDonald is another who must wonder about the state of play. Performed all right when given the chance. Will he get another? Sadly, his busted hand would preclude him from Brisbane.

    As for Hodge… what is left to be said?

  4. JB
    I have it on reliable authority that A-Mac’s cards were marked once Watson came back into the Test team with great success. And it probably stands to reason as two all-rounders would upset the balance a little. However, his continued absence from the ODI set-up is a little more difficult to understand.

  5. The highlights reel of Hodge’s innings earlier this evening would be equal to any dig in recent memory.

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