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Double trouble for Australia in the Ashes

I’ve reached an age where memory lapses become a concern and I’m wondering if I only imagined Australia’s recent heavy Test losses to India and then England. Didn’t those 4-nil and 3-nil losses occur? I only ask because ever since England landed in Australia, it’s all been about the problems facing the tourists and how the home side is settled and in good shape for the upcoming Ashes series.

Shane Watson and Mitchell Johnson
Australian all-rounder Shane Watson (left) and pace bowler Mitchell Johnson. Pics/Getty Images

England’s queries
Sure, England have a few queries. There’s Matt Prior’s injury, the late change to Michael Carberry as an opening batsman and also, settling on a third fast bowler. Chris Tremlett appears to be down on pace, Steven Finn is inconsistent — fast and bouncy one minute and distinctly unthreatening the next — and Boyd Rankin is both unproven and a liability in the field. Nevertheless, that still leaves the bulk of the England side settled and successful. Australia on the other hand, with no recent success stories to fall back on, should have concerns.

Australia’s concerns
The two biggest headaches for Australia are the fitness of Shane Watson and the form of Mitchell Johnson. What if Johnson reverts to type and is profligate in an Ashes series? That will put an unbearably heavy load on the two critical fast bowlers, Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris, who both need to be at their best for Australia to remain competitive. And that doesn’t even address the matter of the huge confidence boost it’ll be for Alistair Cook, if Johnson keeps angling deliveries onto his pads like he did at Lord’s in 2009.

Watson is just as critical to the batting effort and his latest injury means he’s had no time in the centre for a month leading into the first Test. That gives the bowlers a distinct advantage and a slow start for Watson with the bat could have serious implications for Michael Clarke and the middle-order.

Despite some encouraging signs, Steve Smith still needs to prove he can consistently make big scores against top quality bowling. He’ll be further
challenged if Australia doesn’t get good contributions from the top order players. Following Smith will either be an unknown quantity in debutant George Bailey or Brad Haddin, who is showing signs age is starting to win the battle when he’s batting.

Selectors dilemma
This is where the selectors face a real dilemma. Do they sacrifice a batsman to fit James Faulkner into the side to provide cover for any Johnson profligacy or do they forgo variety and leave Nathan Lyon out and play the all-rounder in an all pace attack? Lyon is a good bowler but too often the quality of his deliveries aren’t matched by the results in the wicket column. Nevertheless, it’s a huge gamble to play a five day game at the Gabba without a spinner.

Shortage in slips
Either way, the Australian line-up is desperately short of good catching men and it’ll be a blessing for Clarke if Watson can’t bowl, because they’ll struggle to fill three slip positions adequately without him in the cordon. There’s potential for improvement in the Australian batting line-up and it’ll be
especially encouraging for the future if both Warner and Smith have a good series.

The bowling is pretty well a known quantity unless Johnson does rediscover his best form and then there’s a real edge to the attack. England on the other hand is tried and tested and what you see is what you get. The success of the batting will revolve around Cook and Jonathan Trott scoring heavily so Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell can take advantage of a good start to elevate the scoring rate. The bowling will live or die on the form of Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann.

Root, Finn crucial
If Joe Root continues to improve and Finn were to find consistency at Test level this would augur well for England’s future. There’s always a lot of bluff and bluster in the lead up to an Ashes series and the reality is there are generally more if’s and buts than certainties. On this occasion Australia has more ifs, while England is superior in the number of proven performers. And unless my memory’s playing tricks, that means the tourists will start as favourites in
the series. 

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