As I get busy and take on my final responsibilities with regard to completing my dissertation, the cricket world gets busier as well come November. Two test series beginning at opposite halves of the month and played in different hemispheres are the focus of this post. Yet more than just timelines and geographical locations separate the merits of the test series in question. While the Ashes which begins on November 25 at the Woolloongabba in Brisbane (Australia) is set to be a humdinger, unless a fairly good England team proverbially invents ways to capitulate Downunder like they have generally done, the India New Zealand three-test series that will get over even before the Ashes begins is the sort of arrangement that has left everyone tearing their head apart at BCCI’s seemingly learned ineptitude in scheduling games. That New Zealand especially on current form, or lack of any, is hardly the sort of opposition India would want to face upto before a hostile test series in South Africa in December has been sufficiently debated by experts and rightly so.
But given that the two series are going to be played according to schedule, one has to look at them closely. As regards the India-New Zealand series, I would be disappointed if the home team who beat Australia 2-0 a couple of weeks earlier does anything less than achieve the same score line. Among other things, the series will give the Indian batters a chance to boost their averages and someone like Dravid who is probably short on confidence to get back to big runs on grounds which will not assist the Kiwi attack too much.
New Zealand who were outplayed – and that still seems like an understatement – by Bangladesh to go down 4-0 recently, albeit in a one-day tournament, will hope to play hard and wind up the year on a respectable note. It may however not be that easy for the Vettori-led Black Caps especially against a first choice Indian team which is likely to be fielded for the first time in several months. I agree with Geoff Boycott when he says that New Zealand is going to struggle for a while because barring the skipper and to some extent Ross Taylor and Brendon McCullum the team lacks superstars who can inspire magnum opuses. But given that the New Zealand team has always been more than a sum of its parts – and arguably been the best representatives of cricket as a team sport – I would not be surprised if they turn in a fighting performance. Davids slaying and Goliaths falling are after all very much part of the glorious unpredictability of sport. That any amount of resilience may not prevent an Indian victory this around is a different issue altogether. But the harder New Zealand play the better it is for the Indians who will look prepare mentally for the showdown in the Protean land later this year.
Coming to the Ashes, the pre-series gamesmanship has already begun with John Buchanan saying things about Pietersen who in turn retorts and calls the former a “nobody” and Shane Watson chipping in with his dose of unsurprisingly Australian gyan about the English bowling attack. And as one of those old-fashioned cricket lovers, I find all this a bit daft and extremely tiring. However, I expect the actual cricket between the two teams this time to be a lot closer than it has ever been in Australia’s backyard since my birth, no matter what the players from the two teams, experts, commentators, journalists, your-or-my-next of kin, Andy Zalzman and others have to say in the build-up to the series.
Even if the Australian quicks are likely to exploit better the home conditions which may disadvantage James Anderson and Finn – as Watson was wont to point out – who rely on swing, Australia’s batting line up given its recent hot and cold showing may concede a little bit of the advantage back to England because of its growing brittleness. Although the conditions Downunder are very different, Watson and Ponting will be looked up to hold the batting together given their performances in India. The sub-par performances of Michael Hussey, Michael Clarke and Simon Katich and Marcus North’s inconsistency will obviously worry the national selectors. But Ashes is almost a cricketing religion and if two of the four can inspire themselves and step upto the plate during the long series Australia will be well-served. England on the other hand would love to get the supporting actors early hoping that it becomes too much for Ponting to handle. And I liked the look of Tim Paine in India: he seems to be a good old-fashioned keeper without Haddin’s footwork or Gilchrist’s audacity but he seemed to make up for it with grit. It would be interesting to see if Australia picks him or Haddin if the latter is fit.
For England, Kevin Pietersen’s form is admittedly a cause for eyebrow-furrowing concern because he is the sort of talismanic character – like his one-time skipper Shane Warne at Hampshire – who can decide the issue in favour of his team with two masterpieces at crunch situations in a five-test rubber. But it would be unfair to focus too much on KP because during the previous Ashes in England he was merely a spectator after the horrible paddle sweep that took the cricketing world by storm. Andrew Strauss who stoically led England to the urn in 2009 was also the best batsman for the hosts in that series. There is a sense of the blue-collared worker than a batsman about him – and Paul Collingwood who would be looking to return to his gritty ways – which makes him go about his grafting in the middle with unobtrusive but efficient dullness denied to the more flamboyant and gifted. Like his opposite number, Strauss too would, however, need support from other batsmen. The skipper’s opening partner Alistair Cook would probably want to show the world that his mid-forties average is not one for the world to titter about and there can be no better chance than the Ashes to prove this. Some say that Jonathan Trott is perhaps England’s answer to Rahul Dravid and his exploits at number 3 thus far merit the comparison and performances in Australia will only enhancing that reputation. Matt Prior has come a long way with his gloves and his batting has always been in a good league but England will hope that Prior would not have to get involved in too many rescue acts. Collingwood is a key man in the English middle order and his form is important. Although a nudger, the Durham chap brings solidity to the middle order and calm to the dressing room. I do not see Ian Bell getting a place in the eleven unless someone gets injured.
The picture is clear: neither the English nor the Australian batting line-up has trounced oppositions in recent times, so it will come down to which bowling attack can tear the wall when it spots a crack. Mitchell Johnson, Douglas Bolinger and Ben Hilfenhaus will be more than a handful in familiar conditions (and if Nathan Hauritz gets some wickets, it is a bonus!) For England Stuart Broad with his pace and carry is likely to be the numero uno in the quicks’ department. I, however, concur with Shane Warne totally when he says Graeme Swann will play a significant role for England in the series. With his natural aggression, unnatural for a spinner, his number 2 ranking in tests and the confidence from a surfeit of wickets in the last two seasons behind him, you can rest assured that the Northants off-spinner will at least not bowl as flat has Harbhajan Singh has been doing in recent years even if he does not end up with four five-fors in the series.
Even forgetting the weight of history, which England has neither carried very elegantly nor dumped over the years, it may be difficult for the Englishmen to force a triumph because the series is played in Australia. Post-Border Aussies have always been the most resilient lot even when not at their peak and have always found ways to get into winning situations – and win from there – especially at home. It has little to do with form and lot with mindset. If England needs to turn the tide, they need to be working overtime in all departments: bat aggressively, bowl clinically, convert half chances into catches and not think defeat. My prediction though is for a 3-2 or 3-1, Australia. 2-2 may be a welcome result for both teams. If England wins, we can all be elated and stupefied and bid goodbye to one of the great run machines of the modern era, Ricky Ponting.