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Big battle for tiny urn

England favourites but beware Australia as historic fight for tiny urn recommences

Image Credit: AP
Australia's James Pattinson, centre left, celebrates taking the wicket of England captain Alastair Cook, centre, for 13, caught by Brad Haddin, upper centre, on the first day of the opening Ashes series cricket match against at Trent Bridge cricket ground, Nottingham, England, Wednesday, July 10, 2013.
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Here we go then. Thankfully the time for speculation is almost gone. On Wednesday at Trent Bridge Shane Watson or Alastair Cook will take guard in sunshine, so it seems, and cricket’s oldest private battle will be resumed.

It will not be that private. The press box will be packed and so, too, the stands; the TV cameras will zoom in on every combatant exposing any signs of anxiety or fear on the faces of every cricketer lucky enough to be involved. On two continents even those with a passing knowledge of cricket will want to know the score. They may not be too bothered in Mumbai or Multan, but from Melton Mowbray to Melbourne they will be avidly following the progress of Root or Rogers with furrowed brows.

The first Test of an Ashes series is special. Whether the same excitement will still be there when the two captains toss up in Sydney on January 3 before the 10th consecutive Test between these two nations remains to be seen. If that is the case, we will have witnessed much staggering drama along the way.

The clinical view must be that this series cannot equal the last two in England. In 2005 we witnessed the most dramatic and the best Ashes series of all, when there was never a dull hour, let alone a dull day. The 2009 contest seldom touched those heights, but the tension remained until the final day at The Oval, where Cook held the catch which ensured that the Ashes were regained.

This time England set off as favourites, a little uncomfortably as recently they have been prone to play in a constipated manner when expected to win.

Australia’s journey to the opening match at Trent Bridge has been eccentric, to say the least, but England’s has been as tranquil as it gets. There have been injury concerns over Graeme Swann, Kevin Pietersen and Stuart Broad, but it now seems as if all three will be fit to play. Maybe the lure of the Ashes really can be a great healer. In considerable contrast to their opponents, the make-up of the England side has caused only minimal head-scratching along with some local heartache.

It has been a tough month for Nick Compton. The Ashes is the pinnacle and he is going to miss out at the start of the series. The selectors have opted to open with Joe Root, with Jonny Bairstow batting at six. This may not be fair on Compton, but fairness is not — and should not be — the first criterion for selectors. Their duty is to pick what they consider the best, not the fairest, team and essentially they have opted for Bairstow rather than Compton. As it happens, both average 31 in Test cricket.

The Australians will certainly target the two young Yorkshiremen, Root and Bairstow, who are the only players in the England side not to have experienced the peculiar thrill of an Ashes contest (Australia are likely to have five Ashes debutants in their team).

It will also be tough for whichever bowler England choose to omit. The choice will be between Tim Bresnan and Steven Finn. If Bairstow is the bolder choice when selecting the batsmen, Finn is probably the more aggressive selection among the bowlers. However, Bresnan may like to point out that in his last two Tests at Nottingham, in 2011 and 2012, he took 15 wickets against India and West Indies. Moreover Bresnan did score a century against Essex in England’s desultory warm-up match.

The make-up of the Australian side is harder to predict, but the assumption is that they will stick with the bowling attack used at Taunton: James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc, Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon. This quartet is not so experienced as England’s. Pattinson and Starc will bowl wayward spells but, when they click, they are dangerous.

Australia’s new coach, Darren Lehmann, has been as candid as he can be about his batting line-up. He has already said that Watson and Chris Rogers will open — a month ago it might have been Ed Cowan and David Warner. My guess is that they will bat Cowan at three, Michael Clarke and Phil Hughes at four and five and that they will take a punt on Warner at six, even though his suspension meant that he has been unable to play in either of Australia’s warm-up games. Whoever they select, England will have the more experienced line-up.

Even the Australians acknowledge that England are the favourites. In fact they seem happy as underdogs. Starc made a point of mentioning the 1989 series the other day as a source of encouragement for the Australians (Starc, by the way, must have been doing his homework, for want of a better phrase, because he was not born until 1990).

In 1989 Australia were also second favourites; they had lost the previous two Ashes series and the anticipation was that Allan Border’s side would be swept away. That was the summer during which Graham Gooch was usually lbw to Terry Alderman and half the England side were eyeing an ill-conceived but highly lucrative rebel tour to South Africa. Australia won 4-0.

Do not expect that scoreline to be repeated this time. But nor should anyone anticipate an easy victory for England. Despite everything the Australians are looking like a team again — and it is the Ashes.

— Guardian News and Media 2013