2015 Ashes Series

Moving Day: Shane Watson versus England (and the Australian public)

England is on top at Sophia Gardens and the stage is set for Shane Watson to silence his critics and keep his side in the Test. The first two days have been difficult for Australia and England has proven resilient and disciplined with bat and ball.

Coming in, Australia’s bowling was its strength and England was primarily concerned with how to manage that threat. Flat and deadened pitches were expected and Cardiff has delivered. But from a position of strength in bowling, Australia now looks slightly uncertain with the ball.

The series started terribly for Australia with the loss of their main strike bowler and pack leader Ryan Harris. England feared Mitchell Johnson after he murdered them in 2013-14, but will feel slightly less threatened after he finished with 0/111 from 25 overs. Johnson received a huge, stadium-wide standing ovation after ‘scoring a ton’ and the taunting will get louder in the second innings if wickets elude. Johnson bowled far better than the stats demonstrate and remains a potent weapon.

England’s resilience was proven after they moved from 3/43 to 430. They stole 87 runs for their last 3 wickets at the start of Day 2 and pushed the Aussies off the field looking flat. England were led by the superstar Joe Root (134) – who was dropped by Haddin on 0 – and an excellent lower order dig by Moeen Ali (77), who is probably the most overqualified number 8 to play Ashes cricket. Ian Bell’s failings are papered over for now. He has 11, 1, 0, 0, 1, 29, 12 and 1 from his last 8 Test inns.

The Aussies navigated a tricky 45 minutes before the lunch break. Broad and Anderson hovered and their superior knowledge of the conditions was demonstrated by their fuller length. England plundered runs square of the wicket, proving that Australia’s bowlers banged it in too short, too often. Broad and Anderson were at the stumps and at the pads, full and swinging both ways and were rewarded when Warner snicked up for 17.

England’s discipline persisted and their well-executed plans rewarded them with a position of ascendency. They have removed Australia’s top five batsmen and although each of their bowlers contributed to Cook’s plans of building pressure, the Australians will be smarting at the nature of their dismissals; five questionable shots and five catches.

Thousands of Australians have joined a growing chorus of ridicule directed at Shane Watson and were outraged when he retained his place in the side of ahead of Mitch Marsh. But as soon as Harris went down, Watson became a certainty. He is a better bowler than Marsh and provides stiffer support to Starc, Johnson, Hazlewood and Lyon, but his batting is most maligned and now it is what Australia needs most to stay in the match.

Watson is 29 not out and Australia trail by 166. Nightwatchman Nathan Lyon joined him in the fading light yesterday and only Brad Haddin remains in the shed for Australia. Starc and Johnson can bat a bit but Watson must deliver if Australia is to get back at England. Day three – moving day – awaits.

Ashes Series Selection Dilemma: Fitting 14 into 11

Australian selectors have one heck of a job picking 11 blokes to face England at Sophia Gardens. Contention rages over the middle order and the bowling attack but unlike 2009 or 2013 these are good problems; at least 14 guys make a good case for the Cardiff Test.

An almost leisurely two nil victory in the Caribbean confirmed two theories and uncovered another; Steve Smith is becoming one of the best batsman Australia has produced in over a decade, Australia’s fast bowling is lethal and Adam Voges is a capable dark horse. Perhaps a fourth note should be added, Shane Watson continues to pour on the match-winning 25s.

The Aussies begin with two four day tour matches and the first starts on 25 June at Kent followed by Essex at Chelmsford. This gives the players and selectors an opportunity to perform and assess.

Here’s a wrap of the Aussie touring party.

Certainty at the top

Chris Rogers missed two Tests in the Caribbean due to concussion but he surely returns to partner David Warner.

Steve Smith is Australia’s tenth number 3 since 2011 and – at 26 with an average of 56 and scores of 97, 162*, 52*, 133, 28, 192, 14, 117, 71, 25, 5*, 199 & 54* in his last 13 innings – could be the last number 3 Australia will need until about 2025.

Michael Clarke is determined to be the first captain to win in England since Steve Waugh in 2001.

The middle candidates

Shaun Marsh scored a ton on debut in 2011. Couldn’t get off the mark in several subsequent innings and was dropped. Came back in 2014 and has scores of 32, 17, 32, 99, 73 & 1 at number 5 against India and 19, 13*, 11 & 69 against West Indies filling at opener.

Adam Voges plundered a ton on debut against the West Indies. Voges’ selection baffled punters who’d prefer a younger talent but at 35 and with 11000 First Class runs at 46, Voges adds steel to Australia’s squad. After 14 years without a win in England this is not a series about blooding talent.

Mitchell Marsh was promising with the bat in the Tests he played against Pakistan and India and is unspectacular, although talented, with the ball.

Shane Watson… um. There’s still a strong chance he’ll play a key role in this series. He’s a great slips fielder. Every team needs one!

Wicket-keepers

Cricket Froth was convinced Brad Haddin would retire at the end of the summer. But at 37 Hads is keen as mustard to win a series in England. His presence is a huge asset for Australia. Opponents hate him; he brings the needle to this Aussie team (along with Watson from behind the stumps) and won’t be moved an inch by a combative English media or parochial home crowds. Peter Neville is Haddin’s capable back-up.

The bowlers

There’s only one thing as certain as the force of gravity on planet earth; Ryan Harris will play every single Test match in England if he is fit.

Splitting the rest is probably the most difficult task for selectors. Mitch Johnson murdered England last time and is in solid form. Mitch Starc swung the Duke a mile in the Caribbean and was lethal in the world cup and Josh Hazlewood has looked the part since hitting the Test scene. All these blokes bowl between 140-150kph and then there’s Peter Siddle, a proven workhorse who’s dropped to 5 in the pecking order.

In one sense the ECB could be expected to kill the local pitches to negate this ferocious attack, but England does not have a frontline spinner. Whatever is done to tame pitches for Australia’s fast bowlers will have equal effect on the hosts.

Nathan Lyon will be needed as Australia seems reluctant to play four fast bowlers. Victorian leg spinner Fawad Ahmed is the 17th man on tour and could be a trump card if a real turning pitch shows up.

In a strange video coming out of Dominica in the West Indies the Aussies revealed that pickle juice is used widely by players as a highly regarded cure for muscle cramps. See the Cricket Australia video here: http://www.cricket.com.au/video/chris-rogers-video-blog-pickle-juice-dehydration-west-indies-test-series-bupa/2015-06-19