Ashes Countdown 2013: The Ashes Combined XI

With just a couple of days to go until the start of the Ashes series it seems that now is the perfect time to compare notes on the squads that are set to do battle over the next few gruelling weeks of test match cricket.

The Ashes 2013

Will England once again rule triumphant?

There is little doubting who the favourites are for the series, with England boasting a far stronger, and a far more stable test record of late than their visitors. Basically, they’re nailed on.

A wounded, battered, and bruised Australian side must not be taken lightly though, as newly appointed coach Darren Lehmann is seeking for a way to re-unite the troops, and is well equipped to do so as they still boast a couple of very experienced batsmen, and a young, and vibrant bowling line-up to boot.

As a means of comparing the merits of the two squads below I have come up with a combined Ashes XI. So… check it out, agree, disagree, and comment if you feel the need…

Alistair Cook (c)

No doubts about this selection whatsoever. Last time Cook faced up to an Aussie test attack, he tore them to shreds and amassed a monumental series average. This time around he’s the skipper, for the first time going into an Ashes series, and he will therefore have a far heavier weight, and burden upon his shoulders.

Cook though has already proven his ability to handle the top job, and there is no reason to suspect that he will struggle this time around either, although the freshened up Aussie seam contingent might have something to say about that.

Shane Watson

This might seem like a little bit of a fortunate selection given the absence of any real recent form from Watson in an Aussie test jersey, but he has performed well against England at the top of the order before.

The main reason for the selection of Watson in this combined XI is in reality the lack of a real proven English contender for the slot. Nick Compton appears to have been ousted from his position in the side, and young Joe Root has never topped the English order in a test match. Root is an enormous talent in all forms of the game, and he has already proven his worth in the middle order, but he is yet to have had the opportunity to prove his worth as a test match opener. I suspect Root will deliver and prove that he is indeed worthy of selection in this XI, but for now it is hard to give him the nod.

Jonathan Trott

Trott’s is Perhaps the easiest selection of them all. Since he burst into the test match spotlight in the 2009 Ashes in England, with a match-winning hundred against the Aussies he has never looked back. Alongside Hashim Amla of South Africa he is arguably the best number three in the world, and this is an area of the Australian side, which looks bereft of any real security, or depth at the moment.

Kevin Pietersen

KP’s Ashes record is brilliant, and a recent unbeaten knock of 177 for Surrey in his first match back after a lengthy injury-enforced absence has done nothing to knock the confidence of perhaps the most head-strong batsman in world cricket. It will no doubt be intriguing to see whether the peacock of the English batting line-up will ruffle his feathers once again as he so often has in the past when the Aussies have rolled into town.

Michael Clarke

Clarke is another of the easiest picks in this side, and is arguably the only dead-cert Aussie on offer. Whilst skippering one of the most unsteady ships in world cricket over the past couple of years, Clarke has defied all the odds and somehow managed to play with the sort of confidence and ability that has singled him out as perhaps the finest batsman in the longest form of the international game. His form has defied logic as he has battled to keep the side afloat amidst a crisis period, and he deserves an enormous amount of credit.

Ian Bell

Had Joe Root not received a promotion to the very top of the English batting order in place of Nick Compton, then Ian Bell might well have had some stiff competition for this role in the combined XI. As it is though, there is no one who can rival Bell for this spot in the team, as the fluent, shot-making, lower-middle order batsman. When he’s at his best there is no one in the world who can match up to Bell in this department, and when he’s on top of his game you could place him pretty much anywhere in the order and rely on him to come up trumps.

Matt Prior (WK)

In spite of some fairly indifferent international, and indeed domestic, form in 2013 so far, Prior has set about establishing himself as the finest wicketkeeper-batsman in test cricket over the past couple of years. He will have to improve dramatically on his form of late if he is to maintain this position of superiority in the specialist role, but we have seen him perform brilliantly against the Aussies before and it would hardly be surprising if he were to do so again.

Graeme Swann

Graeme Swann remains arguably the most feared spinner in test cricket, and although he arguably hasn’t hit the heights of the 2011 Ashes series since then he could yet still prove to be the most lethal weapon in England’s armoury. Spin bowling is Australia’s very weakest area, and it is arguably England’s strongest. Therein lies the biggest miss-match between the two sides.

Stuart Broad

Broad is the only Englishman named in the bowling attack of this combined XI who there was any real doubt about regarding their selection. The man pushing him hardest for this selection is young Mitchell Starc of Australia who similarly to Broad offers pace, bounce, and a knack of bowling multiple wicket-taking spells with the ball. Like Broad too, Starc also provides the threat of some useful, brisk hitting down the order, but the Englishman gets the nod here on grounds of his greatly superior Ashes experience to date.

James Pattinson

I have decided to bestow upon Pattinson the honour of being the only Aussie bowler to have made the cut in this combined XI. In his 10 test match appearances to date, Pattinson has proven himself to be one of the shining lights in the world of test match cricket. He is bristling with intent, and energy. He is a chirper, a real throwback to Aussie seamers of yesteryear, and Darren Lehmann will no doubt try his utmost to best utilise the attitude that Pattinson brings to the table as he is certainly a force to be reckoned with.

James Anderson

Anderson forms part of a group of players including the likes of Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Clarke, Prior, and Swann, that are all absolute dead-certs in the combined line-up. Further to that Anderson would also be one of the first and most guaranteed names on a world test XI team-sheet too. Australia know all about the threat that he poses after his terrific displays in the 2011 Ashes series down-under, and it would be a real surprise if Jimmy doesn’t wind up coming very near the summit of the top wicket-takers list in this forthcoming series. If the conditions play into the hands of a man like Anderson who is so adept at swinging the ball both ways, then he could win the series pretty much single-handedly.

English players selected: 8
Australian players selected: 3

In summary, there is no surprise that England appear to have the better team on paper and if their superior number of selections in this combined XI is reflected on the scoreboard come the end of the series then they will have triumphed for a third consecutive time.

In-keeping with their dominance in this head-to-head selection, it seems only logical to predict that England will come out on top in the series by a score-line of something in the region of three tests to one. Only time will tell though…

England Vs. South Africa Series Review: Marks Out Of 10

England:

Andrew Strauss: 3/10

It is easy to criticise a man who has captained his supposedly very strong side to a comfortable series defeat on home turf but more of a concern than his leadership skills has been his lacklustre performances with the bat at the top of the order.

Alistair Cook: 5/10

In stark contrast to his form in recent times this series was a bit of a struggle for Cook. Throughout the vast majority of the series he didn’t look overly comfortable against the strength, accuracy and potency of South Africa’s gifted bowling attack and this lack of ease is highlighted by the fact that he failed to pass 50 on any occasion apart from his series-opening hundred at the Oval. He may have started the series with a fine knock but from then it was all downhill as he failed to pass seven runs on three occasions.

Jonathan Trott: 6/10

By Trott’s exceptionally high standards to date this was not an overly brilliant series but he still got a couple of fifties and ended with an average in excess of 40 for the series so it would be churlish to pan him. He did of course turn his arm rather a lot too and though he failed to take a wicket in the series he did give a few of South Africa’s much-vaunted batting lineup a tricky spell or two and it isn’t really his job to rip through the opposition’s batting lineup after all.

Kevin Pietersen: 8/10 on the field, 1/10 off of it…

Pietersen Scandal

KP may have out-performed the rest of his team mates with the bat but his behaiour off of the field has been apalling

There was little wrong with Pietersen’s form with the bat as he amassed not far shy of 300 runs with the bat in the two tests in which he featured and he was also surprisingly impressive with the ball taking four wickets in the second test at Headingley.

Sadly though, it has been Pietersen’s off-field behaviour which has been the recipient of far more headlines as he has been embroiled in some reported in-fighting both in the England dressing room and with the top officials in the English game.

If the text messages to SouthAfrican players included the sort of content that they are alleged to have, then no matter how well Pietersen might have played in the second test, the decision to drop him for the final match was wholly justified. No man is bigger than the team and if he has been caught red handed when bad-mouthing his generally very popular and very respected captain then he shouldn’t be given an easy-route back into the side unless he has made some serious attempts to right his wrongs and until he has proven that he can act more maturely and can be trusted in a team environment.

Ian Bell: 3/10

When compared with the ease and fluency of his run-scoring exploits in the most recent test series’ on home turf Ian Bell endured a bit of turgid time of things against the South Africans, managing an average of  just 28.80 and a high score for the series of just 58. More so than the scores themselves the methods of dismissal will concern and irritate Bell as he was far too easily tempted into loose strokes by the South Africans, which saw him lose his wicket cheaply on more than one occasion.

James Taylor: 4/10

It is hard to make a fair judgement on Taylor’s first strides as a test cricketer as he was thrown right in at the deep end against arguably the best bowling attack in the world. He only batted in three innings in the series and in one of those three he was run out by Trott, in another he failed to get in before being dismissed and then in the other he made a score in the thirties which was probably far better than it sounds as he batted with great patience and he supported Pietersen very well en route to his big hundred at Headingley. It wasn’t the best start to life as a test cricketer but I’ve seen worse.

Jonny Bairstow: 8/10

He only played in one test match but boy did he do well. He struggled throughout much of his maiden test series earlier in the summer against the West Indies but the manner in which he stepped into the Kevin Pietersen shaped void amidst very tricky circumstances in the final test was truly admirable. He proved that he has real potential as a test cricketer and demonstrated an encouraging amount of confidence and intent at the crease as he notched back-to-back half centuries, it was just as shame that he fell five short of his maiden test century when he fell for 95 in the first innings.

Ravi Bopara: 2/10

Off the back of an impressive ODI series against Australia this was another major chance for Bopara to try and re-establish himself as part of England’s test side but it went pretty dismally. He scored 0 and 22 in the first test and then he removed himself from contention for a place in the side due to personal reasons.

Matt Prior: 7/10

Over the past couple of years Prior has fully re-asserted himself as England’s first-choice with the gloves and has become arguably the best keeper-batsman in world cricket and his performances in this series will have done little to harm his reputation. Prior was very impressive at times with the bat, never more so than in his courageous second innings knock in the final test, and he was generally very assured with the gloves minus a dropped catch which would have got rid of Amla for just two in the final test. On the whole this was another very decent series for the gloves-man.

Stuart Broad: 5/10

Broad showed glimpses throughout the series of what he brings to the England attack but he looked a little short of rhythm as failed to consistently threaten the South African batting lineup. He seems a little short of pace at the moment which is strange for a man with such a great fast bowling physique but he did however contribute well with the bat in England’s brave final day resistance today and he deserves credit for that.

Graeme Swann: 4/10

Swann Vs. South Africa

Swann was seen as the part of the England attack that might have given them the edge but it wasn’t to be

Having re-announced himself on the international stage in phenomenal fashion over the past few years, Swann has become one of the most feared spinners in the game but he is going through a bit of a barren spellat the moment by his high standards. Like his Nottinghamshire clubmate Stuart Broad he contributed bravely with the bat in England’s final innings of the series but his attempts to help England maintain their place at the top of the world rankings proved futile as they fell fifty runs short of an historic win.

Tim Bresnan: 4/10

Brezza failed to maintain his test match ‘lucky charm’ status as he tasted test defeat for the very first times in his career. He was made to look fairly ordinary by South Africa’s superior batting lineup in the first couple of tests and it was no surprise to see the more threatening Steven Finn preferred to him in terms of selection for the final test.

James Anderson: 5/10

This series proved to be pretty frustrating Anderson as he bowled well for long periods of the game without much reward for his efforts. There is little doubt however that Anderson will come back strongly from a disappointing series and I fully expect him to play a huge part in England’s forthcoming matches in their quest to now recapture what is no longer their place at the top of the world test rankings.

Steven Finn: 7/10

Having spent a bit of time in the wilderness in terms of test match cricket, young Steven Finn returned to regular action for the test side and played in the second and third matches of the series. In his two opportunities in the series he maintained his reputation as a great wicket taker at the highest level even if he did still have a tendency to spray the ball around and provide the opposition with run-scoring opportunities.

Finn’s best day of the series came when I was at Lords to watch the match and it was a pleasure to see two brilliant spells of bowling from the young man. His first spell of the day was brimming with pace and hostility and he must take a lot of credit for the wicket of Dale Steyn, which may have been taken by Broad but was set up by Finn’s aggression and accuracy. His spell of bowling in the afternoon though was the real highlight as he removed Amla, De Villiers and Rudolph in a devastating spell that saw him take 3 wickets for just 14 runs. It will be very surprising now if Finn isn’t selected next time England are in test action.

South Africa:

Graeme Smith: 8/10

Smith led from the front with some of his trademark stubborn, hard-nosed batting at the top of the order and he backed up his strengths with the bat with consistently good captaincy and he fully deserved to lead his side to victory.

Alviro Petersen: 6/10

Five of his six marks out of ten are awarded to Petersen for his marvellous 182 at Headingley as his other five innings in the series garnered a combined total of just 83 runs as he failed to match his opening partner Smith in terms of consistency. His first innings performance at Headingley was terrific and he showed enormous resolve to score big whilst the majority of his team mates failed to fire as they did in the other innings’ throughout the series. However, his form aside from this knock was very indifferent so it is hard to award him more than six out of ten even though he did average over 60 for the series.

Hashim Amla: 9/10

Amla Vs. England

Amla’s 311* was arguably the highlight of the series

Man of the series without a shadow of a doubt. Absolutely no one got anywhere near him in terms of run scored or in terms of batting averages in this series and his staggering knock of 311 not out at the Oval was the highlight of South Africa’s tour. This series was billed as a battle of the bowlers beforehand but in truth it has been South Africa’s staying power and persistence with the bat that has impressed the most and Amla has been the figurehead of this outstanding team display.

Jacques Kallis: 7/10

An enormous unbeaten contribution with the bat in the first innings was the highlight of the series for South Africa’s veteran all-rounder who otherwise failed to make any major contributions with the bat but as always he did offer South Africa an invaluable option with the ball and he defied troubles with persistent back spasms to contribute four wickets in the series.

AB De Villiers: 6/10

Having stepped into the breach in the wake of Mark Boucher’s untimely retirement, AB kept wicket pretty well on the whole in his first full series in the role but he failed to set the world alight with the bat. He did though average over 40 for the series which is respectable given that he was twice not required to bat in the series due to the stellar efforts of some of his team mates.

Jacques Rudolph: 5/10

Rudolph looked solid and added some depth to South Africa’s line-up in the absence of Mark Boucher but he only produced one innings of any real note when he scored 69 having been thrown in to open the batting for his side whilst usual opener Petersen was left back in the hutch due to severe stiffness. He hasn’t long been back in the side after a few years out of the reckoning and though he wasn’t a major force with the bat this time around he didn’t play himself out of the side either.

JP Duminy: 7/10

Duminy wasn’t called upon with great regularity in the series but when he was he proved just why South Africa deem him to be more than just a very good one day player. He contributed with characteristically steady batting down the order bagging himself the second highest South African batting average of the series whilst also contributing when needed with the ball.

Vernon Philander: 8/10

Philander came into this series with a fantastic start to his test career under his belt and he took little time in impressing upon England just why he has been such a success. He may not have been a prolific wicket-taker throughout the entire series but his five-for in England’s final innings was suitable reward for a series of accurate, disciplined and determined bowling. A series bowling average of 23.6 tells you all you need to know about how well he bowled.

Dale Steyn: 8/10

Steyn Vs. England

The world’s number one test bowler is now part of the world’ number one test side

It seemed for long stretches as if Steyn wasn’t quite at his sparkling best but he was still comfortably the biggest wicket taker of the series and as such deserves enormous credit once again. If you aren’t at your very best and you’re struggling with a couple of niggles but you still take the most wickets in the series by a distance then you know you’re a bit special.

Morne Morkel: 6/10

Morkel can at times be one of the most frustrating bowlers in test cricket but he performed pretty well as part of South Africa’s potent attack in this series. He averaged 34.5 with the ball which was less impressive than either Steyn or Philander but he did manage to take 11 wickets and he also chipped in with a few valuable runs right down the order.

Imran Tahir: 5/10

Tahir was arguably the least threatening part of South Africa’s front-line bowling attack but the veteran of English county cricket demonstrated his knowledge of English conditions in playing a part in South Africa getting the better of England’s disappointingly frail-looking batting line-up. The spinner department is arguably South Africa’s weak link and Tahir will surely have to better his average of 47 with the ball in this series if he is to hold onto his place in the world’s best test side.

England heading for a whitewash defeat and the batting stats don’t lie

Another day, another poor show with the bat. Couple this with the first underwhelming English performance with the ball on this tour and we have for the third time this series a predicament which sees England staring a Test Match defeat directly in the eye.

Pietersen has been just one of many disappointments against Pakistan

England’s paltry 141 with the bat was perhaps slightly excused after Pakistan were skittled for 99 on day one, but today’s show of solidarity from Azhar Ali and Younis Khan proved that the pitch was, in fact, fairly innocuous and provided the perspective necessary to highlight just how poor England were again throughout their first innings.

Though the bowlers too struggled on day two of the third and final Test, it is hardly fair to apportion much blame in their direction. It has after all been their efforts, almost in isolation, that have spared England complete humiliation in their first Test series since being named the world’s leading side in the format.

Today, the most notable of the negated England bowling threats was that of Graeme Swann whose usually  very effective off-spin was made to look entirely impotent by Pakistan’s star performers on the day. It may sound a little cliched to say that Younus Khan and Azhar Ali succeeded with the bat due to their ‘patience’ early on and their progressive build towards ‘taking the attack’ to England, but that just about sums up the majority of the day’s play.

Aside from this show of resilience from Pakistan and England’s first slip of the series into the realms of ineffective bowling, the current cause for major concern must be the lacklustre batting displays which are a world away from Down Under at the start 2011 and the run-thirst demonstrated on home turf against India in the summer.

The clearest indicator of the fall from grace for England’s batting line-up on this tour is the comparison of their averages so far in the three match Test-Series with those put together during India’s visit in the summer, where England of course dished out a whitewash series victory of their own.

During England’s ‘Indian Summer’ the vast majority of their batting line-up enjoyed huge success and it was Alistair Cook at the top of the order who led them out of the blocks in style, carrying on from his outstanding form away to Australia in the Ashes. His average in the India series was very healthy, up in the high fifties, even if that was courtesy of an outstanding knock of 294 at Egbaston. This stunning contribution in Birmingham meant that his series average was nearly 40 runs-per-innings higher than his collective contributions against Pakistan this winter.

Cook’s partner in crime, Andrew Strauss, didn’t have quite as healthier average as his fellow opener but the captain did manage an average in the high thirties which is better than his low thirties average so far this series.

Jonathan Trott, the recent recipient of the ICC’s top award at their yearly celebration of all things cricket, may have suffered a series ruining injury over the summer against India but prior to this he had chipped in with a series opening 70 before a slump which saw him average in the mid-twenties. His form with the bat in this series has actually seen an improvement on his contribution in the summer, with his average up in the thirties but three scores of sub-twenty out of five innings is still a cause for concern.

Kevin Pietersen who seemed to have returned to something like his dominant best against India with a world-beating average of 89, has too struggled throughout the present tour. After some worrying early indicators in the warm-up matches, KP has continued to struggle against the Pakistan attack managing a measly 49  collective runs scored over his five innings’.

Along with Pietersen, it was Ian Bell who really shone over the summer with an almost as imperious average of 84. Sadly though for Bell who’s summer was seen as something of an affirmation of his world-class status as a Test performer, his role against Pakistan has been far less glamorous. In alarmingly similar fashion to Pietersen, he has sunk without trace on the current tour contributing even fewer runs than his team-mate; a total of just 41 runs from his five visits to the crease.

The fledgling member of England’s supposedly match-winning batting line-up, Eoin Morgan, is one of the only batsmen worthy of a little sympathy for his torrid time out in the middle this series given his lack of Test Match experience. However, his lack of runs has also been a worry given the faith shown to select him ahead of the talented (even if not entirely reliable) Ravi Bopara. Morgan has averaged more than 20 runs less-per-innings during the present tour when compared to his contributions against India on home turf.

The common theme for England’s batting line-up is clearly that they have failed to deliver anywhere near as strongly as they did at home to India in the summer, with the exception being Jonathan Trott who’s average has actually been an improvement. There are of course several reasons for such a rapid decline in form and I am not going to bother claiming that I am next in line to Graham Gooch on the batting guidance front, but the foremost explanations are two-fold.

First, the England batsmen are ‘ring-rusty’. This may sound a little pathetic when they are meant to be top-class performers but a few months out of Test action is a long time and although they may have needed it for the sake of their long-term sanity, it hasn’t exactly helped them in the short-term. Also, there appears to be some serious deficiencies in their approach to batting on Sub-Continental pitches, which have seen the batsmen resorting consistently to either negative and tentative reliance on the back-foot and, alternatively, if all else fails, they have been lured into loose shots designed in vein to relieve pressure.

So then, there is an enormous amount for England to work on in the coming weeks and months but in the short-term a second innings of composure and positivity would go some way to restoring the apparently fragile confidence of their batting contingent.

 

Will England’s dynamic back-room help them complete the set?

The Post-Ashes euphoria has been inescapable over the last few days, but do England have what it takes to complete the most memorable of years? Fresh from the triumph in the Test format England will have to change tack come this Sunday as the ODI season returns. The return to the shorter format of the game begins with a match in Canberra this weekend against an Australian Prime Minister’s XI side before they take part in an ODI series and Twenty20 series in the build up to to the World Cup.

Saker is one of Flower's most valued staff members

England will hope to once again demonstrate the true magic and innovation that the current back-room staff have instilled into the national side in all formats over the last couple of years. Bowling coach David Saker has inspired a dramatic turnaround for the likes of the now ‘world-beating’ Jimmy Anderson and aided Graeme Swann’s surge to within touching distance of becoming the world’s number one Test bowler. Now signed on for three more years ,Saker, in tandem with spin bowling coach Mushtaq Ahmed will seek to keep inspiring the bowling unit on to bigger and better things.

English batting legend and current batting coach Graham Gooch is also receiving widespread plaudits for his contribution to one of the strongest looking batting line-ups in recent history. Andrew Strauss has grown into his role as captain and opening batsman both in test cricket and ODI’s whilst his Test partner Alistair Cook has broken all sorts of records down under this winter. Cook’s achievements are all the more remarkable given the horrible form he found himself in over the British summer against Test minnows Bangladesh and the tricky seam attack of Pakistan. A dramatic turnaround in fortunes has taken him from the brink of losing his place in the squad to being named man of the series in The Ashes and re-establishing himself as the heir-apparent to the Test captaincy. Cook has spoken out about fellow Essex man Gooch’s contribution to his re-incarnation as a Test batsman, if he has been as helpful as the likes of Cook are reporting then the part he has played in England’s Ashes triumph has been invaluable. Another outspoken supporter of Gooch is Ian Bell whom, as a batsman, has flourished down-under this winter. He has attributed much of his rapid maturing process to guidance and imparting of knowledge from the national coach.

One legend to another

Perhaps the most notable turnaround in English cricket has been the increased professionalism, commitment and fitness of the side under the current regime. This is in no short part down to Richard Halsall, England fielding coach and incidentally my former sports teacher. I myself can speak personally about how highly I and many of my friends regarded ‘Mr.Halsall’ as a teacher, a mentor and a role model. He always had a unique knack for instilling knowledge and advice into student’s heads, a skill that must have served him brilliantly in his current job. Experts and pundits in the wake of The Ashes have described England as the best fielding side in the world and the best in their history, quite a testament to the job Halsall has done thus far in his tenure.

Halsall has been credited with an innovative and successful coaching style

It is clear that the back-room team under the guidance of Head Coach Andy Flower have brought great success to England in the form of Ashes victory and in becoming World Twenty20 champions in 2010. ODI results have also improved under their guidance in recent times and expectations are racing in the build-up to the World Cup on the Sub-Continent. The current set-up has seen a new era of positivity and versatility at the very highest levels, with the unconventional players such as Eoin Morgan and the most conventional such as Strauss given license to take protagonist roles in the set-up. Such flexibility places England firmly amongst the favourites to start 2011 in the same vein as 2010.

Will England triumph again in One-Day cricket?