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’s World Cup hopes fading as fatigue kicks in?

England have today slumped to a 6-1 ODI series defeat at the hands of the old enemy Australia. This in itself is of great concern to English hopes in the build-up to the World Cup starting later this month, but perhaps of more concern is the injury list.

Strike bowler Stuart Broad hasn’t featured since the second Ashes test, and other key players Tim Bresnan, Paul Collingwood, Eoin Morgan and Graeme Swann have all had to return home for injury treatment in the hope they will regain near full fitness in time for the World Cup. It may not seem like too sorrier situation given the praise Andy Flower has received for having assembled squads containing strength in depth in all formats of the international game. However, even England’s range of backup options have succumb to injury, the likes of Ajmal Shazhad, Chris Woakes and Ashes hero Chris Tremlett are all currently unavailable for selection.

Stuart Broad Graeme Swann South Africa v New Zealand - ICC T20 World Cup

England will be praying upon the return to fitness of these four

The lack of any real one-day form on show from England throughout the series against Australia is perhaps attributable to the injury situation and the fatigue caused by the high-pressure Ashes series that has preceded it. Captain Andrew Strauss certainly seems to think so, and to that effect has demanded a restructuring of future international tours. Strauss believes that the one-day series’ in the future should be played in build-up to the test-matches, partly as a means of preparation and then to build excitement and anticipation in the lead-up to the test-series’. I for one would tend to agree with this.

The nature of the injuries picked up by the England players throughout this series supports the pleas of Strauss. They seem to have all been stress-related injuries that have been worsened through fatigue and through the pressure that has been put upon the players to play through the pain-barrier. It is certainly arguable that these one-day series’ should be shortened in the future, particularly in light of the importance of forthcoming dates on the international calendar.

On the face of it England are once again going in to a major tournament with seemingly little hope of success. However, all faith should not yet be shot to pieces. After all, we are the side that have most recently won a major international tournament in a shorter format of the game. Yes this was the Twenty20 World Cup and not in the 50 over game but the foundations in place throughout that tournament are still present if our major injury concerns return to fitness in time.

The ICC Cricket World Cup.. Will England get their hands on the coveted trophy

In Andrew Strauss we have a natural leader and fantastic opening batsmen. He will be accompanied at the top of the order my Matt Prior, arguably one of the most improved players in world cricket over the past couple of years. In at three it seems likely that Jonathan Trott will get the nod having proved to be England’s form batsmen of the series down-under. Our middle order is packed full of experienced  and world-class batsmen in the form of Kevin Pietersen, Eoin Morgan and Ian Bell. All-rounders are a key part of the one-day game and we also have them in abundance; Paul Collingwood and Michael Yardy are certainly befitting of the role, and Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad are also very handy with the bat. Finally, Broad and Swan are accompanied by James Anderson in the role of wicket-taking strike bowlers. All three are that good and should form the basis of a potent bowling attack.

All being well the afore mentioned players will have all returned to match-fitness by the time things kick-off on the sub-continent. If that’s the case then England’s dismal form in the recent series shouldn’t count for too much and we can expect a fair crack at rounding off what could yet prove to be the best year in English cricketing history.

What a debt we owe to the South African production Line

England/South Africa's Finest...It is easy to ignore amidst the euphoria of Adelaide glory that four of ‘English’ Cricket’s seven batting heroes are South African by birth. It is a much reported upon subject and I am not here to criticise the English selection policy but more to thank whole-heartedly the magnificent talent production line that is South Africa. Andrew Strauss and Matt Prior, both South African by birth, spent only small amounts of their youth in their native country. In contrast, Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott are South African through and through. Pietersen’s case is a much publicised tale of trial and failure in domestic South African cricket but Trott’s story is lesser known.

Trott is a real product of South African cricket having starred in the U17’s and U19’s youth sides. Following on from this were a couple of stuttering and starting spells in South Africa and New Zealand’s domestic leagues. However, Warwickshire gave him his break in 2002 when they signed him as a non-overseas player due to his family’s English descent. Upon his arrival Trott had to bide his time whilst plying his trade in the 2nd XI but soon Trott’s class came to fruition in his record knock of 245. Trott had proved his worth and since then has never looked back. To show for his efforts in domestic English cricket he had amassed over 8,000 runs an admirable if not  exceptional average of 44.

Due to a horrible loss of form from promising young batsman Ravi Bopara in the 2009 Ashes Series Trott, averaging 97 for the 2009 season with Warwickshire, was called upon for his high pressure Test debut in the fifth and final test. He managed a confident first innings 41 before being run-out and then a steely match winning century in the second. How better to introduce yourself on the international stage?

Trott’s burst to international prominence has been cemented over his fifteen month test career. Having endured a somewhat disappointing tour to his native South Africa last winter he has come back strongly with impressive performances against the testing attack’s of Bangladesh and Pakistan. Highlights of his first British summer as  a test batsman included a test high of 226 and a world record eighth wicket stand of 332 with Stuart Broad. Such brilliant achievements have instilled a level of confidence in Trott that has served him beautifully down under.

Trott has recovered from a poor first innings dismissal in the twenties at the GABBA to go on and post a record unbroken partnership of 329 with Alistair Cook in the second innings. Also, he has contributed to Englands record breaking first innings total of 620-5 with a hard-fought 78 having come in following Strauss’ early dismissal, yet again proving his ability to perform in a pressure situation.

Here we have then a man who has in the space of fifteen months gone from county performer to test match record breaker. Trott has made the number three spot his own and is the rock around which England’s batting successes of recent times have been built. An unconventional and at times ugly style has irked opponents far and wide but he is without doubt a class act that, for now,  proudly boasts the  all-time best test match average of any Englishman, the highest current ranking of any English batsmen and an average in excess of 100 in the current Ashes series.

Australia beware. One more major score from England and their South African contingent and they could regain The Ashes. Surely the thus far toothless Australian side will not give up their quest to regain the little urn so easily? Or do they simply have no means with which to fight back?

*Something to consider…  South Africa’s most recent test line-up with the addition of the Anglo/’Saffers’:

Smith, Strauss, Amla, Kallis, Pietersen, Trott, Prior, Botha, Steyn, Harris, Morkel