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’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.

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?

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

Can The Ashes Put To Bed The Ghosts Of The Cricketing Summer?

Another hugely anticipated Ashes series is upon us and has there ever been a more important one for the reputation of the sport? Whenever England take on Australia the world watches with baited breath and this Australian summer season will be no different.

As if The Ashes in itself isn’t important enough, this series has the unenviable task of restoring the spirit and integrity of the sport after a controversial summer. The world of cricket was rocked in August when Pakistan became embroiled in a spot-fixing scandal when competing against England. No enduring punishments have yet been placed upon the players involved, but, Salman Butt, Mohammed Asif and Mohammed Aamer are all currently suspended pending investigation.

These seemingly unsavoury events have dragged Crickets reputation through the gutter over the past few months and the role that this series holds in rescuing the sport cannot be overstated. It is a series that regardless of the final outcome always seems to provide immense entertainment, the very best test cricket has to offer. Hopefully the series will pan out in a fashion that does this most magnificent and noble of sports sheer justice.

The build up to this particular series has been rather unfamiliar in comparison to previous series’ in Australia. Typical hype revolves around how many the Aussies are going to thump ‘The Poms’ by, but this time their is a definite sense of uncertainty. Australian media and public perception has been rather subdued and many have predicted a tough summer for their men. Quite right too given the poor recent form and apparent indecision within the selection policy.

Much has been made of England’s ‘settled’ side being a huge advantage and one would tend to agree, however, I disagree with the criticism surrounding Australia’s decision to choose a 17 man squad. For a side that have been under performing I believe it a logical decision to line up plenty in reserve so that those who may be brought into the side are prepared mentally to enter the fray. To pick a smaller squad and perhaps run the risk of leaving reserve players in short supply could potentially force Australia to call upon those who haven’t been in and around the Ashes set-up. Public perception very much seems to be driven by the media come Ashes time Down Under and this year has proven no exception.

If ever cricket needed a series to re-establish it’s good name then this is it. The strife still hovering around the game in the wake of the Pakistani scandal will perhaps be put to one side if these two great nations put on a show of great quality and commitment. Expect heartache and ecstasy in the forthcoming weeks and pray that positivity recaptures the cricketing headlines in what is set to be an intriguing quest for the famed Urn.

Andrew Strauss clutches on to the famous little Urn...