Let’s start at the top. Ponting runs the risk of becoming the first captain to lose the Ashes twice, and it is a very real risk of that happening. History shows that Ponting’s Aussies do not take defeat likely – witness their thrashings of both England and South Africa after losing to them – but this also shows that they are intent on learning things the hard way. If you can only outsmart Graeme Smith by losing to him, there’s something wrong somewhere in your brain.
There’s no doubt that Ponting the Batsman has improved over the last four years, but Ponting the Captain does not seem to have moved on at all. He’s up against a leader more cerebral than either Smith* or Michael Vaughan and this time he doesn’t have a side full of experienced lieutenants to help him out. Moreover, he’s the only member of the Aussie top order who can be relied upon to make runs during this series; even for a scrapper like Ponting, that’s a heavy weight to bear on top of everything else.
Australia’s worst nightmare has to be that Ponting gets injured and Clarke takes over the captaincy. If ever a player failed to live up to his early promise, it’s this guy. The ‘Pup’ nickname hangs around his neck like a leaden dog tag and, no matter how many runs he scores, he never seems to be truly comfortable at the crease. His increasingly anodyne left arm spin means that he cannot truly be regarded as a bowling option in Test cricket. As the changing hairstyles show, he seems to be a man still trying to find his role within the side.
Burst onto the scene against a South African side who had hardly seen any footage of him and scored plenty of runs against an attack somewhat lacking in either brains or guile. Even so, he showed some weakness against the rising ball bowled from around the wicket and moving into him. England’s attack might not be as pacy as the South Africans’, but Broad and Anderson certainly have more wit about their bowling than Steyn, Nel and Ntini and Flintoff specialises in the sort of ball Hughes has trouble with.
Moreover, whilst he has been scoring a truckload of runs whilst playing for Middlesex, he will find an English Test attack in English conditions a very different proposition to a popgun Division Two one, especially as he will have provided hours of footage for England to analyse. Indeed, a conspiracy theorist might suggest that county attacks had been told to keep him at the crease for as long as possible.
The most surprising survivor of the 2005 side, Katich reinvented himself as an attacking opening bat to win back his place in the side. The suspicion remains that the technical defects exploited by England four years ago remain and will be even more exposed against the new ball than the old one. The fact that his famously volcanic temper seems to have worsened over the intervening four years won’t have helped and the stress of an Ashes series is likely to provoke at least one flashpoint during the summer. That his left arm wrist spin is now an even more effective weapon could actually act against the Aussies, as the lack of other spin bowling options could force them to retain him even if he does hit a bad run of form.
Mr Cricket is in the worst run of form of his career. Whilst he could conceivably come out of it before the Ashes begin, it is hard to see how five months with no first class cricket at all will assist. His performances against South Africa this winter suggest that he may have lost his nerve against quality fast bowling.
As well as having to deal with the tensions of a first Ashes series, North now has to prove that he is worthy of the number six spot over and above the missing Andrew Symonds. Has plenty of experience of English conditions, but again has only played in the second division here. Another who will probably rely upon his bowling to retain his place.
Probably the luckiest man to be on this tour. Has yet to convince anyone other than the Aussie selectors that he is Test class. As a rule, gingers aren’t.
Has shown occasional flashes of being able to play at this level. Problem is that, any time he hits a good vein of form, he gets injured. It is as if there is some kind of horrendous curse on the man. When asked why he had been selected, Andrew Hilditch didn’t seem to know. Which doesn’t exactly bode well.
Iron gloves, dubious morals and has only had one decent run of scores at Test level. Basically, not Adam Gilchrist on so many levels. Even allowing for the fact that he had a hard act to follow, is not likely to frighten any international attack and batsmen will always feel comfortable with him standing up to the stumps.
Not even Brad Haddin.
Frustratingly inconsistent, he has the ability to damage any batting order with the ball and demoralise bowling attacks with his late order hitting. However, still seems equally likely to get carted around the park with the ball and to be dismissed cheaply. The latter calls into question his credentials as a Test match number eight. Basically, until he learns some self control, he’s not going to be the threat he should be.
Will the real Brett Lee please stand up. He seemed to be rising to the challenge of leading the attack in place of McGrath, even during the 2005 Ashes. But once Pigeon was gone for good, he lost form, got injured and the cycle just seemed to repeat itself. His overall statistics haven’t altered much, but it is hard to see how he is going to be the same player that he was four years ago after so much time away from the game.
His record against South Africa cannot be ignored, but neither the fact that the bulk of his Test wickets have come in hot, dry conditions. Will only be a serious contender on this tour if the summer is unusually warm, especially as he has never played in England before.
Like Lee, coming back from a serious injury. Hard, therefore, to see him starting in the Cardiff Test, which will then deprive Australia of their most potent bowling threat in English conditions.
In short. The Aussies aren’t going to win the Ashes, England are going to have to lose them.