Thursday, November 4, 2010

Reputations, Expectations and Australia's impending Ashes success - Part 2

continuation of Yesterday article.....

If England's self-regard appears to be less than misplaced, it is only because Australia have looked alarmingly poor in the last 2 years or so. Since Stuart Clark and Brett Lee left the Test Match scene, Australia have not done as well as usual. This is even though, since their Ashes defeat in England they have beaten West Indies 2-0, Pakistan 3-0 and New Zealand 2-0. Their last two series results have been a 1-1 draw against Pakistan in England and a 0-2 defeat in England (which should have been 1-1, but for VVS Laxman and some amazing tactical choices from Ponting).

Yet, if you compare a bowling line up comprising of Bollinger, Siddle, Hilfenhaus, Johnson and Watson with one comprising of Anderson, Broad, Bresnan, Finn and Tremlett, Australia, in my view, have the edge, especially in Australia. Against the non-minnow Test playing nations, these bowlers have the following records:

Bollinger 49 wickets at 23.79 in 11 Tests
Siddle 60 wickets at 31.53 in 17 Tests
Hilfenhaus 48 wickets at 31.06 in 12 Tests
Johnson 166 wickets at 29.06 in 38 Tests
Watson 40 wickets at 27.25 in 21 Tests

Anderson 168 wickets at 32.88 in 48 Tests
Broad 91 wickets at 33.53 in 30 Tests
Bresnan 3 wickets at 32.33 in 2 Tests
Finn 13 wickets at 22.92 in 4 Tests
Tremlett 13 wickets at 29.69 in 4 Tests

There isn't much to choose between the two sides batting wise either. Australia have been using a makeshift batting combination - Katich and Watson, who have done well. These are followed by Ponting, Clarke, Hussey and North, a formidable combination. Haddin is a solid wicketkeeper, and Johnson is quite capable with the bat. England will field Strauss, Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Morgan, Collingwood, followed by Prior and Broad. These are two evenly matched line ups. The most telling thing about these line ups is that if you asked the punditocracy in England and Australia, almost to a man, they would point to Marcus North as the weak link. Why? Is it because North averages 37.4 in Tests? This is low for a specialist batsman, especially one who plays for Australia. 

Yet, if you dig deeper into North's record, his batting average is low on account of having made only 77 runs in 8 innings against Pakistan. In all, in 32 innings, North has reached at least 50 9 times. Keep that figure in mind - 9 out of 32. He has also been dismissed for single digit scores 14 times. So Marcus North is a nervous starter who reaches 50 once every 3.6 innings against non-minnow Test teams.

What are the numbers for England's players?

Andrew Strauss: 36 out of 135, or 1 fifty plus score every 3.8 innings
Paul Collingwood: 29 out of 106, or 1 fifty plus score every 3.7 innings
Ian Bell: 29 out of 93, or 1 fifty plus score every 3.2 innings
Kevin Pietersen: 33 out of 110, or 1 fifty plus score every 3.3 innings.
Eoin Morgan: 1 out of 6
Alistair Cook: 33 out of 101, or 1 fifty plus score every 3.1 innings

Not very different from North's are they? Ironically, the two most criticized England batsmen are Ian Bell and Alistair Cook, and they both do better than the England captain, and England's Steve Waugh - Paul Collingwood.

What are the numbers for Australia's other batsmen?

Ricky Ponting: 71 out of 188, or 1 fifty plus score every 2.6 innings (over the last 10 years)
Michael Hussey: 31 out of 91 or 1 fifty plus score every 3 innings
Michael Clarke: 33 out of 100, or 1 fifty plus score every 3 innings
Shane Watson: 13 out of 37, or 1 fifty plus score in every 2.9 innings
Simon Katich: 33 out of 92, or 1 fifty plus score every 2.8 innings

The Australians are consistently better than the Englishmen.

Sachin Tendulkar is right though. Eoin Morgan and Graeme Swann are the players to watch out for. Morgan is a promising player. The comparison between Morgan and North is an interesting one and I'll get to it in a minute. Swann could turn out to be the difference between the two sides. He has been called the best England off-spinner since Fred Titmus, and I think he's a complete orthodox spin bowler. But is he good enough to be the difference between the two sides and give England the decided edge? I doubt it.

Swann's impressive career record (113 wickets at 26.55), is built around tremendous success against Bangladesh (22 wickets at 27.9 in 4 Tests), Pakistan (22 wickets at 12.22 in 4 Tests) and West Indies (26 wickets at 22.15 in 5 Tests). Against Australia, India and South Africa, Swann's record is decidedly more modest (13 wickets at 40.5 against Australia, 8 wickets at 39.5 against India and 21 wickets at 31.4 against South Africa). Swann's record mirrors England performance almost perfectly. With his zany sunglasses and his swagger, he embodies England's Test team, and holds the key to the Ashes. He is the one plausible spinner playing in this Ashes series.

In conclusion, the 2010-11 Ashes series is decidedly a mid-table clash. It will decide whether or not Australia have declined sufficiently to be a solid mid-table team, just like England have been over the last couple of years. The formbook is being read, in my view, in two contradictory ways. As far as Australia are concerned, the reading is mostly negative, mainly because they are unlikely to match their 5-0 performance. As far as England are concerned, it is a narrative of excellence and ascendancy, mainly because they are unlikely to suffer the kind of humiliating defeats that have been the norm for them in Australia over the last 24 years. Hence, Eoin Morgan is England’s great hope, while Marcus North is Australia’s weak link.

The facts, as they ought to be read, tell a different story. Australia’s decline only makes this a plausible contest, instead of an easy romp for the hosts. But the hosts still start as favorites, as most hosts should in Test Cricket. Graeme Swann could change that, but I doubt that he will.

I favor Australia to regain the Ashes in 2010-11, at least as convincingly as England regained them in 2005 and 2009.

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