Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Reputations, Expectations and Australia's impending Ashes success - Part 1

England are favored to win the Ashes by many observers, including Sachin Tendulkar. This is not as straightforward as it sounds. England last won the Ashes 2-1 in Australia in 1986-87 under the captaincy of Mike Gatting. That team had David Gower and Ian Botham, and the Australians of 1986-87 were probably the weakest Australian side of the 20th century. Yet, England only won a narrow 2-1 series victory.

Since then, England have toured Australia in 1990-91, 1994-95, 1998-99, 2002-03 and 2006-07. In these 5 series combined, they have not won a single Test match when the Ashes were still up for grabs. In 1990-91, they lost the Ashes in 13 playing days, in 1994-95 it took them 15 playing days to lose, in 1998-99 13, in 2002-03 11 and in 2006-07 they lost the Ashes in 15 days and went on to lose 5-0. It only took 15 days in 2006-07 because Australia didn't enforce the follow-on after taking a 445 run lead in the first innings in the first Test at Brisbane.

It is not excessively harsh to say that England's tours of Australia over the last 24 years have been unmitigated disasters. When it is said that England are favored to win the Ashes, this must be read in the context of these disastrous tours. If Australia were to win the Ashes 1-0 or 2-1, England should probably consider that to be a successful tour.

But there is another dynamic at work which might reveal why England will take great offense at my last statement. Since Michael Vaughan took over the England captaincy, England have projected a sense of superiority that every good team should aspire to. In the last 7 years, their most notable results have been a 2-1 win in South Africa in 2004-05 and two 2-1 Ashes wins in England. Apart from this, their performance has been decided modest against good teams, but quite dominating against the lower half of the ICC rankings - Pakistan, New Zealand and West Indies. What's more, England's performances have been in decline for some time now, even as their assessment of their own abilities reveals a lot of confidence. In the last 4 years (since their 5-0 Ashes thrashing), they have lost to South Africa and India in England, lost a Test match in New Zealand, and Test series in West Indies, Sri Lanka and India. But yes, they did win the Ashes in England last year, and they did draw a Test series in South Africa in 2009-10. 

Since their Ashes defeat in 2002-03, England have won 47 Test matches and lost 24. But if you look into the details of this 47-24 record, it includes a 12-1 record against West Indies, 8-0 against Bangladesh, 7-1 against New Zealand, 2-0 against Zimbabwe and 6-3 against Pakistan. That amounts to a 35-5 record against West Indies, Bangladesh, New Zealand, Zimbabwe and Pakistan in 49 Test Matches. Against Australia, India, South Africa and Sri Lanka, their record is 4-7, 1-3, 6-6 and 1-3 respectively - a total of 12-19 in 50 Tests.

Since the start of the 2003 season (Vaughan took over when Hussein retired during the New Zealand series in the 2003 season in England), England record then, is as follows:

35-5 in 49 Tests against Bangladesh, New Zealand, Pakistan, West Indies and Zimbabwe
12-19 in 50 Tests against Australia, India, South Africa and Sri Lanka

This leads me to question the basis of their current confidence - victories over a dysfunctional, inexperienced Pakistan side in England, preceded by victories against Bangladesh. They did achieve two good results against Australia and England before that, but they had Flintoff for the Australian series, and they could have easily lost the series in South Africa 3-1 had they lost 2 more wickets. This was despite the fact that Dale Steyn was an uncertain starter and came into the series without too much match practice following injury. On the same wickets on which Morne Morkel took 19 wickets at 21 and Steyn took 15 wickets at 24, England’s fast bowlers managed 13 wickets at 33 (Broad), 16 wickets at 34 (Anderson) and 8 wickets at 46 (Onions). In the batting, only 3 Englishmen made more than 250 runs in the series, while 5 South Africans achieved this. England also scored only 2 centuries in the series - one each from Bell and Cook. South Africa in contrast managed 5 - 2 each from Smith and Kallis and another from Amla.

to be continued....

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