Should Australia Be Favourites to Win the Ashes Back on Home Soil?
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Few bookies will have Australia as favourites for the upcoming Ashes series, and rightly so. Form lines and long-term trends suggest England are still the team to beat when the teams do battle once more Down Under this winter.
Yet that doesn't alter the growing sense that a former colossus is regaining a certain degree of strength ahead of their quick rematch. Through a combination of home surroundings and gradual improvement, Australia should genuinely challenge England when the series begins in Brisbane in November.
Australia will certainly appreciate playing at home, in conditions that are not only familiar, but also far more suited to the team's strengths.
The slow, lifeless pitches that were produced in England this summer are set to be replaced by harder and faster wickets, which will complement the assets of this Australian team.
Batsmen such as David Warner, Michael Clarke, Shane Watson and Steve Smith will appreciate the added pace and bounce, and will enjoy the ability to hit through the line as well as leave on length—a concept ingrained into the fabric of Australian batsmen.
The hosts will not have to contend with endless barrages of spin from Graeme Swann, will not have to endure savage reverse swing during the middle overs, for the Australian conditions and the Kookaburra ball don't accommodate such an approach.
Australia's bowlers, meanwhile, will also benefit from the added spice in the wickets, given that the team's varied attack is derived from a very strong domestic bowling contingent at present.
Peter Siddle will be beside himself when he lays eyes on a pitch that owns a tinge of green. Ditto for Jackson Bird. Nathan Lyon will also enjoy the added pace in the Australian wickets, given that he was forced to watch his tweakers turn slower than his country's fortunes in England.
As for Ryan Harris, one can only imagine what he's capable of if presented with a favourite strip.
Yet conditions won't be the only factor aiding the hosts. The team's steady improvement over the course of this summer's series saw them slow England's momentum.
Chris Rogers became the dependable opener the team so desperately needed. In partnership with the contrasting Warner, Australia's opening pair looks as settled and balanced as it's been in a long time.
Watson may also have found his place in the order, smashing 176 at number three at The Oval before producing much the same in the final match of the ODI series in Southampton in the very same slot. With Watson and the ever-improving Smith either side of their captain Clarke, Australia have stumbled across a lineup that appears capable of reversing the team's fortunes.
That Australia had four of the six highest run scorers in the concluded series demonstrates the team's potential.
Yet that blind discovery of the team's best apparent lineup has also left Australia looking far more settled than they have previously. The pulling of names out of a hat appears to be on its way out, as calm and sense begins to prevail. Selectors should already have nine certainties for the 11 places ahead of the first Test in Brisbane.
Darren Lehmann appears to be responsible for much of that new sense of poise. His ability to unite players, to galvanise his team, has Australia looking a more settled unit. That has led to the rediscovery of the team's identity, with the most recent Ashes series providing evidence that Australia are once again settling into their traditional role as the aggressors.
A return to that combative approach has also revealed chinks in England's armour.
Jonathan Trott can expect to smell more leather than a boot maker in Australia, such is his vulnerability to the short ball. Alastair Cook and Joe Root will also be worked over by the team's impressive pace bowling unit.
Of course, Cook will be returning to the stage of his greatest achievement, but one gets the sense Australia don't hold the same fear for the England captain that was clearly evident a year or two ago.
Matt Prior also has precious little time to turn around his game, following a disastrous Ashes series with the bat at home this summer. Once again, Australia appear to have identified the lingering weaknesses that exist within his abilities.
England's third seamer will also be targeted Down Under. Steven Finn was treated with contempt at Trent Bridge, Chris Tremlett has had a less-than-impressive county season, while Boyd Rankin and Ben Stokes are untried at Test level.
With the reliable Tim Bresnan missing through injury and the dependable Graham Onions surprisingly left out, it appears England have fallen into the alluring trap of sending only the nation's more brisk speedsters to the quicker wickets Down Under.
Variety has been substituted for raw, yet unpredictable pace. The hosts will be delighted.
Of course these factors will need to wield significant influence to reverse the scoreline from the recent series. England's comprehensive victory in this summer's Ashes should not be forgotten, nor should the team's current unbeaten streak of 13 Tests.
Yet, despite the scoreline, the Ashes appeared to mark a turning point for Australia. A team that entered the English summer as a disheveled, fractured group left for Australia as an outfit with growing confidence and a renewed identity.
So while the odds may not suggest Australia are favourites to reclaim the Urn, the hearts and minds of cricket fans worldwide will know the hosts are extremely good value.
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