Thursday, 2 July 2015

England Will Have to Bury Their Demons if They Want to Regain the Ashes

Cast your mind back to November 2013 and you might remember Australia captain Michael Clarke warning Jimmy Anderson to 'get ready for a broken fucken arm'. Clarke may not have delivered on that promise, but at the end of the last Ashes series Anderson and his England teammates were certainly left broken in every other sense of the word.

England weren't just beaten in that series, they were thrashed, outplayed and humiliated. There was a devastating routine of David Warner flashing the early warning blades before Mitchell Johnson essentially paraded around Australian cricket grounds with the heads of England's hapless batsmen on a pitchfork.

The Aussies were relentless and the 5-0 whitewash delivered a blow that English cricket is just about recovering from. Since the last time these two foes went head to head, England have had to reshuffle their management and playing staff, and have mustered just one Test series win in contrast to Australia's three.

In international sport when two sides are closely matched, a team is not expected to lose in the manner that England did one and a half years ago, especially having beaten the same opponents just a few months earlier.

To win the Ashes, however, requires more than simply having a better team, and the Australians drove England into the ground both physically and mentally. The Aussies bullied Alastair Cook's team into a position where it was as if they no longer had the right to win a game of cricket, and the margins of defeat speak volumes for how psychologically spent England were.

That's why if England are to have any hope of regaining the Ashes this summer, they have to wrestle back the mental edge that currently resides firmly in the Australian corner.

The psychological side of professional sport is often underestimated, and playing the perfect cover drive isn't so easy on a nippy surface at Lords with eleven Australians crowded round the bat persistently chirping away about your shoddy technique.

When captain Cook first comes to the crease for England next week, you can be sure that the Aussies won't be shy of reminding him about the last series down under, and might even find a way to wriggle the touchy subject of Kevin Pietersen into their sledges.

It's easy to forget that just a couple of years ago England were asserting the kind of ascendancy that is now being associated with the tourists. Indeed, it wasn't long ago that Jimmy Anderson was bringing his finger to his mouth to silence a chirpy Mitchell Johnson after comprehensively bowling Ryan Harris.

However, perhaps Johnson's personal revival is a microcosm of the shift in fortunes between England and Australia. Contrary to the Barmy Army's chant, Johnson no longer bowls many to the left or the right and his bowling is far from shite.  

The Aussies appear to enjoy each other's company and are an extremely cohesive unit. They come across a bit like the cool kids at school, the jocks who everyone else is afraid to stand up to, and at the moment England are the vulnerable students who always get their lunch money stolen off them. Johnson is the intimidating ring leader who always gets his own way, taking wicket after wicket while his chums whoop and high five around him. 

Johnson was certainly pivotal to the series whitewash in Australia. He dominated English batsmen with a speed and hostility which lifted his teammates. However, if England can silence Johnson, they will go some way to silencing the Australians. The 33-year-old is not in the form he was in 2013, and if England can get on top of him early we may not see the same snarling Johnson who haunted English nightmares two Christmases ago.          

The Australian's have already begun to try and exert some form of mental advantage over their Pommy counterparts. Number one media cheerleader Shane Warne has warned Jimmy Anderson that he will 'cop it' from the Aussies, while the Cricket Australia Twitter account recently tweeted a simple message: 'See you soon, @englandcricket... #Ashes', accompanied by an image of Steve Smith doing his best to stare into English souls.

The baby faced Smith doesn't strike the same fear as the brutish Matthew Hayden or menacing Brett Lee of old, but the 26-year-old's recent record is certainly cause for alarm. He endured a torrid time during his first tour of England, but since then has become the number one ranked Test batsman in the world and has averaged  102 in the last year.

England do, however, have an answer to Smith in the equally gifted Joe Root. Since being dropped for the Sydney Test in 2014, Root has averaged over 100 with the bat and established himself as the obvious successor to Cook as captain. With so many parallels being drawn between the two young talents, it would be surprising if the form of Root and Smith doesn't have a big impact on the
destination of the urn.

According to form, Australia have earned their position as favourites for the series, but they shouldn't be made overwhelmingly so. The Aussies have had a tendency to rely on Smith and their bowlers digging them out of holes which is a department where they may have the edge. England might have flattered to deceive since last facing the old enemy, but are coming dangerously close to figuring out what their best team is.

Think back to the first morning of the 2005 series. England's bowlers peppered the Australian's with an aggression which let their opponents know they were in a battle. Whether it's Stuart Broad, Mark Wood, or one of England's top order batsmen ambushing the Aussies in Cardiff, England have to make sure they do just that.

I don't agree with the idea that England have to adapt to the 'brand' of all out attacking Test cricket to win the Ashes, as New Zealand showed that it can reap its benefits one week but fail spectacularly the next. However, if England don't allow the Aussies to bog them down it will give the new breed of Root, Stokes and Butler the freedom to express the flair they have in abundance by taking the game to Australia.

This Ashes series should be a lot closer than many are anticipating. England may not regain the urn, but they shouldn't crash as miserably as they did in Australia. They are not coming up against an invincible team - there is no McGrath, no Gilchrist and no Warne for them to fear.

This English side must bury its demons and learn the lessons from one and a half years ago, and the only way they will let themselves down in this series is if they allow this Australian side to look as good as they think they are.  

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