25th Jun 2012 7:35am | By Tom Sturrock
In any series between England and Australia, pride is on the line. It will be no different this week.
It’s hard to know what to make of the five-match ODI series between Australia and England which kicks off at Lord’s on Friday. It’s not an Ashes year – we’re 12 months away from those hostilities being renewed – so it’s a whirlwind trip for the Aussies, who are really just stopping in to say hello. But that doesn’t mean either team will be happy to come off second-best – perish the thought. Bragging rights, as always, are on the line.
So, with that in mind, and taking into account that the forthcoming Test series between England and South is the main event, what might this inopportunely fixtured series tell us about the two sides?
In Test cricket, Australia have been knocked off their perch – although they’ve scrapped their way back to third in the rankings – but have somehow remained top of the tree in 50-over cricket. That’s partly because 50-over cricket is seen as a waning format but also because Australia still produces cricketers suited to it. That said, this Australian side is vulnerable – it’s still relatively early in the four-year cycle between World Cups so sides are experimenting with personnel, which means results can fluctuate wildly.
At home, England, despite being never reaching any great heights in this format, might just fancy themselves. They’ve already got a fair bit of cricket under their belt this season, whereas the Aussies will be coming in cold. Let’s not get crazy, but you could argue England start favourites.
Ricky Ponting’s retirement has left a massive hole in the Australian line-up and while this team has moved on with some success under Michael Clarke, no one is any the wiser about who will fill Ponting’s shoes at first-drop. Shane Watson dropped down the order immediately after Ponting pulled up stumps but it’s likely he will go back up to open, with either George Bailey or Peter Forrest given a crack at cementing the No 3 position. Neither have set the world on fire for their states, so they’re still speculative selections.
The unfinished appearance of this Australian top order is further reinforced by the absence of Mike Hussey, who has chosen to stay at home following the birth of his child. There are still some very handy cricketers in Watson, Clarke and David Hussey but the line-up is unsettled.
If Australia’s new faces in the top order don’t exactly inspire confidence, the young pacemen picked for this tour have already done enough to suggest they have bright futures. James Pattinson, 22, and Pat Cummins, 19, are the two most exciting young Australian quicks to have come along for a generation – Cummins took seven wickets on Test debut against South Africa and Pattinson ripped through India during the Australian summer. The fact they’re in the squad suggests they’re very much in the frame for next year’s Ashes.
The attack is likely to rely heavily on Ben Hilfenhaus and the deceptively effective Clint McKay, while Mitchell Johnson is trying to revive his career after nine months away from the international game.
When Andrew Strauss decided to bow out of 50-over cricket picking his replacement was not straightforward. Alastair Cook, the heir-apparent in Test cricket was not really the flavour of the month, having been left out of the ODI squad in favour of more explosive options at the top of the order. Still, Cook was installed as captain and, so far, it has paid dividends, Cook scoring 923 runs at an average of 50-plus.
Cook becomes even more important following Kevin Pietersen’s retirement from limited-overs cricket. Jonathon Trott has an impressive record but scores slowly by modern standards, while Eoin Morgan is a wonderfully versatile finisher – after that, England are back into Ian Bell and Ravi Bopara, who haven’t taken their opportunities.
England might well say, “We’re the top-ranked Test side in the world – who cares about 50-over cricket?” Still, it remains a point of considerable mystery that England, despite their first-class fixtures being saturated with limited-overs cricket, remain so bafflingly ineffective in the 50-over game. At Test level, the likes of Cook, Trott, Bell, Broad and Anderson are undeniably world-class. But if you put them in coloured clothing, they seem to collectively lose the plot.
Part of it is team selection – great white hopes have been promoted without doing their time and the search continues for a decent all-rounder, capable of smashing a few runs before holding an end up for half a dozen overs.
It’s a pity that Pietersen has decided he can’t be bothered playing limited-overs cricket any more – and even more of a pity that he didn’t stick around for once last go at the Aussies. Just knowing that Pietersen was out there, looking mildly obnoxious and pretending not to be South African, gave matches between England and Australia that extra bit of impetus. Not only was his a dynamic, high-stakes shot-maker but he was a wonderful hate-figure.
England will have to figure out a way to replace – at least partially. It means Jonny Bairstow and Craig Kieswetter will get plenty more chances but will either ever be as brilliantly dislikeable as KP? Alas, no.