Australia hold the Ashes after winning the last series Down Under, but they have been unable to get their hands on the urn over here since 2001.
Home advantage has proved a powerful asset for the hosts but even so, for a team that nearly always boasts a potent bowling unit, it has been a long drought for the Aussies to bear and one the current crop, led by Pat Cummins, will be looking to end this summer.
Cummins has yet to play a Test in England, so the forthcoming Ashes will be a novelty. The infirmity caused by numerous back injuries that blighted his early career appears to have become more manageable and while he has played just 20 Tests, he has become Australia’s go-to bowler in an attack not short of slouches, assuming the selectors pick Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood as his main accomplices.
The trio, with perhaps James Pattinson and Mitchell Marsh in reserve, are likely to be backed by Nathan Lyon’s off-spin.
That main trio, if you switch Mitchell Johnson for Cummins, more or less did their bidding over here in 2015, a series the Aussies lost 3-2, though England’s second defeat, in the final Test at the Kia Oval, did come after they had already regained the Ashes.
As such, it can be discounted from the forthcoming analysis.
The question many have asked, given that England had been whitewashed in the preceding Ashes, in Australia, is how does an attack, so effective and clinical on the hard, true pitches of the Southern Hemisphere, lose that edge when it travels north?
Sure, different balls are used, Dukes rather than Kookaburras, but by broad consensus that should improve their lot. After all, the red Duke, which in the spirit of preparedness has been used in half of this season’s State games, possesses a seam that remains prominent for 50 overs plus, and that despite recent tinkering to reduce its bite.
One possible explanation for the Aussie pace bowlers’ reduced mojo in England is the way they plan and then go about taking wickets.
In Australia, with Kookaburra in hand, they try to strike with swing or seam for the first 10 overs, or until the shine on the ball is reduced and the seam goes soft. Thereafter, a tough, disciplined strategy that mixes aggression, through bouncers and sledging, with line and length will ensue – the line in question a few inches wider of off-stump than would be the case in England, the length 2-3 yards shorter.
On some pitches, ones that tend to offer little in terms of seam movement, and Lord’s in the 2015 Ashes was a good example, those Aussie-style plans can be executed perfectly well. Part of the picture there, though, was that the docility of the pitch allowed Australia’s batsmen to post a big total in the first innings – 566-8 applying a goodly amount of scoreboard pressure.
In a reprise of the defeats they suffered in Australia, England got thumped in that Test though its manner was an isolated incident. Elsewhere, groundsmen ensured pitches offered the pace bowlers more for longer, with series-winning results.
It is when the ball nibbles around a bit that Australia’s quick men tend to trail their English counterparts. With overall scores tending to reduce whenever movement occurs, there is a premium for bowlers to get the ball in the right place more frequently. With that comes the increased risk of bowling an easy score ball. Yet, England’s bowlers have been brought up on bowling full and straight, a strategy that tends to bring wickets here but leaks runs in Australia.
For that reason, Australian bowling actions tend to be grooved to hit the pitch just short of a good length, as a means of building pressure through run preservation. Come to England, though, while Cummins and Hazlewood in particular will know they need to pitch the ball fuller (Starc bowls pretty full anyway), there will be the tendency to put it there rather than bowl it there, just because it feels that little bit less natural.
Ironically, given he played for England, Andy Caddick often did the same. His natural length, which would hit the splice of the bat hard, could be two yards short of the optimum for some pitches. But ask him to get it that bit further up and he’d float it there – and that does not bother good batsmen.
One Aussie who had no trouble in readjusting was Glenn McGrath, who used to take hatfuls of wickets in England, especially at Lord’s. In the famous 2005 Ashes, which England won 2-1, Australia lost only those Tests which McGrath missed through injury.
Naturally, there is more to Australia’s lack of success in England these past 18 years than their bowlers failing to hit the right lengths and lines. Their batsmen, too, struggle when the ball is moving, hard hands and a desire to dominate proving a suspect combination against seam and swing.
And that is what England must prey on. Keep the batting in check and bowling tends to be less effective as they have to adopt strategies unnatural to them. But let them get enough runs on the board and the bowlers can resort to familiar ploys and comfort zones – and we don’t want that.
DEREK PRINGLE / Photo: Getty Images