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Where There’s Smoke

England have a lot of work to do to salvage their cricket woes.’s Iain Turner measures up the challenges as the Ashes blow into town.

The Ashes are looming but not until after we have “enjoyed” the tour from the West Indies and the 20/20 World Cup. It’s not a bad way to start the summer but the main course arrives later when the Australians come to play ball.

Not for the first time England are in turmoil. With more managerial changes than the (Car) Toon Army under the ownership of Mike Ashley, England have moved on from Peter Moores. It’s a sad state of affairs when only one candidate emerges, in this instance Andy Flower, for the top position within the English cricket team.

Like Duncan Fletcher before him, Flower is Zimbabwean and during his Test Career, he averaged over 50 in over 60 matches. In accumulating 4,794 runs, he topped the rankings ahead of Sachin Tendulkar, Steve Waugh and Brian Lara. Not bad for someone from the pub team that was Zimbabwe for most of his career.

Perhaps his first challenge, especially in The Ashes, will be to stop the tendency England have developed in losing the First Test. It’s something that has been going on since 2005 and he has already looked into addressing this after the innings defeat during the winter to West Indies at Sabina Park.

Thankfully, this year the first test is at Sabina Park, Cardiff, instead of Lords where England have a dismal record against Australia. Lords now becomes the venue for the second Test.

It will be interesting at Cardiff, a venue which has replaced Old Trafford in the Test Match list for this tour. Only the ECB, in a Series where we have to try and be as competitive as possible, would they replace a venue (Old Trafford) where England have only lost once since 1998. It seems a ridiculous decision to make, and one which may come back and haunt them come the end of the summer.

A new captain but the same issues remain. If England are going to win anything they are reliant on Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff finding top form for the whole summer and not just five days. If the pair of them are injured or below form this year, then The Ashes will not be regained. End of story. The bowlers do not look capable of taking 20 wickets in a match without Flintoff and the batsmen don’t look capable of scoring runs quick enough without Pietersen.

With a resurgent Paul Collingwood in the line-up and Stuart Broad showing signs of becoming a true international performer, the batting line-up does show signs of strength as long as England can find a true Number three. Will Michael Vaughan come back into the line-up? Will Ian Bell convince another team of selectors he is good enough for another year? Will Owais Shah develop into the player he threatens to be at times or does the answer lie elsewhere?

Personally, I would like to see Pietersen at three. A position he has not had much success in recently but the Series against West Indies could be the perfect chance to test him. Collingwood could be tried at number four before Flintoff at five and Ravi Bopara at six. Bopara has long been considered one of the most talented and attacking batsmen in the country and this would be his chance, under a manager who played with him at Essex, to prove to all his talents.

The other two big decisions focus on the wicketkeeper and spinner. I have a sneaky feeling that James Foster will be recalled to the England team as wicketkeeper. Like Bopara, he played with Flower at Essex and was promoted to the England team when he was too young. He has now matured playing county cricket and could finally be the answer to the problem which has been posed since the retirement of Alec Stewart.

Wading in the Talent Pool

The transitional stage which England find themselves in at the moment is similar to what is happening with Australia at the moment. Out have gone the old guard who destroyed England in the last Series, and England have been replaced with Phillip Hughes, Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus. Hardly household names at the start of the summer, but there is a real danger that counties are being detrimental to the chances of the national team this year. Young Australian players are being given the chance of experiencing English conditions in county cricket this year ahead of the Tour. Another baffling decision.

It’s sure to be a fantastic series and I just hope the weather holds and we have a fantastic summer of cricket. In terms of betting, I think the winning score will be 2-1 but I cannot decide to whom. With young players on both sides, I do believe that whoever wins the first Test will go onto win the overall Series.

As for top batsmen and bowlers for each side, I think these are the markets we can find some value. If, as I think, Pietersen will be promoted to three, then he may struggle to make the big scores we have become accustomed to, and the top English batsman might be Paul Collingwood. The Australian attack isn’t as feared as it once was and he should be facing the lesser bowlers. Plus, there’s no Shane Warne to face this year. For the Australians, I don’t think there’s anything to take the honour away from Ricky Ponting, who should lead from the front and take the Australian batting honours.

The top bowlers will be slightly harder to predict but I think this is the summer when Broad proves himself as a top performer for England and Johnson becomes a household name for Australia. If, Brett Lee resumes full fitness he will take wickets but with doubts I’d suggest Ponting would prefer to use him in short spells.

With two evenly matched, developing squads, all we need now is some good weather and we should have another fantastic series. However, it will have to go some to beat the previous series in England.
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