England in fine form for Ashes glory

GUNG-HO is how I felt when I used to arrive in Australia for an Ashes series. Outwardly at least, I’d be brimming with confidence.

‘Come on lads, let’s go and win this’, I’d say as I stepped off the plane. But deep down I think I knew that if we were to triumph we’d have to have a good day and the Aussies a bad day. This time it’s different. England have every reason to feel confident as they prepare for the first Test, which starts at midnight tonight.

They are on a fantastic run, everyone is fit and performing well; the team’s preparation has been nigh on flawless. England seem to have climbed a few rungs on the world cricket ladder, while Australia have come down a couple. The task can’t be underestimated, though.

Winning at home is one thing, as England did last year, but repeating the trick in their back yard would be an outstanding achievement. I’m optimistic, if a little cautious, but, more than that, I’m hugely excited about watching the biggest series of all.

BOWLING: 9
The line-up is very strong and looks to have all bases covered. Anderson brings swing and experience, there are two big lads in Broad and Finn, while Swann can play a dual role, supporting the seam bowler or being aggressive. I’ll be fascinated to see how he performs: rightly billed as the best spinner in the world, all eyes are on him to shine in this series. His rise has been building to this and I think he’ll deliver. Finn is a slight unknown. But he’s young, fit and tall, and bowls at 90mph. If he’s the weak link they’ll be alright.

BATTING: 8
It was great to see Cook rediscover his form recently because he is a class player – just look at his stats. Others have also started the tour well. Bell shone against Australia A and has found mental toughness. Collingwood can grind out a score, Trott can build and there’s wag in the tail – perhaps unlike when I was playing. Prior looks to play shots, Swann and Broad can get runs. Australia will look to target Strauss but he thrives on responsibility and I fancy him to relish that challenge.

CONFIDENCE:?8
They are justifiably full of belief heading into the series. The bowlers have gelled and work as a unit, as have the batsmen, and the whole squad has been very well prepared by Strauss and Flower. Having said that, as soon as the competition gets underway the pressure really ramps up and it’s a different kettle of fish altogether. A good start is going to be so crucial but if England can get one then I think they will really have the edge over Australia.

l PLAYING IN AUSTRALIA: 7
Conditions will be less familiar for England, so they’ll have to adapt. But they’ve had a thorough preparation for the series and started to practice with the Kookaburra ball, which will swing for the first 20 overs and play a significant part, months ago. They’ve got a range of bowlers, while Monty Panesar will show how good he is if they opt for a second spinner. England may get stick but it’s a knowledgeable crowd so if they do well it’ll be recognised.

BIG GAME MENTALITY: 8
Ruthlessness when it matters is a trait that England have lacked; they’ve been notorious for not taking the chance to hammer the final nail into the opposition’s coffin. Now, though, I think they’ve learned how to do that and are better than Australia in that respect. Strauss and Flower have made them into a consistent unit that seizes the opportunity and, if a Test is there to be won, they go and win it.

CAPTAIN: 8
Strauss has had his doubters but has made all the right noises, all the right moves and has gone from strength to strength. He is one of the boys but also the right stature to lead the side. While I’m sure he can give the hairdryer treatment when necessary, and can be ruthless at times, he’s generally a very calm, assured kind of guy with a rock-solid inner determination and he imbues the team with those qualities. He is also very well supported by coach Andy Flower and the pair have struck up a fantastic relationship.

CAPTAIN: 7
A fabulous batsman, Ponting is Aussie through and through. He is nuggety, will get stuck in, scrap, spit and fight for the cause. His leadership is good but does get decisions wrong, such as not playing a spinner at the Oval in the deciding fifth Test of the last series. He perhaps found it easier to lead the side when he came in – even I could have captained that team – but now he faces a career defining moment. If he loses this he won’t be remembered as a great skipper but as one who lost three Ashes series.

BOWLING: 7
Johnson is a world-class performer but goes through bad patches. He can be great, or all over the shop, as he was at Lord’s last year. Australia don’t have performers with the impact of a Shane Warne or a Glenn McGrath any more, and I feel England can get stuck into their bowlers. Even if they do well you’d still fancy England to have chances. Spinner Doherty was a surprise choice and the key question for me is how well he is able to perform.

BATTING: 7
They always have a decent batting line-up, and this is no exception, although they are short of confidence. Watson is great at getting runs but I’m not sure about him as an opening batsman. Clarke, an injury doubt, is a good player and Ponting, whatever anyone says about his skills as a captain, is undoubtedly a class batsman. But you feel they are susceptible to a collapse and that the middle order can be got at. England will look to attack the likes of North and Katich.

PLAYING IN AUSTRALIA: 9
The Aussies will of course know the surfaces and the Kookaburra ball better, and be more familiar with the weather, so those factors should work in their favour. The surface at Sydney traditionally spins, Perth is bouncy, while in Brisbane it’ll swing and bounce. Australia will also have a hostile home crowd on their side. England will get sledged, they’ll get stick, but then I always quite enjoyed and relished that, so it can provide extra motivation.

BIG GAME MENTALITY: 7
Spectacular collapses used to be the preserve of the English but Australia seem the more likely to do that now, especially judging by some of their Ashes warm-up matches. Looking way back, if the Aussies found themselves 150-5 they would so often carve out a 320 from somewhere and get themselves back into the contest. They seem to have lost that trait while England have found a killer instinct they previously lacked.