England v Australia, Ashes 2015: With the Series Level at 1-1, Which Side Has the Upper Hand ahead of the Edgbaston Test?

At the beginning of The Ashes 2015, very few, if at all any, gave England the chance of beating Australia despite them being the home side.

Such was the visitors’ imperious fettle that had seen them register comfortable Test series wins over India and West Indies, home and away respectively, in their last two assignments, and just looked the better of the two sides on paper, too.

The hosts, on the other hand, had drawn their last two Test series against West Indies and New Zealand, away and home respectively, and needed to start off well to have any chance of causing Australia a few problems. On paper, they were an okay side that needed its batting lineup to deliver the goods against an incisive Aussie pace battery comprising of Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood.

The other significant dimension to the 5-match Test series was the nature of the pitches England would have preferred playing Australia on. Given the hostility of Australia’s bowling attack, the Poms ideally needed less bowler-friendly wickets, so that they could bridge the gap between themselves and the Kangaroos by batting well.

Two Test matches have concluded, and the series is tied 1-1. The 3rd Test begins in Edgbaston on July 29th, Wednesday, and which of these two sides will go into it having the upper hand?

Read on…

Things went perfectly to plan for England in the first Test in Cardiff, where they won by 169 runs and more importantly, produced a comprehensive performance with both the bat and ball. Joe Root scored a scintillating century (134) – to rescue his team out of trouble after they were 3/43 when the 24-year old walked in – in the first innings that also saw the likes of Gary Ballance, Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes make crucial half-centuries, helping England get to 430.

The English bowlers then backed up the good show put up by their batsmen, bowling out Australia twice in the Test match that finished well within 4 days. The home team was cock-a-hoop after beating and laying down a challenge to the current holders of the Ashes Urn.

Australia, as they so often do, responded emphatically in the second Test at Lord’s, making the most of a good batting wicket and putting up a whopping 566 in the first innings, after Clarke had won the toss and chosen to bat first. England, though, folded up meekly twice with the bat, as Cook and Stokes scored the only half-centuries for their side in a match that they lost by a gargantuan 405 runs.

For Australia, Johnson came back strongly after an unimpressive showing with the ball in the first Test, and their batting lineup, which performed way below expectations in Cardiff, put up a much better show at the home of cricket and in truth, provided the platform for their side to go on and clinch the victory.

Cook, following the defeat at Lord’s, asserted that the first couple of days of the next Test match will be important and his side has to respond in the same way Australia did in London.

England, it is fair to say, won the first Test playing on a surface that their batsmen could score runs on, though the Aussie bowlers did well to bowl the opposition out twice.

Looking ahead to the next Test, the Edgbaston pitch has offered assistance to the bowlers in recent years and the average first innings score of 243 in the last five Test matches played by England at this venue is evidence of that. The groundsman, Gary Barwell, has also promised to dish out a pitch that offers good carry and bounce, which can’t be all that a good news if you are an English supporter. It would mean the Australian bowlers can only get more lethal after skittling out the hosts in both innings of the Lord’s Test played on what was a relatively benign pitch.

However, having said that, playing on a slightly bowler-friendly pitch will also give a chance for the English seamers to test out the batting techniques of the likes of Chris Rogers, David Warner and Steve Smith – arguably the three most in-form Australian batsmen currently.

After what had happened in the first Test, I staunchly felt that it was England’s good showing with the bat, that went a long way in them going onto win the match. And for them to continue having a stranglehold of Australia, they needed their batting lineup to keep up with the good work, which wasn’t to be in the second Test.

Ahead of the 3rd Test, Jonny Bairstow has made a comeback to the Test side after 18 months, with England possibly hoping that he will recreate the same magic he did against New Zealand – albeit in a different format – a month ago, scoring an unbeaten 83(60) and taking his side to a series win in the final ODI, in which he replaced the injured Jos Buttler.

This scenario, though, is different and it remains to be seen if he can come up with the goods, despite him having a good county season with the bat so far and more obtrusively, will be going into the Edgbaston Test on the back of scoring a 139 and 74* for Yorkshire last week. Bairstow replacing Ballance can only mean one thing: he will bat at No.5, with Root or Ian Bell batting at No.3. However, England’s struggles in the series have been at the top, with Cook and Adam Lyth struggling to get their team off to a good start in each of the four innings.

In the bowling department, the form of James Anderson will be slightly worrying, as the 32-year old has now gone 3 innings without taking a wicket. Stuart Broad has been England’s leading bowler with 9 wickets in the series while Ali has been more than a handful – with 8 wickets – as an off-spinner, too. At this stage, I don’t think England should worry about their bowling, which will come good if the batsmen put the runs on the board.

Shifting focus to Australia, their batsmen, including the seemingly impenetrable Smith, got out playing lackadaisical shots in the first Test and in many ways, were ‘the’ reason for their side losing the match. But, as aforementioned, they turned it around in the second Test, with Smith and Rogers scoring daddy hundreds and the former scripting a magnificent 215, an innings during which he had 89% control over the shots he played. And unlike England, Australia’s top order has fired over the two Test matches and that is one area where the visitors definitely have got the better of their opponents so far.

The Kangaroos’ strength, though, lies in their bowling and the quartet of Johnson, Hazlewood, Starc and Nathan Lyon, who has picked up 9 wickets in the 2 Tests, have already shown that they are going to be hard to stop regardless of the nature of the playing surface.

Australia, with their dominant win in the second Test and more importantly, by producing an all-round display, showed what they can do when they get their act together. England definitely would have got back to the drawing board this week and assessed how they imploded so alarmingly after playing really well, to everyone’s surprise, in the first Test. They really have a massive task on their hands to put Australia off their stride, again, and this time, it is not going to be easy.

Final Thought

The series is level at 1-1 and the nine-day gap between the 2nd and 3rd Tests has given England the chance to reflect and work on their game. In the meanwhile, Australia’s 3-day tour game against Derby ended in a draw yesterday, with their batsmen – Warner (101) and Mitchell Marsh (53), as players who are expected to feature in the 3rd Test – scoring crucial runs for their own confidence and rhythm, and hoping to continue the good work they did in the second Test. From England’s perspective, the concept is very simple: their batsmen ought to score runs if they are to come back into the series. Failing which will see it go only one way, and that is Australia continuing to build on the momentum gathered from their 405-run win at Lord’s.

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