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Ashes preview: Australia looks to upset form book, regain Ashes

London, July 8: It was barely a month ago that Australian cricket was in the midst of a crisis, on and off the pitch, and Ian Botham was brazenly predicting back-to-back Ashes whitewashes by England.England's
ashes preview australia looks to upset form book...
India TV News Desk July 09, 2013 16:28 IST
London, July 8: It was barely a month ago that Australian cricket was in the midst of a crisis, on and off the pitch, and Ian Botham was brazenly predicting back-to-back Ashes whitewashes by England.

England's star batsman was making a perfectly timed return from injury while Australia's captain was laid low with a troublesome back problem.

And Australia was messing up the defense of its Champions Trophy title — the final straw for its under-fire coach — as England marched toward the final.

The tourists' Ashes chances weren't just being doubted, but completely written off.

"Given that we've got back-to-back Ashes series between now and January, if we get a good summer — and you rarely lose too many days to rain in Australia — make that 10-0," England great Botham predicted.

"I'm serious. Why not? We're that much better. All it needs is the players to believe they can do it."

Two days ahead of the first test at Trent Bridge and things have changed.

Having hit rock bottom after a string of off-field disciplinary issues, a test series whitewash in India and a group exit in the Champions Trophy, Australia fired coach Mickey Arthur and replaced him with Darren 'Boof' Lehmann — a stereotypical, no-nonsense Aussie owning a wily cricket brain and not unaccustomed to a beer and cigarette.

The result? A galvanized touring squad — boosted by the return to fitness of captain Michael Clarke — and the reigniting of belief that Australia can win back the famous urn in one of sport's great rivalries.

"We're just trying to get better at the game of cricket and better at life, I suppose," Lehmann said, philosophically. "You'll see the side having a laugh and enjoying themselves."

The second-ranked England will still head into the eagerly anticipated five-test series — spread over seven weeks, starting in Nottingham on Wednesday and ending in London on Aug. 25 — as the big favorites.

Their bowlers look a cut above their rivals, particularly in English conditions and with Jimmy Anderson continuing to extract plenty of movement, while the brilliant Kevin Pietersen is back fit after knee problems to strengthen their batting lineup. His fall-out with team management that marred the end of last year's test series against South Africa has largely been forgotten.

Not since 1981 have the English won three straight Ashes series, but few are betting against them achieving that feat once again.

Under coach Andy Flower, England has never been a team to get too carried away, and it will have looked at Australia's recent tour matches over Somerset and Worcestershire and seen their batsmen plunder plenty of runs.

And don't be fooled by Lehmann's happy-go-lucky persona, either. "Jump on board and enjoy the ride," was Lehmann's message when he took over as Arthur's replacement but underneath it all, there is a fierce determination to restore pride to the Baggy Green cap.

"If we don't play well, it doesn't matter if we are favorites or not," said Anderson, England's strike bowler.

"You can be favorites on paper and have a stronger team on paper, possibly, and when you get on the field it is a completely different story. We have to concentrate on playing well."

If the series is anything like those in England in 2005 and '09, fans are in for a thriller.

During those summers, cricket fever gripped England, with players such as Andrew Flintoff, Michael Vaughan and Pietersen becoming household names and national icons.

This time around, the status of Anderson, Pietersen and captain Alastair Cook is already secure but it's time for youngsters like batsmen Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and paceman Steven Finn to make their name.

England's team appears settled now that Root has replaced Nick Compton as Cook's fellow opener. The only lingering question is who of Finn, Tim Bresnan or Graham Onions joins Anderson and Stuart Broad in the pace attack.

But there is uncertainty over Australia's lineup, with the batting department still not finalized and David Warner's disciplinary problems leading to a review of the opening pair.

Lehmann has gone with veteran Chris Rogers, whose only test cap came back in 2008, and the free-hitting Shane Watson, back in form and favor after being one of four players dropped in the incident later dubbed "Homeworkgate" during the ill-fated tour of India.

Clarke, crucially, is fit again and will be a key figure as the tourists take the fight to opponents that embarrassed them 3-1 Down Under in the 2010-11 series.

There is no Ricky Ponting or Mike Hussey, whose international retirements last year were another blow to a nation still adjusting to life after the golden era of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist et al.

However, as the British and Irish Lions rugby team almost discovered to their cost, Australian sportsmen love nothing more than succeeding when the odds are stacked against them.

"Beware the wounded cricketer," former Australia batsman Matthew Hayden said three years ago ahead of the last Ashes series.

England has been warned.
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