Second-ranked England will head into the series as favourites
London, 8 July
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 were messing up the defence of their Champions Trophy title — the final straw for their under-fire coach — as England marched towards 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 August 25 — as the big favourites.
Their bowlers look a cut above their rivals, particularly in English conditions and with James Anderson continuing to extract plenty of movement, while the brilliant Kevin Pietersen is back fit after knee problems to strengthen their batting line-up.
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.