Preview: England middle order holds the key
A formidable Aussie pace attack means England cannot rely solely on their prolific top-order batting
Australia have spoken about a possible weakness in England’s middle-order ahead of the two sides’ five-match ODI series, which starts at Lord’s this Friday. Of course, it is typical of the Aussies to brazenly point out the opposition weaknesses.
Nevertheless, they are right to pinpoint England's middle order as one of the keys to the series. England’s strength – playing five specialist bowlers – does necessitate weakening the batting slightly, which means Tim Bresnan is batting at seven. And England’s top three batsmen have been so prolific of late that the middle-order of Ravi Bopara, Eoin Morgan and Craig Kieswetter has largely been untested.
They will be tested by Australia. Although England's openers have contributed six hundreds in the last six games, Australia possess a much more formidable array of pace bowlers than either Pakistan this winter, or recent visitors West Indies.
Brett Lee has lost a little pace, but makes up for it with his experience and plenty of variations. And England fans have a chance to see two exciting young fast bowlers, James Pattinson and Pat Cummins, for the first time. The 19-year-old Cummins is only 19, but he took seven wickets on debut in South Africa and bowls consistently at 90mph. Pattinson, who is 22, also has real pace and swings the ball.
And Australia have other good seam bowling options in Clint McKay, Mitchell Johnson and Ben Hilfenhaus. Allrounder Shane Watson can bowl a few decent overs of medium pace.
At some stage England will lose a couple of early wickets and the middle-order will come under pressure. Kieswetter, at six, still has much to prove and it seems absurd that the Test match wicketkeeper-batsman Matt Prior has been rejected as a one-day player. There is obviously no logical reason why such an aggressive and free-scoring batsman cannot thrive in this format.
It’s true that Prior has struggled for runs in ODIs, but that used to be true of both Alastair Cook and Ian Bell. They have come good through playing their Test match styles with a touch more aggression. For Prior the transition should be even easier and he can take inspiration from their success.
Australia’s batting line-up is deeper and more physically powerful than England’s. The explosive Shane Watson made 161 and 136 against England during the last tour and his opening partner David Warner made two centuries in the finals of the recent CB series with India and Sri Lanka. Aussie captain Michael Clarke is in the form of his life.
Ricky Ponting is no longer in the squad and Michael Hussey is absent for family reasons, but Australia still bat deep. Most of their bowlers can slog effectively at the death and their wicket-keeper batsman Matthew Wade is a wonderful striker of a cricket ball at number seven.
England will be challenged by a talented team which blends experience and youthfulness nicely, but the home side should start as slight favourites.
With Broad and Anderson at the peak of their powers, Bresnan and Finn in support, and a match-winning spinner in Graeme Swann, England’s bowling is formidable. The are likely to take wickets in bursts and Australia will have no weak point to target.
Although this series will have little bearing on next year’s Ashes, both sides will be keen to make some statements ahead of that contest, which is bound to add a touch of spice to the cricket.