Can Australia turn things around in the third Test at Old Trafford?
After they lost the second Test at Lord’s to go two down in the series against England Michael Clarke defiantly was of the opinion that Australia could win the Ashes – a view that was met with derisive laughter.
One does not know how serious the Australian captain was but the fact remains that only one team has come back from two down to win a series – interestingly enough Australia under Don Bradman against England in 1936-37.
There have been a handful of occasions when a side has fought back from two down to level the series but at the moment the only talk centres around whether Australia can avert a 5-0 whitewash – a humiliation they have inflicted twice on England in 1920-21 and 86 years later.
Clarke’s tourists have already been described as arguably the worst Aussie outfit to battle it out in an Ashes series.
Former Aussie captain Ian Chappell is convinced that that this is the worst batting side to leave Australian shores. But the problem is that there is nothing to write home about the bowling too. There have been weak Aussie sides before to visit England notably in 1964, 1972 and 1977.
On the first two occasions the unheralded touring squads showed true grit and determination and raised the level of their game to win the series (1964) and draw it (1972) while the 1977 team was outclassed and lost the five match series 3-0. I well remember that even in 1989 an Australian team which was being beaten black and blue by almost every international side made their way to England and ambushed the home team winning a six-Test series 4-0.
But of course England at the time were at the receiving end for quite a while and perhaps in retrospect the result was not exactly a surprise even if the lop sided margin was. Currently though England is very much the superior team even if the ICC rankings put the hosts at No 3 and the Aussies at No 4.
Australia would very much like to turn things around but are they in a position to do so? To be candid their options are limited for even if they want to replace out of form players there is nothing very encouraging about the reserve strength.
The three-day match against Sussex did not help in solving any of their problems which are manifold. The team management is clearly in a Catch 22 situation for they cannot strengthen the batting at the expense of their bowling or vice versa. Either way they stand to lose for as I said both the batting and bowling have fallen well short of international standards so far in the series.
David Warner having rejoined the squad is in the mix of things. The aggressive left hander is a fine player and has been in form having just mauled South Africa A for 193 in Pretoria while representing Australia A. But his behavior of late has not been without controversy and one is not sure what kind of influence he could have on the many impressionable youngsters in the side.
The 26-year-old left hander from New South Wales could either open or go in the middle order and his no holds barred style of batting could just about turn out to be the tonic the beleaguered tourists need. But whether one man can things turned around for a team that has been badly outplayed is a moot point.
The other suggestion doing the rounds is that Australia can opt for a two pacemen and two spinner policy with Nathan Lyon joining Ashton Agar in the playing eleven. Lyon in fact has been the No 1 Aussie spin bowler for some time with a bag of 76 wickets from 22 Tests and it was a bit of a surprise to see Agar getting the nod for the first Test at Trent Bridge where of course he made a memorable debut not with the ball but with the bat getting the highest score by a No 11 batsman in the history of Test cricket.
The 19-year-old left arm spinner has taken just two wickets at 124 apiece at Trent Bridge and Lord’s so there is a strong case for including Lyon either as a lone spinner or a second spinner.
The other option is to settle for Jackson Bird as third seam bowler in place of either the injured James Pattinson or Mitchell Starc. In his two Tests Bird has taken 11 wickets at 16 apiece and these are figures that cannot be ignored.
Whatever the options the team management might settle on there is no denying the fact that the Aussies have to raise the level of their game but do they have the personnel to do this? That is the worry for Clarke and coach Darren Lehmann.
The captain himself is woefully short of runs averaging just 25.50 over four outings. The team can certainly do with some sparkle from one of the world’s leading contemporary batsman.
There are no real problems for England who have so far been admirably professional in their approach. Yes they can do with some more runs from skipper Alistair Cook, Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott but that in itself underlines England’s strength that they are two up without a major contribution from these three stalwarts.
Ian Bell and Joe Root have risen to the occasion while James Anderson and Graeme Swann have proved to be more than a handful for the Australians for whom it is difficult to say which is weaker, the batting or the bowling.