Cricket Expert & Columnist
Deepening the doubts
England must hit Australia hard in the first Ashes Test while they are still vulnerable, says Mike Atherton.
Last Updated: 25/11/10 12:42pm
If you believe the talk, each Ashes series is bigger than the last.
Come the first ball in Brisbane all the recent talk will be irrelevant and we will find out whether English optimism is well placed or a cruel delusion.
From a distance England look a pretty content and relaxed squad, certainly much less tense and uptight than they were four years ago when they lost 5-0.
The early preparations have gone absolutely according to plan - it's hard to imagine anyone playing better than Ian Bell did in Hobart - and the players are happy with their own form and comfortable with each other.
Since the days of central contracts, England virtually play and travel together as a 'county' team so the players are far more likely to have best mates in the squad, which makes them a stronger unit than many that have gone to Australia in the past.
Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss have created a very calm, purposeful atmosphere which has developed the more the side has won; they've encouraged the players to get out and enjoy themselves in Australia rather than stay holed up in their rooms, fearful of going outside, which in itself must be beneficial in the long run.
The nature of professional sport means that each England side that goes to Australia is fitter than the last and that has shone through in their fielding, the standard of which has been incredibly high over the last two years.
Flower is a meticulous planner and his decision to send the frontline seamers to Brisbane ahead of time rather than put them through their paces against Australia A made perfect sense to me. It helped that the performance squad was in Brisbane so the seamers had people to net with.
The pitch at Hobart was quite green, as it turned out, and therefore would have been quite reasonable preparation for the Gabba but it was much chillier, cooler and fresher than the humid conditions to be found in Brisbane.
It's one of those decisions that will be seen to be as good or bad depending on how the bowlers perform at the Gabba. If they don't perform well, it will be easy to say they are short of match practice but on the face of it the decision to send them away looks spot on.
Australia, by way of contrast, are not as settled nor as confident a side as they once were. They are not a team in turmoil, but they are vulnerable and England must try to hit them hard in Brisbane to deepen their doubts.
The general feeling in Australia ahead of this series is one of pessimism. If England can get on top of them early on then guns could turn inward; the press will criticise the side and the selectors will come under pressure to bring in younger players to replace the tried and tested.
In such circumstances things could spiral downwards very quickly for them. But if they deliver in the first Test we could see a great up-swell of confidence in Australia with the whole country getting behind their team, which would make England's job that much tougher.
The selectors' decision to pick an initial 17-man squad before whittling it down to 13 was understandable given that the players still had a round of State games to play.
They would have looked very silly had they picked someone like Usman Khawaja in a 12-man Test squad only for him to struggle against Australia A while Mike Hussey compiled a century for Western Australia.
Many think that Khawaja should already be in the side anyway, that if they'd eased someone like Marcus North out a year ago then he'd have half-a-dozen or so Tests under his belt already. Instead the selectors have stuck with the old guard and will be judged as such although Khawaja may get his chance if Michael Clarke's back problems prove persistent.
I wasn't surprised by Australia's decision to leave Nathan Hauritz out of the 13; overlooked for the decisive Test at the Oval last summer, the spinner must have suspected that he did not have his skipper's full confidence when Ricky Ponting was so reluctant to throw him the ball in India last month.
For his part Ponting - who most definitely doesn't want to have three Ashes losses on his otherwise outstanding CV - will know Xavier Doherty, a fellow Tasmanian, well.
Personally, I would not hand Doherty his Test debut this week but would go with North as my off-spinner and include leg-spinner Steve Smith too.
That way Australia could pack the batting with North, Brad Haddin and Smith installed from six down and still have room for three seamers plus Shane Watson.
We'll find out for sure when the talking stops. For now, though, judging by the manner in which their coach Tim Nielsen had a pop at Duncan Fletcher over the weekend it is Australia who feel under the greater pressure.
Remember that you can follow the Ashes wherever you are - on skysports.com, Sky Sports HD1, Sky Player and Sky Mobile.
The first Test gets underway at 11pm on Wednesday November 24 on Sky Sports HD1.
BEEFY'S BETS: Find out more about Beefy's charity Ashes bets by clicking here!