England's Ashes hopes on the rise
Ricky Ponting is chaired into retirement by David Warner and Michael Clarke. Photo: Getty Images
RETIREMENTS and selection intrigue in Australia have heightened England's optimism for the Ashes.
Every development in Australian cricket this summer has been scrutinised by its Ashes foe, from the departures of Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey to the return of Phillip Hughes and Mitchell Johnson, injuries to fast bowlers and the threatened comebacks of middle-aged pair Shane Warne and Brad Hodge.
Angus Fraser, the former England paceman embedded in the county system as director of cricket for Middlesex, says the effect has been to create a perception in England that Australia's batting is vulnerable and its bowling fragile.
Just as Australia did against Sri Lanka, England has rested some of its best players from the one-day series in India, with Jimmy Anderson, Graeme Swann and Jonathan Trott absent from the series loss. But its Test team is comparatively settled.
''England has a core of players now who they believe are the best around, so selection seems quite a simple thing,'' Fraser said.
''But when you're chasing wins and trying to get back to where you were before, which is going to be very hard for Australia, you're constantly searching for the next Shane Warne or the next Glenn McGrath, and these players don't turn up very often.
''I believe England are in a far stronger position than Australia … They've got a settled side. There's a new captain and [Nick] Compton has come in [to replace Andrew Strauss at the top of the order] but [Alastair] Cook, [Ian] Bell, Trott, [Kevin] Pietersen, [Matt] Prior, Anderson, [Stuart] Broad, Swann, these players have been around four or five years and they're pretty hardened, successful Test cricketers.
''Australia don't possess players with a similarly proven track record. Yes, Michael Clarke is an outstanding player and Peter Siddle is a consistently good bowler, but everyone else, really, because of Hussey and Ponting going, you can't be sure. You'd like to think you will get a consistent level of performance from those England players; Australia could be excellent or they could fall down in a heap.''
Of course, fortunes can change quickly. Only six months ago, England was defeated at home by South Africa, Pietersen was exiled for his destabilising behaviour and Strauss - a respected figure and two-time Ashes-winning captain - abruptly retired.
But Fraser believes England's attack fancies its chances. ''With two major figures retiring this close to the Ashes in Ponting and Hussey, it does fill England with a bit more confidence, because while Australia have got some talented batsmen, they don't seem to be of the same calibre of those who have gone.
''Australia's batting order with Phillip Hughes and David Warner in it, they're talking about [Usman] Khawaja, [Matthew] Wade, there are a lot of names that are not strong names around England, so there is a vulnerability, and with young cricketers there is inconsistency.
''I think there is a batting line-up there that England would believe they can bowl out two or three times relatively cheaply. And if you can bowl a side out three times for under 200 in an Ashes series it gives you an excellent chance of winning a couple of Test matches.''
Johnson endured a traumatic Ashes in 2009 so his comeback has naturally been greeted with scepticism in England, despite 15 wickets at 22.33 in three Tests against South Africa and Sri Lanka this summer.
''There's a bit of fragility about the bowling, with [James] Pattinson and [Pat] Cummins injured. [Jackson] Bird looks impressive, [Mitchell] Starc is making a lot of progress,'' Fraser says.
''Johnson has some work to do. He seems to be bowling pretty well again, but you just wonder whether he has an extra hurdle to overcome. One, he's got to bowl well; two, he's got to cope with the knowledge that England's cricketers have got the better of him. Whether there has been a bit of psychological damage.''
As Australia prepares for four Tests in India, where Cook recently led England to its first series win in nearly three decades, England's next task is in New Zealand.