Trent Bridge, Nottingham – John Arlott, the legendary English commentator, took a realistic view of cricket based on a very long learning curve. “Never,” Arlott said seriously, “feel sorry for an Australian cricketer”. He was talking about players in Australian teams that toured in England after World War Two who expected to win and did so much more often than not. The playwright Harold Pinter described the awe with which the English viewed their opponents as they prepared to take the field: “arrogant, jocular, muscular, larking down the pavilion steps, eight feet tall”.
Not anymore. The aura has disappeared, to be rediscovered only in old copies of Wisden. England has won three of the last four Ashes series. On Wednesday at Trent Bridge the teams will start the first match of back-to-back Ashes series, with the 10th and final test to be played in Sydney early next year. This might turn a challenge into an ordeal.
Glenn McGrath opened the punditry in each of the series he played by claiming that Australia would win the Ashes series 5 to 0. Sir Ian Botham, no less flamboyant with his opinions than he was with bat and ball, feels able to top that. He predicts that England will win all 10 games, and this is only an exaggerated version of a widely held view. Less melodramatic observers such as the former England captain Mike Atherton confidently predict a 3 to 0 win for England in the first round this summer. It almost makes you feel sorry for these Australian cricketers. But it would be a mistake to dismiss Arlott just yet.
These predictions are based on Australia’s humbling recent performances against India when Mickey Arthur handed out the homework (and they completely ignored Australia’s crushing defeat of India when they were the tourists in 2012). These humbling defeats happened not long after England beat India 2 to 1 last winter, which is the principal reason why England are favourites. But recent history can offer a different story. Last summer England sacrificed its place at the top of the Test rankings to South Africa, who easily won their series. In 2011 and 2012 Australia played South Africa five times, performing well, winning one game to South Africa’s two, but only just failing to snatch a win at Adelaide.
The team’s record in 2012 was won seven, lost one, drawn three. It is rather better than England, who also contrived to lose a series against Pakistan played in the Gulf. This does not sound like the prelude to a whitewash, or even a 3 to 0 win for England.
Darren Lehmann is one reason why Australia might surprise the pundits. Laughter is to be heard again during practice. Coaches from southern Africa tend towards narrow mindedness and can be somewhat humourless. That is forgivable when the team is winning, as England were when they were coached by Duncan Fletcher, and Andy Flower. A dour approach, however, is not the way to encourage a losing team, as Mickey Arthur discovered.
Darren Lehmann is a familiar face, and he and his players are presently revelling in a honeymoon. The losers tag is a burden they might not have to carry into the first Test, but what happens when the honeymoon is over will be heavily influenced by the result at Trent Bridge. This is a pleasant, friendly ground on which England usually does well. The famous England Ashes victory in 2005 was set up by its win in a tight game in Nottingham.
The weather has changed utterly in the past 10 days and sunshine is forecast for all five days of the Test. The wicket will be dry, and may take spin. The great unknown is whether the English Dukes balls will swing. They did so when England last played at Trent Bridge, crushing India. If they do so again, James Anderson and Stuart Broad will cause pain and confusion among Australia's inexperienced middle order.
But if the Dukes do swing, Australia’s bowlers – Peter Siddle, James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc – are quite capable of inflicting severe pain themselves, and England’s own middle order is far from infallible. The result may depend on the batting performances of the two captains Michael Clarke and Alastair Cook, and the mood of Kevin Pietersen and David Warner (should he play).
The bookie Ladbrokes has been listening to the pundits; they make England 4/11 favourites, with Australia at 4/1 (11/2 for the draw). At those odds, Australia might even be the best bet.
Stephen Fay is a former editor of Wisden and author of books about the Bank of England and the collapse of Barings.