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Ashes: Can England win down under?

First Ashes Test, Brisbane
Dates: 25-29 November Start time: 0000 GMT Coverage: Listen live to Test Match Special on BBC 5 live sports extra, Radio 4 LW and online (UK only). Watch live on Sky Sports 1, highlights on ITV 4

Andrew Strauss kisses the Ashes urn
Strauss could become the first England captain to win in Australia for 24 years

By Sam Sheringham

The Ashes build-up is almost over and the show is about to begin. After weeks of hype and plenty of opinion, one thing seems certain. It's going to be close, very close.

More than ever before it seems the Ashes could boil down to the fine details, the personal duels and which team responds better to the crucial sessions of play.

With a settled team, a consistent run of results and a seemingly unflappable captain, England have every right to believe they can end 24 years of misery on Australian soil, the most recent example of which was a humiliating 5-0 whitewash in 2006-07.

But Ricky Ponting and his team will be determined to prove their doubters wrong and maintain their proud home record against the English.

With the help of veterans of past series, we take a look at the key areas England will need to master if they are to win the Ashes down under for the first time since 1986-87.

SILENCING THE CROWD

"You are playing against the 11 Australians and the nation. Even when you walk down a side street, the Aussies will get on your back and up your nose"
Former England batsman Allan Lamb

When England tour Australia "Pom-bashing" becomes a national sport.

Heckling of England players by the patriotic Aussie crowd is as old as the Ashes themselves.

In his best-selling book about the triumphant 1903-04 tour, "How We Recovered The Ashes", captain Pelham 'Plum' Warner says constant abuse from the home faithful unsettled his team, who were accustomed to the gentlemanly English crowds of the day.

Melbourne Cricket Ground
The 100,000-seater Melbourne Cricket Ground will host the fourth Ashes Test

While Andrew Strauss's men are much less likely to be surprised by their reception, how they respond to the constant barracking both on and off the field could be crucial.

With four of the five Ashes venues holding more than 30,000 spectators, senior players like Strauss and Paul Collingwood will have a big role to play in ensuring youngsters like Stuart Broad and Steven Finn are inspired, rather than fazed, by atmospheres more akin to football than cricket.

According to Mike Gatting, England's triumphant captain in 1986-87, there is only one way to silence the home fans.

"The best way to approach an Aussie crowd is to play good cricket," he says. "If you do that they will appreciate it. You don't try to take the crowd on, you get runs on the board and work with them. Have a laugh with them, but at the same time, do your thing."

SOLID START

"Invariably Brisbane produces a result and we have got to make sure we are on our A game come the first day of the first Test. We can make a big statement there"
England batting coach Graham Gooch

If England field first in Brisbane, pity the man who has to deliver the first ball.

From Phil DeFreitas's long-hop to Michael Slater in 1994 to Steve Harmison's wide to second slip in 2006, England have a history of tossing the initiative to the Aussies right from the opening delivery of the series.

Gatting on his Ashes success down under

No matter how nervous they feel inside, it will be imperative that Strauss's men exude confidence on the outside and whether they bat or bowl first in Brisbane they will need to serve notice of their determination to hold on to the Ashes.

Provided they do start well, the key then will be to sustain a high level right through the opening Test.

"If you can get off to a good start it doesn't mean you are going to win the Test match," says Gatting.

"It's about making sure you win the important segments. There's no point playing well for five hours and not for the sixth because in that sixth you could lose five wickets and instead of 300-3, you are all out for 310.

"It's about everybody doing their jobs through every session of play and being mindful that if you do slip up, the other side is capable of capitalising on that."

SKIPPER STRAUSS

"Strauss will know that every move he makes will be scrutinised three or four more times than during any other series. He will also know that he has to deliver. We will win the Ashes if the England captain averages 50 with the bat. We will lose if he averages 25 or 30"
Former England captain Michael Vaughan

On top of organising his troops and out-thinking Ricky Ponting, Strauss has a massive role to play with the bat at top of an England order which remains susceptible to collapses.

Andrew Strauss
Strauss has the chance to establish himself as a great England captain

The left-handed opener has already shown himself to be a "lead-by-example" captain.

In the 2009 Ashes, it was his brilliant 161 on the opening day at Lord's which laid the platform for England taking first blood in the series, while in the decider at The Oval he led from the front with two half-centuries as England regained the urn.

Worryingly for England, that masterclass at Lord's was the last time Strauss reached three figures in Tests, and his record in Australia is decidedly patchy. In the 2006-07 series, Strauss averaged 24.50, with only a single 50 in 10 innings, as Australia starved him of room in his favourite area outside off stump.

Ponting has identified Strauss as Australia's "biggest challenge" and although the Middlesex man is a vastly-improved player four years on, he is likely to face the stiffest examination of his career in the form of a brutal barrage from the Aussie pace attack.

"Captains are always a target," says former England spinner John Emburey, a member of Gatting's 86-87 side. "Straussy being head of the team and number one, the Aussie fast bowlers will come hard at him in particular.

"If they can get Straussy out of form they will feel they are getting on top of the team. That will start to undermine the team and the journalists will be questioning Straussy."

POWER PLAYERS

"Ponting is going to be the huge threat to us. If he doesn't have a big series then I think we'll win very easily"
Allan Lamb

The most talented batsman in each side is surprisingly short of runs.

Australia skipper Ponting has only scored one century in his last 29 Test innings, while England's Kevin Pietersen has none in 26.

Which player finds form first may have a major bearing on the series.

Ponting has a nasty habit of getting off to an absolute flyer in Ashes series, making centuries in his first knock of the series in 1997, 2002, 2006 and 2009.

PIETERSEN v PONTING
Kevin Pietersen and Ricky Ponting
30 --------- Age ---------- 35
66 -------- Tests ---------- 148
16 ------- Hundreds ------ 39
20 -------- Fifties --------- 55
47.80 ----- Average ------ 54.68

But will the captain's form this time be affected by the threat of a second successive Ashes defeat, one which would surely signal the end of his reign, and quite possibly his international career?

Strauss, who has talked up Ponting as the one "great player" in Australia's ranks, will have vivid memories of how he took England's attack apart on the first day of the series on his way to 196 at Brisbane four years ago and the England skipper will have plenty of plans in place for his Aussie counterpart.

One of those may involve off-spinner Graeme Swann working hard to frustrate Ponting, who likes to keep the scoreboard ticking over. By denying him room, England may be able to lure him into a false shot early on.

Australia will have similar ideas about Pietersen, who averages more than 50 against them and will be seen as the key wicket.

Like Ponting, Pietersen is at his most vulnerable when he is not dictating proceedings and has looked particularly ill-at-ease with the short ball in the warm-up games.

Australia paceman Doug Bollinger has already taunted England's talisman, claiming that they will "let his ego get him out" and Pietersen must strive to eliminate the self-inflicted dismissals which have blighted some of his recent Test innings.

According to former Australia captain Ian Chappell, England's top three of Strauss, Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott will have a big role to play in knocking the shine off the ball to allow Pietersen to come in and play his shots.

"I see England's big Achilles heel as being the top order," he says. "If Australia can get early wickets and get Kevin Pietersen in early it improves their chances of keeping him quiet.

"And if they do that, it makes a huge difference to the number of runs he gets and England's overall rate of scoring.

"If Australia keep getting a look at Pietersen with the ball still new that can only be a good thing for them."

STRIKING EARLY

"In Australia you need to get early wickets with the new ball to be effective. If the England pace bowlers don't perform well, it will be tough for them"
Ian Chappell

With England set to go in to the series with four bowlers rather than five, Strauss's three frontline seamers will have to send down lots of overs, often in sweltering heat.

606: DEBATE
TheNextBotham

And with the notorious Kookaburra ball likely to stop swinging after about 25 overs, the inexperienced trio of James Anderson, Broad and Finn will be under pressure to make early inroads.

All three have been impressive in the warm-up matches, but only Anderson has played an Ashes Test on Aussie soil and a return of five wickets at 82.60 four years ago is hardly encouraging.

According to Chappell, England should forget about swing and work hard on other ways of taking wickets.

"Last time when England came here they harked back to 2005 and the fact they had won an Ashes series with good swing bowling," he says. "They probably concentrated a bit too much on swing.

"You don't get as much swing in this country, and that's one area which England have to address. The Australian bowlers know the conditions a lot better than their English counterparts."

SWANN SONG

"Swann is the player the Aussies will fear most, he's had a phenomenal couple of years in Test cricket"
Former England spinner Phil Tufnell

For the first time since the 1980s, England have the edge over Australia in the spin bowling department and if Swann is at his best Strauss's men will have a great chance.

Graeme Swann
Graeme Swann is the world's highest-ranked spin bowler

The world's highest-ranked spinner had a mixed series in 2009 but it is no coincidence that in the two matches in which he performed well, at Lord's and The Oval, England were victorious.

Strauss will hope the off-spinner's uncanny ability to take wickets in the first over of spells will continue and should not be afraid to bring him into the attack early if England's pacemen have not made a breakthrough.

English finger-spinners have tended to blow hot and cold in Australia, but Emburey, who combined for 33 wickets with fellow twirler Phil Edmonds in 1986/87, thinks Swann is ideally suited to the conditions.

"He'll relish the extra bounce and if the pitches do turn, the ball will turn quicker because the pitches are harder," he says. "And if it's not spinning he gets a lot of drift, so if he's not beating the inside edge he's beating the outside edge instead."

Meanwhile, Lamb believes that should Australia pick left-arm pace duo Mitchell Johnson and Doug Bollinger it could play into the England off-spinner's hands.

"If they play them both, it's going to be perfect for Swann because they will rough up the foot marks.

"Swann is going to be a huge trump card. He's got better figures than Warne at the same stage of their career. I wouldn't lose any sleep over their spinners."

HAPPY CAMPERS

"You have got to have downtime, you can't just be totally focused all the time"
Mike Gatting

One of the most important duties for coach Andy Flower and Strauss will be to maintain the harmony between themselves and the rest of the players for the entire duration of the three-month tour.

England's 2006-07 Ashes campaign was arguably doomed before it had started because of the poor relationship between then captain Andrew Flintoff and his coach Duncan Fletcher.

In Flintoff's autobiography "Ashes to Ashes" he reveals how he nearly resigned when England were careering towards a 5-0 whitewash because he felt so isolated from the coach and the other players, who were all splitting off into factions.

Andrew Flintoff
Andrew Flintoff cuts a sorry figure during the disastrous 2006-07 Ashes

While the laid-back Strauss and the focused Flower seem a well-matched pair, their relationship will come under more strain than ever in what is the toughest challenge of either man's career.

For Gatting, the secret to a happy camp is finding ways to unwind between matches.

"There are many things to see and do so get out and enjoy it, try to relax and switch off from the cricket. Have a beer, a glass of wine, go to a nice restaurant.

"Go and play golf, go fishing, go sightseeing, walk over the harbour bridge, go to the beach and do some surfing. But you have to switch off because you need a serious focus when you go out to play that Test match."



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see also
Watch BBC Sport's Ashes trail
19 Nov 10 |  Test Match Special
Jonathan Agnew column
15 Nov 10 |  England
Australia selectors drop Hauritz
20 Nov 10 |  Australia
England 'gambling' over Cook form
11 Nov 10 |  England
Strauss predicts success in Ashes
28 Oct 10 |  England
How the Ashes were won
24 Aug 09 |  England
Aussies complete Ashes whitewash
05 Jan 07 |  England
England in Australia 2010-11
08 Oct 09 |  Cricket
Live cricket on the BBC
26 Oct 11 |  Cricket


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