Willis: Out of Harm's way
By Jamie Hunt
Last Updated: 01/01/70 1:00am
Bob says Australia will have to deal with Steve Harmison if they are to win back the Ashes.
England have arrived in Australia for the first defence of the Ashes in 20 years and the expectation levels are bubbling up nicely.
The early talk has been of whether England will play five bowlers against the Australians and I was slightly concerned to read reports that Chris Read's wicket-keeping and Monty Panesar's bowling might be comprimised by playing Geraint Jones and Ashley Giles to get more runs down the order.
Sure, the tail will look long but I would see Panesar as a possible match-winning bowler. I don't see Giles as that and how many more runs will Jones get you with the bat that he will cost you with the gloves with a crucial drop?
Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard will be three of the five and Panesar should be the fourth, so the question for the selectors is who will be the fifth? It will have to be done on form on the day. Sajid Mahmood is the favoured choice because they see something special in him in terms of wicket-taking ability.
It will really depend on how many overs Flintoff will be able to bowl. James Anderson is capable of bowling more overs than Mahmood and that might have to come into the equation.
Regardless of the make-up of the team I see Harmison as the key to England's prospects over there because he, and a fit Andrew Flintoff, are the two that can give the Australian batsmen the hurry-up. Hoggard and, hopefully, Mahmood or Anderson can hopefully provide some accuracy but it is Flintoff and Harmison who give England pace.
England's fans worry about how Harmison performs away from home but Flintoff is one of his best mates so that should help him overcome the homesickness problem and I expect his family will be out there for the last two Tests, so we are really only talking about a period of five weeks.
It is not like touring India or Pakistan and if you don't enjoy touring Australia you are in the wrong job, to be perfectly blunt.
Most of the pitches in Australia have changed character over the last few years. Perth is no longer the fast, bouncy track that it was when Curtley Ambrose took 7 for 1 in 1993. I don't see the pitches being that quick but they will be hard and tall bowlers will be able to get bounce out of them.
That is why you will need extra pace because on days two and three, in places like Brisbane, it is a batting paradise and you will need that little bit extra to dislodge batsmen.
If Harmison is below is his best England won't retain the Ashes, it is as simple as that. He is irreplaceable, much as Shane Warne is for Australia, although Stuart MacGill is a fine bowler.
The fact is that is that even without Simon Jones, England's bowling attack is better than the Australians if everybody is fit. After Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, I don't see the Australian bowling attack as being that fearsome. Sure, Brett Lee bowls fast, but England don't mind fast bowling and scored pretty much at will off Lee in the past. He is a better bowler than he was when we were there four years ago but I think England can handle Lee and Nathan Bracken or Mitchell Johnson in the last position.
If I was Australian, I would think about playing both leg-spinners against England as we are weaker against leg-spin than pace, but I don't think they will do that.
For the Australians to win a lot will rely on the form, fitness and stamina of their two elder statesmen in the bowling department, McGrath and Warne.
McGrath couldn't have done more in the Champions Trophy but can he come back at half past four in the afternoon and bowl effectively with a second new ball or in a worst-case scenario, with an old ball? That is the ability that will go first with his advancing years but his first spell is going to be pretty devastating still and that is what England will have to get over.
England's other decision comes again in choosing two from three in the top order and I think Alastair Cook and Ian Bell will get picked and Paul Collingwood will be the unlucky one this time. Cook has had a marvellous start to his Test career and Bell has just been named the "emerging player of the year" in front of the likes of Cook and Panesar.
Bell endured a tough Ashes tour last year but I don't think that will add any more pressure on his shoulders. It is just part of the maturing process. That was one of his early Test appearances and he has played a lot more since then. Cook is going to have problems against Shane Warne, but there is only one place that that is going to improve and that is out in the middle.
The Australians are just the favourites on their home soil and, if forced to make a prediction, I would optimistically go for 2-2 with England to retain the Ashes.
BOB ANSWERS YOUR EMAIL...
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SUB PAR SUB CONTINENT
Bob, A lot of people thought India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka would do well in the Champions Trophy as it was in the sub-continent. You were out there, what were people saying were the reasons for none of them making the last four? Ian Arnold.
BOB SAYS: Pakistan was because they were without Shoaib Akhtar, Mohammad Asif and Inzamam ul-Haq and because their batsmen don't like playing on bouncy tracks. Two of their matches were in Mohali on pitches as un-Indian as you could dream up - fast, grassy and bouncy. Pakistan can't cope in those conditions anywhere in the world.
Sri Lanka played quite well at times during the series but lost the crucial game. I think they are a little bit light in batting, if the truth be told, and they rely very heavily on Murali in the bowling department.
India the hosts are still in transition and it is a reflection of their lack of young talent that for their tour of South Africa in the one-dayers they have looked backwards rather than forwards. They haven't picked any young players at all but gone back Anil Kumble, Wasim Jaffer, Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra who have played a lot in the past. I think India have big problems in the future.
HIGH AS A BUMBLE
Hi Bob, Would you be able to tell me where Bumble gets his drugs from? He says England can win the World Cup. He has to be having a laugh isn't he? Mike, Singapore.
BOB SAYS: I can't see how England is going to get anywhere near winning the World Cup. I think the West Indians were in a pretty relaxed mood when England beat them in Ahmedabad.
There doesn't seem to be any policy about one-day cricket with England and, as I have said here many times before, England should start with the Test match XI and extend that squad to 16 players who should play all of England's cricket - five-day and one-day.
They keep going with these bits and pieces players, the latest of whom is Mike Yardy, who just don't look the part.
Bumble is unusually optimistic about English cricket and I am unusually optimistic about England's chances in Australia in the Test series but I don't think one can be realistically optimistic about their one-day cricket.I am not sure who his chemist is by the way.