ONE thing which England will have no reason to complain about on their tour Down Under is a lack of time to get acclimatised before the Tests begin. They have nearly a month in Australia before the first Test is played and that should give them ample time to get used to the place. Given the pace at which international cricket tours follow each other, this is indeed a plus for the Poms.
This, however, does not mean that they will have things any easier in try to win back the Ashes, something they have failed to do for over a decade. Mike Gatting was the last bloke to taste success and his squad was definitely far superior to the current batch. But given the way they played against South Africa, coming back to level and then win the series, it seems reasonable to give them the best chance which any England team has had recently to win back the Ashes.
With the burden of captaincy having been taken off his shoulders, Mike Atherton has shown a distinct positive change of form with the bat. Alec Stewart appears to be comfortable with the role of leader. The team seems that much more organised and purposeful now; that air of disarray appears to have disappeared, at least for the moment. And that is saying a lot for an English team.
But then appearances often prove to be deceptive. The English team which went to the Caribbean late last year was also tipped to be the first to beat the West Indies after a long time. They came away with just one Test victory and three defeats. They lost the one-day series as well. And they lost their skipper to boot.
The opposition that England faces is that much better than the West Indies. Mark Taylor leads a team which is brimming with confidence, having won a series against Pakistan in Pakistan after nearly 40 years. Taylor himself is in excellent form. Suffice it to say that this Australian team is in such fine fettle, that the skipper has gone on record as saying that they can retain the Ashes even if Shane Warne is unable to play. And day by day it is beginning to look as though Warne may very well be able to make an appearance.
The fact that Australia are playing at home doesn't really matter all that much, not to this team. The wickets in Australia generally give any touring team which is up to scratch a sporting chance. But given the fact that England have not had success against the Aussies for such a long time, they will first have to overcome a mental block if they are to have any chance of winning.
On paper, Australia are the stronger team. They are thus the favourites. Nobody would be surprised if they won the series with ease. But England have a good chance of taking the fight to the Aussies and one should give them a chance of winning at least one Test if not more. I hesitate to make predictions for just one reason: I gave Australia the better chances in India and vice versa against Pakistan. Both times I was proved wrong. All I say here is do not write off Stewart's team.