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Australia looks to upset form book, regain Ashes

July 8, 2013

It was barely a month ago that Australian cricket was in the midst of a crisis, on and off the pitch, and England seemed primed to claim a third successive Ashes series victory.

England’s star batsman was making a perfectly timed return from injury while Australia’s captain was laid low with a troublesome back problem.

And Australia was messing up the defense of its Champions Trophy title — the final straw for its under-fire coach — as England marched toward the final.

The tourists’ Ashes chances weren’t just being doubted, but completely written off.

Two days ahead of the first test at Trent Bridge and things have changed.

Having hit rock bottom after a string of off-field disciplinary issues, a test series whitewash in India and a group exit in the Champions Trophy, Australia fired coach Mickey Arthur and replaced him with Darren ‘Boof’ Lehmann — a stereotypical, no-nonsense Aussie owning a wily cricket brain and not unaccustomed to a beer and cigarette.

The result? A galvanized touring squad — boosted by the return to fitness of captain Michael Clarke — and the reigniting of belief that Australia can win back the famous urn in one of sport’s great rivalries.

“Our progress over the last few weeks has been good,” Australia vice captain Brad Haddin said Monday. “Now we’re just excited about one of the tests being in a couple of days’ time.

“I think it’s important to live in the moment, there’s no point worrying what’s gone before ... it’s important we move forward.”

The third-ranked England will still head into the eagerly anticipated five-test series — spread over seven weeks, starting in Nottingham on Wednesday and ending in London on Aug. 25 — as the big favorites.

Their bowlers look a cut above their rivals, particularly in English conditions and with Jimmy Anderson continuing to extract plenty of movement, while the brilliant Kevin Pietersen is back fit after knee problems to strengthen their batting lineup. His fall-out with team management that marred the end of last year’s test series against South Africa has largely been forgotten.

Not since 1981 have the English won three straight Ashes series, but few are betting against them achieving that feat once again.

Under coach Andy Flower, England has never been a team to get too carried away, and it will have looked at Australia’s recent tour matches over Somerset and Worcestershire and seen their batsmen plunder plenty of runs.

“I don’t think we see ourselves as a dominant force,” England spinner Graeme Swann said. “We climbed up to No. 1 in the world, which was a feat we aimed to do and we were pleased with, but we didn’t stay there for long so we’re continually aiming to improve.”

If the series is anything like those in England in 2005 and ’09, fans are in for a thriller.

During those summers, cricket fever gripped England, with players such as Andrew Flintoff, Michael Vaughan and Pietersen becoming household names and national icons.

This time around, the status of Anderson, Pietersen and captain Alastair Cook is already secure but it’s time for youngsters like batsmen Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and paceman Steven Finn to make their name.

England’s team appears settled now that Root has replaced Nick Compton as Cook’s fellow opener. The only lingering question is who of Finn, Tim Bresnan or Graham Onions joins Anderson and Stuart Broad in the pace attack.

But there is uncertainty over Australia’s lineup, with the batting department still not finalized and David Warner’s disciplinary problems leading to a review of the opening pair.

It’s uncertain if Warner will play in Nottingham after being suspended from Australia’s warm-up matches for punching England’s Joe Root in Birmingham last month.

“He’s got as good a chance as anyone in the squad, but I haven’t been in discussions with him,” Haddin said.

Lehmann has gone with veteran Chris Rogers, whose only test cap came back in 2008, and the free-hitting Shane Watson, back in form and favor after being one of four players dropped in the incident later dubbed “Homeworkgate” during the ill-fated tour of India.

Clarke, crucially, is fit again and will be a key figure as the tourists take the fight to opponents that embarrassed them 3-1 Down Under in the 2010-11 series.

There is no Ricky Ponting or Mike Hussey, whose international retirements last year were another blow to a nation still adjusting to life after the golden era of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist et al.

However, as the British and Irish Lions rugby team almost discovered to their cost — before winning its series Down Under 2-1 on Saturday — Australian sportsmen love nothing more than succeeding when the odds are stacked against them.

“Beware the wounded cricketer,” former Australia batsman Matthew Hayden said three years ago ahead of the last Ashes series.

England has been warned.

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