Shock, horror, gasp. Richie Benaud, as
close to a saint as Australian cricket has produced, says he believes England
can defend the Ashes this summer. Benaud told The Times that everybody pooh-poohed him when he predicted an English
win last time around, which of course, and let’s not ever mention it again,
came true.

“I hold exactly the same position that I
held 18 months ago, before the last series,” he said.
“I said that if England had a fast-bowling attack that was fit and bowling well, they would
win the Ashes. They all thought I’d lost my marbles. People in Australia
said, ‘Poor old bloke, he’s 74 and obviously past it.’ But I’d seen more of the
England team than anyone outside the team itself. I’d seen them build up a
great side, and it is still great.”

OK, fair call, but how could England
possibly win in Australian conditions, after the shocking year they’ve endured
with injuries and poor form dogging the team at every turn?

“It’s only July,” Benaud said. “The first
Test is a long way away. You could have 15 fit bowlers by then – or someone
else could get injured. There’s no need to be down about it. But the big
question is Simon Jones. He troubled every Australia
batsman last summer. It will be more serious if he can’t make the Ashes.”

Now, two days later, Benaud’s words again
look inspired. England have rolled the Pakistanis for 119 in the first innings of the
second Test, with Steve Harmison the chief destroyer with six for 19. The
question of conditions needs to be asked again though, with Harmison acknowledging the pitch was prepared with him in mind. He won’t get the same favours down
under.

Simon Jones is not playing in the current Test,
but there’s news around today that he may follow Flintoff’s lead and prepare
for the Ashes with an Australian club team.

And with news that Flintoff’s ankle surgery
was successful,
we have to wonder if this is the Poms’ first spirited comeback of the Ashes?

Peter Fray

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