The Ashes – Fourth Test preview at Headingley

By Online Editorial

Ed Hawkins suggests the Leeds venue could hinder England’s chances of securing the urn with a Test to spare.

The ink on the scorers’ sheets for the third Test was barely dry before the hype and misrepresentation fuelled by 1981 and all that began. Sir Ian Botham, unsurprisingly, demanded Sky viewers believe that Headingley is a venue for extraordinary England efforts.

Botham was right. Once. Inspired by his belligerence England produced a remarkable comeback victory over Australia 28 years ago. Since then, those who were there, watched it on television or read about it look at Headingley through sepia-tinted spectacles, especially when Australia are in town.

They are there again this week for Friday’s start of the fourth Ashes Test. And nostalgia-induced tears, not to mention a win that returns the urn, already threaten to obscure the cold, hard fact that Headingley – brace yourself Three Lions fans – is the second least successful home venue for England.

With a win-loss ratio of just 1.42 at Leeds, England have only an inferior record at Trent Bridge where the ratio is 1.06. It is a surprising statistic because Headingley is supposed to play into the hands of England’s strength – swing bowling. Odds of 4.30 about an England win suddenly look justified with Australia 2.80 and the draw 2.44.

The problem historically for England appears to have been twofold. Firstly, opposition bowlers have seized on a chance to make the ball bend (Stuart Clarke and Brett Lee could return at just the right time for Australia) and secondly England have often made horses for courses selections which have disrupted the team, ending in defeat.

Witness Darren Pattinson last year against South Africa, Martin Bicknell and Kabir Ali against the same opposition in 2003, Andrew Caddick v India the year before or Mike Smith in 1997 v Australia. So the inclusion in the England squad of swing specialist Ryan Sidebottom must be treated with caution.

Of course if it does swing then England could almost have two hands on the urn. With Australia’s batsmen clueless when the ball has moved (first innings at Lord’s and Edgbaston respectively), the pick of Sidebottom to support James Anderson and Graham Onions seems smart. But will it swing?

Yes if there is cloud cover but if the sun is shining, prepare for runs. And how. Headingley has been a dream for batsmen recently with a massive 410 the average first-innings match score in the eight Tests since 2000.

The teams which have scored those runs again expose how easy batsmanship is when the ball is not moving at the venue. India and Pakistan, who find swing an alien concept, have posted 628 and 538 respectively.

Once in, batsman appear to make hay. There have been 18 centuries in those eight games which could make one fear that betting on the top first-innings runscorer market is something of a lottery.

Not quite. There is value to be found by opposing the opening batsmen on the markets for England and Australia with only one No 1 or No 2 top-scoring in the last 16 first team innings. The most productive positions have been Nos 3 and 4, which have produced 10 top scorers.

To that end it is something of a shame that Kevin Pietersen is not playing. In his three Tests in Leeds he top-scored three times and without him we are left to pick through some sorry-looking statistics for England’s top batsmen.

Andrew Strauss averages 38 there, Alastair Cook 32, Ian Bell 32, Paul Collingwood 28 and Andrew Flintoff 28. So step forward Matt Prior who averages 80 in first-class cricket and 75 in Tests. He can be backed at 6.20 under the auspices of Any Other Batsman.

Prior’s record pales into insignificance against Ricky Ponting’s, however. The Australia No 3 averages 114 at Headingley with two centuries and one 50 in his two matches. It is his most successful ground anywhere out of those he has played more than once. At 4.80 he could be a steal.

As could a lay of the draw. There hasn’t been a stalemate in the last 10 Tests. England would probably take a draw, though, especially if they are forced to be without the injured Andrew Flintoff (he is 1.50 to play).

A rejig could erode further confidence – batsman Jonathan Trott could make his debut or Steve Harmison could play – so as to get him ready for a final tilt at The Oval. Whether the series is still alive by then may depend on how England deal with 1981 and all that.

Reproduced with permission from betting.betfair.com. © The Sporting Exchange Limited

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