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Hosts fearful of another bashing by the Poms; THE VIEW FROM DOWN UNDER: Alex Lavelle, sports editor of Melbourne's Sunday Age, with the home view.

Byline: Alex Lavelle

MOST Australians are stunned that bookmakers make England the underdogs for this Ashes series. Forget England's hopeless recent record down under, in which they have lost nine of the past ten Tests, all of them by a margin as wide as a Steve Harmison loosener.

According to the locals, the Australian team is in crisis, Ricky Ponting is the worst captain since William Bligh, the batsmen are scratching around like hungry emus and the bowlers have replaced thunderbolts with pies.

Things have become so grim that one newspaper last week was even bemoaning that the England players were taller than their opponents.

The cricket boot is firmly on the other foot, with England cast as the team in form, settled and focused for the battle ahead while Australia are a rabble.

The role reversal, which is being played out daily in the Australian media, has been fascinating.

Instead of the traditional scenario, in which a rusty English team is thrown to the wolves in Brisbane a few days after hopping off the plane from Blighty, it is Australia who have apparently messed up their preparations for cricket's showpiece, being forced to play meaningless one-day matches against Sri Lanka.

"As a preliminary to an Ashes series, it makes a perfect build-up to a World Cup," according to Greg Baum, of the Melbourne Age.

Meanwhile, England are "lurking menacingly in their creams", warming up with first-class matches against Western Australia and Australia A.

It is Australia, rather than England, who are said to have no match-winners, shattered confidence and whose selectors are clueless and conservative.

The pressure is all on the Australians, with the clamour for selection change deafening.

It did not help that in the three Sheffield Shield matches supposed to act as a play-off for places last week, most of the protagonists fluffed their lines.

And while Australia originally named a baffling 17-man first Test squad, surrounded by uncertainty and injury doubts, England are clear who makes up their first eleven.

Richard Hinds' assessment in the Sydney Morning Herald sums up the feelings of most Australians: "Hussey and North are on everyone's chopping block, Mitchell Johnson is cast as the wholesale distributor of overpriced pies and many doubt Nathan Hauritz could turn the key to his front door."

Mike Hussey is the batsman most under pressure, having failed to score a first-innings century in the past 28 Tests, while only the selectors seem to know why Marcus North's place in the line-up appears secure.

PETER Roebuck, not traditionally a fan of English cricket, says Australia will be learning from their visitors: "Australian cricket has been admired for the clarity of its thinking and the extent of its planning. Suddenly it seemed chaotic," he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Several polls on theage.com.au show how far the previously strong and settled Australian line-up have fallen and how disgruntled fans are with the team.

More than 50 per cent said that either Cameron White or Callum Ferguson should be the next captain, despite neither being in the team, while only 36 per cent think Australia will win the series.

And 73 per cent said Xavier Doherty should be the team's spinner ahead of Hauritz despite many of those who voted probably never having heard of Doherty before he was picked in the initial 17-man squad, let alone seen him bowl.

Australia go into the Ashes having lost seven of their last eight matches, including three Test matches.

England's recent results are solid rather than exceptional and their past eight Test matches have been against Pakistan and Bangladesh rather than any of the top Test nations.

But in Australian eyes, Andrew Strauss is leading a team of worldbeaters, with Graeme Swann as potentially the chief destroyer, and a well-backed favourite to be the series leading wicket-taker.

Even Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood, roundly ridiculed in these parts in previous visits, have been accorded due reverence.

What is in the hosts' favour is their formidable record at the Gabba, venue for the first Test. Australia have not lost a Test in Brisbane since 1988, winning 16 of 21 since then, and the past six by impressive margins.

Little wonder then that the perceived wisdom in these parts is that if England can avoid defeat at the Gabba, the Ashes will be theirs.

CAPTION(S):

Australia's Mitchell Johnson (front) is currently being cast as the wholesale distributor of overpriced pies
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Nov 23, 2010
Words:741
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