Cow Corner

Does this series really matter?

Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke at The Oval

It said something of the status of the five-match series between England and Australia that many cricket supporters were surprised to hear that the tourists were even in the country before it started.

The series has flown under the radar for the most part and has divided opinion, even amongst those who profess a deep love of the game.

'It devalues the Ashes and the contest it represents'; 'it is all about money and nothing else'; 'there is no good reason for this series to be taking place' - just some of the views which have been expressed.

The fact is, England v Australia matches sell. They sell at high prices and they sell very quickly.

There can be little argument that a five-match series of pyjama cricket between the oldest of cricketing foes will always generate a great deal of income for the ECB and the grounds fortunate enough to stage a fixture.

What is more, this ODI series is entirely isolated. There is not a Test match in sight between the two sides this summer, and not even a paltry Twenty20 stuck on the end of a disjointed tour.

Can it even be described as a tour? Well, that is for the Australian party to assess from their experience of the trip.

But for every cynic and incensed purist, there is a cricket fan who is just delighted to see two very competitive nations locking horns for a tough series of hard-fought ODIs.

The two teams are well matched, pitting Andy Flower's trailblazers against Mickey Arthur's top-ranked side in the 50-over format, in which Australia have enjoyed such sustained success over the years.

For many supporters, this was a contest that they were prepared to pay big money to see and were happy to act very quickly in order to get their hands on a ticket. There was, unsurprisingly, a very high demand indeed.

In purely cricketing terms, both coaches regard the series as a perfect opportunity to assess the progress and standing of their respective units. To gauge where individual players stand in their development, and to analysis how they react under pressure.

After a humbling at home, a smarter and more confident Australia have their first chance to test themselves against Flower's men, while a host of new England players have the opportunity to see where they stand in the pecking order.

It may not be a Test series, but this extended five-match series provides a valuable chance for both teams to discover each other's strengths and weaknesses ahead of greater battles in the longest format of the game.

After England took the opening match at Lord's fairly comfortably, Arthur declared that his side had to once again improve: as an early indicator of the strides his charges had made, it was fairly stark.

If next year's Ashes represent the ultimate measure of how Australia have improved and developed since being humiliated by England in the last series, this series is a fairly crucial marker to lay down for both sides.

The ICC world rankings are often derided or undermined, but Australia sit atop the official listings in the 50-over format, something Michael Clarke and his team-mates are rightly proud of.

For England, who came into the series in fourth place in the rankings behind Australia, South Africa and India, this was a chance to make serious strides against supposedly the best ODI side in the world.

Regardless of the final scoreline in this series, the spirit and competitiveness shown by both sides perhaps tells its own story: the players really do care about this as a contest.

The series may have been rather clumsily and haphazardly shoved into the English summer schedule, but no time is ever convenient for a hefty string of ODIs in the modern international calendar, it seems.

Maybe this series really does matter, and perhaps it will be looked back upon as a significant point in the development of both sides.

While neither side would go as far as saying this series will have a direct bearing on the Ashes in England next year, it should not be forgotten that previous limited-overs clashes between the two teams preceding Tests have gone on to be viewed as significant in the aftermath.

Certainly it cannot be a bad thing for this group of England cricketers to pit their wits against a tough Australia side ahead of the visit of South Africa.

For Ian Bell, this series represents an opportunity to stop everyone highlighting the absence of Kevin Pietersen and to cement the opening spot as his own against the world's best. Equally, Ravi Bopara will be again assessed by his performances in this series.

While the inevitable talk during any series between England and Australia is centred around The Ashes, facing the Proteas remains at the forefront of Cook and Flower's minds.

Andrew Strauss and Pietersen may be away refining their cover-drive techniques in preparation for the South Africa Test series, but England are busy taking on top-class opponents.

As with any series, there is likely to be one winner and one loser: when England take on Australia in any format, and at any time, that really does matter.