Fourth Test preview: Australia v England
Calamitous. Disastrous. Farcical. This Ashes tour has turned out to be one of the worst an England side have ever had. Almost everything that could go wrong has gone wrong – an correction isn't likely in Melbourne.
Calamitous. Disastrous. Farcical. This Ashes tour has turned out to be one of the worst an England side have ever had. Almost everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. The only thing left for England to do now is to try and avoid a five-nil whitewash – something that from the position they are in seems quite a long shot.
The shock retirement news from Graeme Swann and his parting shot comments have caused much controversy. In reality, it probably doesn't make much difference to the outcome of this series. Swann had only taken seven wickets at a horrible average of 80.00 and was likely to have been dropped for the Melbourne Test. Australia's clear plans to target him have finished him off. The announcement and subsequent brouhaha will have been unsettling, but let's face it, England were already in a mess, this doesn't really make it any worse.
Australia, having won the Ashes and comprehensively killed off their opposition will be very serious about going for the whitewash and given what an unholy mess England are in – utterly demoralised – it's hard to see them not achieving it. They are brimming with confidence and every player in the team feels settled in their position.
England do have a pretty good record at Melbourne but those were England teams not in quite such a state as this one although there were some positives from Perth – most notably Ben Stokes who really did show a staggering amount of character and application.
Perhaps some of that will have rubbed off. Ian Bell remains in good form and Joe Root seems to be just fine in his new role at number three. The form of Cook continues to be a concern and he had possibly the worst 100th Test you could have imagined both in terms of captaincy and with the bat.
England just need to try and get through to the end of the Tour without any more mental or physical casualties and then begins the new era and the rebuilding process. Very few are expecting England to be able to salvage anything out of this tour so they can, in some sense, play with the freedom and without the weight of expectation.
The drop-in pitch at Melbourne isn't expected to be as lively as the one at Adelaide was and should provide a good batting surface but with enough in it for the bowlers if they get their lengths right. Early reports are that spin may not be a very big factor on this pitch and that reverse swing may be more prevalent. The weather will be much kinder than Perth – a civilised 26-30 degrees on average with some possible cloud.
England have called up Durham's batman/leg-spinner Scott Borthwick into the squad as he was already in Australia playing grade cricket. It's unlikely he'll play although if the pitch looks as though spin won't be a major factor, he could be called in to boost the batting.
Broad's fitness after his foot injury at the hands of a Mitchell Johnson Yorker is still unclear. He will bowl in the nets and be subject to a late fitness Test. England are playing down his injury but that is their style and then a couple of months later we find out said player actually needs a fairly major operation. If he isn't fit it's likely Boyd Rankin will come in to join Anderson and Bresnan with Stokes as the third seamer.
Steven Finn is simply unpickable at the moment and throwing him into the lion's den after his well publicised problems would be far too high risk. Chris Tremlett simply offers no threat at all with his pace being around 80mph or slower. Tim Bresnan looked undercooked at Perth but does at least provide some much needed lower middle order batting power particularly as Swann is gone and Monty comes into the line up.
England's other big dilemma relates to Matt Prior – despite his half century at Perth, he still doesn't seem quite right and his keeping standards have started to drop to match England's pretty grim fielding in this series. Prior's innings at Perth did show signs of the old Prior and perhaps does indicate he's emerging out of his doldrums but it's far from certain. Jonny Bairstow does, perhaps, deserve a chance and it may do Prior good to have a couple of Tests off.
England's top six is settled – all have scored a half century – even if they have, bar Stokes, failed to convert them. It's not Flower's style to do wholesale change so I expect the side to be the same apart from Panesar in for Swann and Rankin in for Broad (unless he recovers significantly).
Australia have named a completely unchanged squad but may decide to rest Ryan Harris to try and prolong his fragile body as long as possible. They have Doug Bollinger and Nathan Couter-Nile on standby to come into the bowling ranks if needs be. Lehmann has been pretty adamant about the importance of a settled side so don't expect any changes other than perhaps someone to come in for Harris.
<b>Key Men</b><br>Wicketkeepe-batsman Brad Haddin has had an outstanding series with both with bat and gloves – and that form can be expected to continue.
Batsman Ian Bell is the only England player from the Ashes in the English summer to still be in good form. Bell's character means he's unlikely to have been fazed by any of the uproar around Swann's retirement.
<b>Last Five Head-To-Head Results</b><br>2013: Third Test: Australia won by 150 runs in Perth<br>2013: Second Test: Australia won by 218 runs in Adelaide<br>2013: First Test: Australia won by 381 runs in Brisbane<br>2013: Fifth Test: Match drawn in London<br>2013: Fourth Test: England won by 74 runs in Durham
<b>Probable Teams</b><br><i>Australia:</i> Chris Rogers, David Warner, Shane Watson, Michael Clarke, Steven Smith, George Bailey, Brad Haddin, Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle, Doug Bollinger, Nathan Lyon
<i>England:</i> Alastair Cook, Michael Carberry, Joe Root, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Tim Bresnan, Boyd Rankin, James Anderson, Monty Panesar.
<b>Dates:</b> 26 to 30 December<br><b>Morning session:</b> 10:30-12:30 (21:30-23:30 previous day GMT)<br><b>Afternoon session:</b> 13:10-15:10 (00:10-02:10 GMT)<br><b>Evening session:</b> 15:30-17:30 (02:30-04:30 GMT)<br><b>On-field umpires:</b> Aleem Dar and Kumar Dharmasena<br><b>Third umpire:</b> Billy Bowden<br><b>Match referee:</b> Ranjan Madugalle
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