As Alastair Cook’s side try to win their fourth consecutive Test series against Australia — something no England side have achieved since the 1880s — much of the discussion has focused on Kevin Pietersen. The Test that starts here tonight will be the batsman’s 100th and, at 33, there is every chance he will not be around in the winter of 2017, the next time England play here for the urn.
Yet Pietersen is not the only England player who might be playing a Test series in Australia for the final time. When the 2017/18 campaign begins, Jonathan Trott will be 36, Ian Bell and Matt Prior 35. Among the bowlers, Graeme Swann and Jimmy Anderson — the pillars of the England attack since the 2009 Ashes series in England — will be 38 and 35 respectively. Even Cook, the captain, will be 32; will he still be in charge in four years’ time? There are strong suggestions, too, that coach Andy Flower will call it a day after the final Test in Sydney early in January.
What better way, then, to leave this stage than by reminding Australian supporters of who is boss?
The Aussies believed they were unlucky to lose 3-0 in England last summer and have spent most of the intervening period expressing this view to anybody who will listen. This is England’s chance to prove once more that they are a better team than Australia, that the home side’s verbal arrows are as harmless as they appear.
The series appears to be set up perfectly for England, notwithstanding Australia’s mighty record at the Gabba, where they are undefeated in Tests since 1988. Cook’s team, like that of Andrew Strauss here three years ago, are happy when the opposition are forced to take the initiative.
In making few mistakes themselves, England induce them from their rivals. That blueprint worked perfectly for Strauss and Flower in 2010/11 and, with Flower still at the wheel, we can expect similar plans to be adopted during the next seven weeks.
Before we become too optimistic, though, let us remember that Australia showed enough last summer to suggest they will be dangerous in their own conditions. Ryan Harris, their outstanding opening bowler, took 24 wickets in four Tests in England and, if Australia can keep him fit, he will trouble the English batsmen.
Mitchell Johnson has been recalled and, while he is a mercurial cricketer, the left-arm paceman has bowled with venom recently. Peter Siddle took a hat-trick the last time these sides met in a Test at the Gabba and he has removed Pietersen seven times in the five-day game.
England’s batting has never looked quite as imposing since they were beaten 3-0 by Pakistan in Dubai and Abu Dhabi nearly two years ago.
The suspicion remains that Australia’s batting line-up is too fragile to handle a sustained burst from the England attack and that too great a burden rests on the captain, Michael Clarke, to score runs. While this might prove the case, David Warner and Shane Watson are perfectly capable of taking a game away from England quickly and Chris Rogers showed earlier this year that he knows how to thwart Cook’s bowlers.
Yet, as tough as it is to win here, this is still England’s series to lose. Because they hold the urn, it would still suit them if the scores were level after five Tests. If Prior and Chris Tremlett are given the nod tomorrow, Michael Carberry will be the only man in the team never to have won the Ashes. None bar Clarke among the Aussies has ever known that feeling.
Too much emphasis is attached to players’ demeanour off the field but it was still striking how much more calm Cook was than Clarke earlier today.
Clarke was defensive and snappy; his counterpart relaxed and assertive.
Perhaps such self-assurance is derived from knowing beyond any doubt that you lead a team capable of winning the Ashes, rather than simply hoping it is so.
Knowing the symbolic importance of the Gabba to Australia, Cook was happy to chat about England’s determination to dismantle the fortress. There was no such attitude on the part of Clarke, who appeared to view every question as a possible ambush.
“There’s no reason to feel intimidated,” said Cook. “A lot of players in this squad were here in 10/11, we’ve all got experience of winning in Australia. We’re trying to use that to the best of our ability and we know how important this game was last time for setting up the series. Australia have a very good record in Brisbane and it’s our job to try to change that.”
If the tourists do so, the history that any English cricketer would love to make will be well within their reach.
Cook turns up heat on Clarke
We are constantly told that Michael Clarke is much more of a natural, instinctive skipper than Alastair Cook, yet England’s leader has acquired the rather handy habit of actually winning Test matches. England have won five Tests in the calendar year and have yet to lose one; Australia have won only once and lost seven times. Cook will accept all the criticism in the world from former Australia players like Shane Warne if England can maintain that record. Clarke’s future must surely be in doubt if the Aussies lose the series again.
Aussies like it fast at the fortress
The Gabba is Australia’s fortress, where they have not lost a Test since 1988. If the home side can win here, it should set up a fine series as England, the favourites going in, are forced to fight back to retain the urn. The pitch is expected to be quick and bouncy, a far cry from the slow, low surfaces in England last summer, but the tourists’ tall fast bowlers should enjoy those conditions just as much as the Aussie attack will.
Who’ll make the final XI?
Australia expect Shane Watson to be able to do some bowling and that could push them towards choosing off-spinner Nathan Lyon to create a more balanced attack. George Bailey (right) should make his Test debut at No6. For England, the doubts surround the fitness of Matt Prior and the identity of the third seamer alongside James Anderson and Stuart Broad. If Prior, who has a calf problem, is left out, Jonny Bairstow will keep wicket, while Chris Tremlett is the slight favourite ahead of Steve Finn and Boyd Rankin to be included in the pace attack.
Snicko, hot spot… wait for the row
The system the authorities cannot leave alone has been tweaked yet again for this series. Snicko — the audio device designed to detect thin edges — will, for the first time, be part of the review system for this series. The controversial Hot Spot, which serves a similar purpose to Snicko, remains, while both sides’ reviews will be topped up by a maximum of two after the 80-over mark. Clear? Expect more flashpoints in this series and more grumbling from those who would rid the game of technology.