It's Edgbaston all over again
For 24 more hours at least, the parallels remain. By tomorrow evening, we should have a better idea of how "Ashes: The Sequel" is panning out. Will Australia's bowlers, lacking the services of Glenn McGrath through a foot injury, be put to the sword on a flat batting track by England's rampant batsmen? Or will Ricky Ponting's Australians demonstrate, once and for all, that the result in 2005 really was a "blip on the radar"?
Yes, it's the Edgbaston scenario all over again. For the second series running, Australia have an opportunity to crush the hype and expectation almost before the contest has begun. A correct call at the toss, and a chance to take first use of another blameless Adelaide batting track, would go some way to doing just that. But should Andrew Flintoff get his call right this time (not even this evening's freakish thunderstorm will persuade Ponting to repeat his error of 2005) and England's batsmen respond accordingly, there could yet be some mileage in the 2006-07 edition.
Some might suggest, after their dismemberment at the Gabba, that England's series prospects are already dead in the water, but McGrath's injury worry - and the spooky parallels it provides to last summer - has already caused a few Australians to shift uncomfortably in their seats. Then as now, McGrath's mortality is a reflection of the entire team's mortality, and there are some life-and-death issues for the selectors to weigh up overnight.
At the age of 36, should McGrath play and risk breaking down mid-match, or should he be dispensed with before the toss, with one of the rookies, Mitchell Johnson or Shaun Tait, coming into the fray? It's not a topic for idle deliberation either. In the absence of the allrounder, Shane Watson, Australia are committed to a four-man attack which, on a surface as benign as Adelaide promises to be for the first three days of the Test, will require each individual to be at the very top of his game. "We aren't going to be able to go into the Test match with Glenn unless he's 100 percent," confirmed Ponting. "It's as simple as that."
Though Andrew Flintoff played a very dead bat to suggestions that McGrath's struggles would provide England with a psychological lift, he will remember full well the events at Edgbaston in August 2005, in which he contributed a rumbustuous 68 to his team's first-day 407. So too will Australia. For all their current flaws, England remain the second-best Test side in the world, and they cannot be expected to play as badly at Adelaide as they did at Brisbane last week.
"There's a lot of character in that dressing-room," Flintoff reiterated for the umpteenth time this week. "The lads want to win in Australia, so they don't need any more incentive or rallying around. They want to give a performance and there's a good feel around the dressing-room. They are tough lads and proud lads. They've played well for the past two or three years and they want to play like that again. The result last week hasn't knocked the stuffing out of us by any stretch."
England's approach since Brisbane has been to accentuate the positives that came out of that match, most notably the fourth-day batting of Paul Collingwood and Kevin Pietersen. "If we were in their situation we'd be doing exactly the same thing," said Ponting dryly, but in that partnership England did at least rediscover some of the attacking mindset that served them so well in 2005. "We're going to keep being positive and keep taking the game to Australia," England's opener Andrew Strauss said yesterday, "because that's the way to beat them - we know that.''
There is, of course, a difference between positivity and recklessness, as Strauss acknowledged, but he confirmed he wouldn't be shelving the pull shot that caused his downfall in both innings at Brisbane. "It's a question of picking the right ball and on two occasions I didn't do that,'' he said. "But it's also a big run-scoring shot for me, so it's a question of balance really."
Balance is a big issue when it comes to England's attack as well, especially when it's to do with Steve Harmison's approach to the crease. In today's net session he looked more like the bowler of old, lengthening his strides as he galloped, rather than tottered, to the wicket, but Flintoff would offer no guarantee that his closest friend would be selected after his high-profile "freeze" last week. "Steve's someone I like to have in the side," he demurred, "but the side will be announced tomorrow."
That side will almost certainly include a second spinner in Monty Panesar, who had a sighter of the Adelaide conditions during England's warm-up match before the first Test. In his Cricinfo column this week, Panesar was lavishing praise on Duncan Fletcher for the help and assistance he has been offering in the nets, but all the same, it wouldn't be entirely out of character for Fletcher to overlook his young charge once again. Sajid Mahmood, whose reverse-swinging capabilities are not to be sniffed at on a ground that encourages the art, has been looking fit, fiery and focussed in the nets, and could yet make the starting line-up. Either way, it will be at the expense of the hapless James Anderson, whose demeanour at the Gabba was even more downcast than Harmison's.
But one man above all others has it in him to dictate the terms of this Test match. Shane Warne was less of a threat in England's second innings at Brisbane than perhaps he or England had anticipated, but with a cracked dry surface in prospect, and today's fine-tuning session with Terry Jenner under his belt, he is ready and waiting to strike on a surface that might have been designed with him in mind. "This wicket's going to suit Warney," said Ponting with the sort of intonation that implied England's hubris was about to get the better of them. He so nearly won that Edgbaston Test single-handed. With or without McGrath, his presence alone ensures Australia will never be less than favourites.
Australia (probable) 1 Justin Langer, 2 Matthew Hayden, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Damien Martyn, 5 Michael Hussey, 6 Michael Clarke, 7 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 8 Shane Warne, 9 Brett Lee, 10 Stuart Clark, 11 Glenn McGrath.
England (probable) 1 Andrew Strauss, 2 Alastair Cook, 3 Ian Bell, 4 Paul Collingwood, 5 Kevin Pietersen, 6 Andrew Flintoff (capt), 7 Geraint Jones (wk), 8 Ashley Giles, 9 Matthew Hoggard, 10 Steve Harmison, 11 Monty Panesar.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo