Symonds in, England still a mystery
A recent magazine survey suggested that 41% of Australian men would give up sex for a month if it meant their cricketers would regain the Ashes. This time next week, that period of abstinence could finally be at an end. Australia are 2-0 up with three to play, and need one more victory in tomorrow's third Test at Perth to ensure the return of the Urn.
Ricky Ponting, however, has taken an even more drastic vow than the readers of Zoo magazine. Mindful of all the hype and hysteria that consumed their campaign last time around, he has banned all talk of the Ashes from Australia's dressing-room. Victory in the series will be a byproduct of victory in this match, he told reporters on the eve of the Test, and not the other way around.
"That's not what this week is about for our team," said Ponting. "It's about being ready for tomorrow morning, and playing better cricket than we did last week and at Brisbane. As soon as you start looking too far ahead in this game it can turn back and bite you, as we've seen in the past. The Ashes won't be mentioned about the group at all.
"We're going out to win the game, and win the game as best we can," he added. "But winning the Ashes will be a result of that, not something that's going to motivate us to play well. We're just going to have a relaxing afternoon and turn up tomorrow with a great attitude for the Test match."
Relaxation is the key for all the Australians, but particularly so for one man. Andrew Symonds, Ponting confirmed, will return at No. 6 for his 11th Test, with Michael Hussey and Michael Clarke bumping up the order to No.4 and 5 respectively. "I'm confident in him," said Ponting. "I've watched him closely and he's extremely excited to be around this group. He might have thought his Test career had passed him by a few months ago, but he feels better about his game than ever before."
Symonds averages 19 with the bat and 45 with the ball in his ten previous Tests, the last of which was against South Africa at Johannesburg in April, and admitted on Monday that he had been hampered by anxiety in the past. "What Symmo brings to the team is excitement and energy," added Ponting. "We want him to have that around the group, but he needs to keep his emotions inside in check. Once he gets out there in the middle, he'll no doubt be nervous, but he'll have learned a bit from last time."
Symonds was the pick of Queensland's attack in their recent match against Western Australia at the WACA. He bowled medium-pacers in the first innings and offspin in the second, and Ponting predicted that his versatility would be a great asset to the Test team, especially when the Fremantle Doctor blows into town after lunch. "Apparently his medium-pacers nipped about and he was a handful," said Ponting. "We're going to need a few guys to bowl a number of overs up into the breeze, to give Shane and Glenn a bit of a rest, and Symmo gives us that."
Medium-pacers, spinners ... it's a far cry from the traditional pace-bowling paradise at the WACA, a fact that Ponting lamented, for all that Australia possess, in Warne, the best possible weapon for the new conditions. "It's not good for the game if all our grounds lose character," said Ponting. "This wicket is not as fast and bouncy as in the past, so I think it will turn and turn early. But whether it turns quickly, which is what Shane likes, we'll have to wait and see. But in the form he's in at the moment, you wouldn't want to be facing him on a bit of glass."
Warne needs just six more wickets to become the first bowler to take 700 in Tests, a statistical skyscraper that puts into perspective Monty Panesar's probable first appearance of the series. Andrew Flintoff was characteristically guarded when asked about the make-up of his team, but Ponting was already planning a hot reception for the new face.
"He'll be under pressure and no doubt he'll be putting pressure on himself," said Ponting. "If he plays he'll be a bit nervous, and that'll dictate the way he bowls. He might bowl quick and spear them in early on, so we will be very positive against him, try to put it right back on him and see how he copes. We've got a lot of left-handers, and they'll enjoy the balls spinning into them."
"Monty has started his international career very well," added Flintoff. "He's bowled well, he's got fine players out and he is someone who works really hard at his game and he's improving all the time." It was hardly a glowing endorsement of his credentials, but that is England's guarded way at present.
Flintoff was hardly any more effusive about his friend Steve Harmison, whose woeful lack of form has been a key reason for England's struggles in the first two Tests. "Everyone is staking a claim and everyone wants to play in this Test," he said, when asked if Harmison was certain to start. "The lads have all worked hard and today all the bowlers have run in and hit the nets hard."
As Alec Stewart pointed out over the weekend, Harmison is a matchwinner, and therefore he has to play in a must-win match. But until the team-sheet is unveiled tomorrow morning before the toss, England's bowling attack will remain one of sport's most guarded mysteries.
The likeliest change is Panesar for Ashley Giles, although that would completely contradict Duncan Fletcher's first law of team balance. Alternatively they could field two spinners, with James Anderson - the pick of the bowlers in the warm-up match - missing out.
A third and less trumpeted alternative would be the introduction of Sajid Mahmood for Anderson - Fletcher's team balance would be maintained, with an extra dose of incisiveness thrown in for good measure. "These selection issues crop up," shrugged Flintoff. "For four days at Adelaide it wasn't really an issue and then for one-and-a-half hours of almost crazy cricket everyone's looking at the side.
"For four days that side performed and performed well I thought," he added. "It wasn't really an issue apart from at 12 o'clock on the Tuesday at Adelaide. But this Perth Test is huge. We've got to believe we can get back into the series." If for no other reason than to keep Australia's population growth in check.
Australia 1 Justin Langer, 2 Matthew Hayden, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Michael Hussey, 5 Michael Clarke, 6 Andrew Symonds, 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 Sajid Mahmood, 9 Matthew Hoggard, 10 Steve Harmison, 11 Monty Panesar.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo