Dry pitch puts spin in focus for Australia
Australians, according to the poet Dorothea Mackellar, love a sunburnt country. Quite how much they will appreciate a burnt-looking Old Trafford pitch over the next five days is another matter.
As the team warmed up in Manchester ahead of the third Investec Test, they cast a curious eye over the 22 yards in the middle, and saw largely what they expected: it was hard and dry with a few little cracks. But not everything they saw was exactly as they had anticipated.
"It's got some interesting patches on it but I think it will be a pretty good wicket," vice-captain Brad Haddin said. "It's just a bit different. It looks like it's been burnt, little bits of it."
The England captain Alastair Cook noted that Old Trafford was notorious for producing pitches that were not "aesthetically pleasing", though historically they have been responsible for some of Ashes cricket's most memorable moments. Michael Clarke is no longer a selector, relieving him of the duty - officially, anyway - of deciding whether it will be a two-spinner pitch for the Australians.
"It looked extremely dry and quite strange, to be honest," Clarke said. "It's got a handful of bare patches, which I'm unsure how they get there. The rest of the wicket has got a pretty good grass covering but it's dead grass. It's pretty hard. I think it's more going to be a pretty good batting wicket for the first couple of days.
"Fast bowlers will get reverse swing and the wicket will end up staying a bit lower as the game goes on and I think spin is going to play a part. I'm very interested to see what England do, if they change a winning formula. It's probably easier for us to make change because we haven't won the first two Test matches but for England it's going to be interesting because they've had success."
The teenage left-arm spinner Ashton Agar played the first two Tests for Australia but the more experienced offspinner Nathan Lyon has a good chance of winning a recall at Old Trafford, having shown some encouraging signs at training. Australia's other spin-bowling option is Clarke himself, although his ongoing back issue has limited his bowling in recent times.
"If required, I'll be able to bowl," Clarke said. "I haven't bowled much of late because of my back. I bowled a little bit in the nets at Hove, two overs [on Tuesday], and I'll bowl some more [on Wednesday] as well."
The Australians have expected dry pitches throughout the Ashes tour and given the way they struggled on dusty surfaces in India earlier this year, the spin of Swann and Monty Panesar always loomed as a threat if the conditions suited. Clarke said with more and more countries producing dry pitches, Australia would need to work on their game-plans against quality spin.
"It's smart by the other countries now, isn't it," Clarke said. "Our strength is our fast bowling so they are trying to take that as much as they can out of the equation. If I was a different country, I would be doing exactly the same. The reality is, since Shane Warne, we haven't brought through a number of great spinners or a number of great batters against spin.
"So opposition teams are probably seeing that as an area they can probably exploit against Australia. And we have to continue to get better. But I think the more you play in conditions that are conducive to spin it improves your batting. You learn how to find a way to have success and the same, you learn how to bowl in those conditions as well. So I'm not surprised."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here