No spinner a risk for Australia - Croft
Robert Croft, the most authoritative voice on spin-bowling in Cardiff, believes the Australians will be sending a poor message to Nathan Hauritz if they field an all-pace attack for the first Test on Wednesday. Croft, who represented England in seven Ashes Tests and has amassed 329 matches for Glamorgan, expects England to play both Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar on a Sophia Gardens pitch that will take turn, potentially leaving the Australians exposed should they opt against a frontline slow bowler.
The condition of the Cardiff pitch is proving every bit as intriguing as the make-up of the respective XIs ahead of the first Ashes Test. The decision of the ECB pitch panel in May to penalise Glamorgan for producing a pitch that "demonstrated excessive turn and should therefore be rated 'poor'" has prompted much nervous discussion ahead of Sophia Gardens' first-ever Test, and the move to place the curator, Keith Exton, under a media ban, has only added to the drama.
So curious were the Australians to uncover the truth about the Sophia Gardens playing surface that they dispatched Troy Cooley, their bowling coach, and Steve Bernard, their team manager, to Cardiff a day early for a recce of the pitch. Both will hope that the wicket proves as conducive to reverse swing as it does spin, but Croft, a four-time Glamorgan player-of-the-year, has warned of the dangers of relying on an all-pace attack.
"Ricky [Ponting] and the Australians will do whatever they want, but my feeling is that if they go into the match without a spinner it will be a real downer for Nathan Hauritz," Croft told Cricinfo. "If they don't play him in Cardiff, I don't know where he's going to play in this country. It could be a bit dangerous to go in with some bit-part bowlers, particularly if they go for a shedful of runs. I think they could really miss a spinner from day four.
"We've only played three Championship matches there this season and all of those were affected by rain, but I would expect the wicket won't change too much for the first two or three days, then start to turn a bit. It is the outfield that has been relaid, not the square, and if there is five days of good weather, I think it will spin."
Australia's selectors had hoped Hauritz would make a compelling case for selection in the two tour matches against Sussex and England Lions, but a combined return of 2 for 260 from 68.2 overs has given them little choice but to play four fast bowlers, and rely on the part-time spin of Marcus North, Michael Clarke and Simon Katich for variation. That could lead to a major contrast in the make-up and strategies of the opposing teams, with Australia placing their faith in reverse swing and England hoping for turn to assist Swann and, possibly, Panesar.
Brett Lee has signalled Australia's intention to legally scuff the new ball, duplicating India's tactic from last year's Border-Gavaskar Trophy series, in an attempt to reverse the ball early. Croft said the strategy could work on the abrasive Cardiff surface, but felt spinners would similarly benefit.
"I have not seen the pitch in the last four or five days, but I would have thought England would probably look at playing the two spinners," Croft said. "That said, there has definitely been reverse there in the last few seasons. If the weather is hot, the ball will go reverse earlier than you probably think."
The Met Office is predicting intermittent rain for Cardiff early in the week, but clear skies for the first two days of the Test. That will come as pleasing news to both the teams and administrators, the latter of whom have been excoriated by critics for scheduling the first Test of an Ashes series at a stadium with a capacity of just 16,000.
Croft, though, is adamant the awarding of the first Ashes Test to Cardiff is due recognition for Wales' long-standing contributions to the England team. Sophia Gardens will become world cricket's 100th Test venue on Wednesday, and the first new one in England since Chester-le-Street hosted an England-Zimbabwe Test six years ago.
"It is the England and Wales Cricket Board, and this is well deserved as far as I'm concerned," Croft said. "I think this will be the kick-start cricket in Wales needs, and will encourage a new generation of kids to take up the game here. For kids to have the opportunity to now watch the best players in the world on their doorstep is incredible. I think the knock-on effect of this will be huge."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo