Australia's Clark conundrum
Ten days of speculation, debate and general gum-flapping over Mitchell Johnson's selection prospects could amount to nothing. The embattled paceman is favoured to retain his place in the side for the third Test at Edgbaston, increasing the likelihood that the tourists will field a line-up similar, if not identical, to that which slumped to a 115-run defeat at Lord's last week.
With Australia set to gamble on Johnson's wicket-taking potential, Stuart Clark looms as the most contentious selection issue ahead of the coin toss on Thursday. Australia have desperately missed Clark's unerring accuracy and steady temperament in the first two Ashes Tests, and the veteran paceman advanced his case for selection at Edgbaston with a solid return of 4 for 74 from 23 overs in the three-day tour match against Northamptonshire.
Given the contrasting nature of Johnson's performance at Wantage Road (1 for 107 from 18.1 overs), many assumed Clark would enter the starting XI for the third Test in a straight-swap for the errant left-hander. But Johnson, it seems, has retained the faith of Ricky Ponting and Jamie Cox, Australia's on-duty selector, all but ensuring that the tourists must look elsewhere within their line-up if they are to accommodate Clark.
Of all the Australia bowlers in this series, Peter Siddle has performed the most modestly, and, like Johnson, has been unable to settle upon a consistent line. Siddle, though, has many influential supporters in the Australian hierarchy - not least Ponting and Tim Nielsen - who covet the raw aggression and intimidation he brings to the attack. He will be difficult to dislodge, even if raw figures (seven wickets at 44.57) suggest he is the most likely to make way.
"I thought Stuart bowled particularly well last week at Northants," Ponting said. " Siddle showed some good improvement and good signs down in Northampton as well. As far as a pecking order is concerned, you'll work that out tomorrow when we pick our XI."
Ben Hilfenhaus is presumably secure, given his nine wickets and general mastery of outswing, but the fate of the man who sits atop the series wicket-taking list alongside him, Nathan Hauritz, is less certain. If current weather forecasts prove accurate, and rain severely disrupts proceedings from Thursday, an attritional spinner armed with a greasy ball would be an unlikely candidate to provide Australia with the wicket-taking impetus needed to force their way back into this series.
"We've checked the stats for county games this season and spinners are averaging about 60 or 70 per wicket," Ponting told the Australian on Monday. "The numbers aren't compelling."
Ponting revised his position on spin bowlers on Wednesday, noting with surprise the dryness of the Edgbaston pitch and predicting that both sides would play at least one slow bowler each. Whether Ponting feels Marcus North fits the job description, as he did for the first two Tests in South Africa, will remain a mystery until the coin toss.
Should Hauritz be omitted, the murmurs surrounding North's place in the XI would almost certainly cease. The strong form of Shane Watson and Andrew McDonald at Wantage Road prompted discussion as to whether North's position at No. 6 could be under threat, but his part-time spin - not to mention his unbeaten 125 in Cardiff - would provide Ponting with variation and over-rate protection at Edgbaston.
Of course, there remains the very real possibility that Australia ignore the aforementioned selection permutations and plough on with the same attack from Lord's and Cardiff. That would represent either a tremendous gamble or complete obstinacy, depending on your viewpoint, after Australia's lacklustre performance in the second Test, and another backhander to the dependable Clark.
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo