Australia consider unchanged side
Australia are reluctant to change their match-winning combination and are expected to keep their all-pace attack for the Ashes decider at The Oval. While the visitors lean to a four-man seam unit, England remain adamant that they can bounce back from their two-and-a-half day humiliation at Headingley, with their captain, Andrew Strauss, backing the character and balance of the 14-man squad at their disposal.
The depth of England's squad is designed to cover every bowling permutation, from an extra swing bowler in Ryan Sidebottom to the second spinner, Monty Panesar, but with Andrew Flintoff's right knee showing strong signs of lasting the distance, their range of alterations becomes much clearer. Australia almost carry a closed shop following the victory in Leeds that levelled the series and the most likely line-up includes the quartet of Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus and Stuart Clark. Brett Lee is pushing to appear in his first match of the series but his only way back is if Ricky Ponting is convinced there will be considerable reverse-swing during the match.
Unfortunately for Lee, The Oval's groundstaff say the ball has not moved late throughout the season, and the only bare spots that could rough up the ball are on the practice pitches at the edge of the square. Surrey's cricket manager, Chris Adams, told Cricinfo that this could be due to the Tiflex ball that is currently used instead of the Duke in the second division of the County Championship, but either way it does not bode well for Australia's pace spearhead.
"What we see at the moment is what we expect," Ponting said at The Oval on Tuesday. "As I said after the Headingley game, we're going to have to see something really different to change the make-up of the side considering everything worked really well. The wicket looks particularly good and it could dry a little bit."
Usually such a barren pitch would make a spinner a certainty, but Nathan Hauritz chips in with wickets rather than dominating batting orders and the side coped without him in the more seam-friendly conditions in Leeds. Ponting called Hauritz a "very smart and skilful offspinner" and talked up his performance in the tour game in Canterbury, while he also reminded England of Lee's qualities during a cautious description.
"With Brett, his record suggests he is a really striking bowler who can go for a few runs," Ponting said. "If it looks like it's going to be really dry and later in the game there might be some reverse-swing, then he'll come into consideration." The current forecast, which changes more often than batting gloves late in the game, is for rain on Thursday and sunny intervals over the following three days.
Ponting was impressed by the pitch and predicted some big innings during the match, which Australia only need to draw to take the Ashes. He also hoped it would provide pace, bounce and some turn late in the contest. "If you look at the results over the last couple of years there have been big innings - teams have made 600, 580 - and I'd expect at some stage in this game there will be those sorts of innings as well," he said.
Strauss kept his large squad together "in case things go wrong" on Wednesday and refused to rule out the use of two spinners. "It's definitely an option," he said of Panesar teaming up with Swann. "It's a pretty dry wicket. At the moment it looks like a belter, it looks like a great wicket to bat on, but there's always a chance that it's going to deteriorate in the back-end of the game."
Whatever changes England make, Strauss will be satisfied if they are planned, unlike the frenetic start to the Headingley Test when Matt Prior, the wicketkeeper, hurt his back in the warm-up. That injury delayed the toss, Strauss was out quickly and England fell for 102 on the way to an innings-and-80-run loss. "I just don't want a wicketkeeper falling over five minutes before the toss," he said, hoping for a more sombre lead-up.
Regardless of any off-field distractions, however, Strauss is confident that his team will be fully focussed once the action gets underway. "We've been through a lot of tough times in the last six to 12 months and generally we've come through," he said. "Guys are holding their heads up and we're as tight a unit as we were at the start of the series.
"I'm absolutely certain that we're going to go out and play well this week. I've got no doubt about it. The crowd are going to get behind us, there's going to be fantastic support there for us. The guys are going to go out there in the right frame of mind and enjoy their cricket. Pressure is only something you put on yourself. That's not something that's going to be pre-occupying us."
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo