Ponting piles pressure onto Trott
Australia's captain, Ricky Ponting, has accused England of showing "a bit of desperation" in their selection of an uncapped batsman, Jonathan Trott, for this week's Ashes decider at The Oval, and has warned Trott that he faces an intense examination of his credentials in a match that Ponting himself has described as the "biggest" of his 135-Test career.
"I think there'll be huge pressure on him, to tell the truth," Ponting told reporters at The Oval. "It's always hard making your debut in a Test match against an Australian team, let alone it being in such a big game as this one is. Once we realised he was in their side, we've had a good chance over the last few days to have a good look at the way he plays."
Australia's preparations were aided by the untimely leaking of England's squad for the fifth Test, which was revealed in the press two days before the official announcement was made on Sunday morning, and Ponting said that his team management had wasted no time in gleaning as much information as possible on a player who has averaged more than 80 for Warwickshire in first-class cricket this season, but who has never experienced an atmosphere to match the one he faces on Thursday.
"We've spoken to quite a few of the Australian guys around the county circuit about how he plays," he said. "We've got some footage from some of the one-day and Twenty20 stuff he's played earlier this season. There's no doubt that there will be great pressure on him, and it's up to us that when he gets his chance to bat we keep him under pressure right from the start and don't let him get any cheap, early runs." Cricinfo understands that the gist of the advice from the county circuit has been to bombard him with short stuff, and to play on his penchant for working off-stump deliveries through leg.
Ramping up the intensity on the eve of the contest, Ponting also questioned the judgment of the England selectors, for picking and then jettisoning Ravi Bopara at the pivotal No. 3 position after a run of 105 runs in seven innings, and for trusting Ian Bell to overcome his natural diffidence in that position instead. Having ripped through England's Nos. 3, 4 and 5 for a match total of 16 runs at Headingley, Ponting was sure there would be more quick wickets to come this week.
"When we arrived, which is only a couple of months ago, everyone was talking about how good Bopara was and how much of an impact he's going to have on the series," Ponting said. "That hasn't happened. We did feel we had the wood over Bopara, there's no doubt about that. [Ben] Hilfenhaus, especially, had the wood over him. He's got him out five times in the series.
"With Bell having to move up in the order more than likely and Trott, the opportunities are still there for us if we can knock the openers over nice and early. That's how we'll look at it. There's no doubt that the three they've got there - Bell, Trott and Collingwood - are going to be under some sort of pressure at different times in this game."
Unsurprisingly, England's captain Andrew Strauss defended Trott's selection, and believed that the form he has shown for Warwickshire this season will enable him to overcome his inevitable debut nerves - just as Strauss himself did on debut in 2004, when he scored a century against New Zealand at Lord's.
"When I made my debut I felt in the best form of my life and that carried me a huge distance into the Test match," Strauss said. "It is a step into the unknown, but when you're in great nick you back your game plan against anyone, and I think that's where Trott is at the moment. He's played brilliantly in the nets, and played brilliantly all season, and he's a confident guy. It's a big game but he's got the game to play any bowler. I'm very confident he can do well."
Changes were inevitable after England's innings-and-80-run defeat at Headingley, but Strauss refused to let the condemnation of that performance linger. "It's always easy to look back at the last game and say our middle order's weak," he said. "I personally don't subscribe to that. The last game they played badly, that's true, but it's a fresh set of circumstances and what a great opportunity it is for all those guys to stand up and show what good players they are."
Strauss confirmed that Trott would bat at No. 5 on his Test debut, but backed all of his under-fire batsmen to prove their mettle this week, not least Collingwood, who will return to No. 4, the position from which he made his Ashes double-century at the Adelaide Oval in 2006-07.
"I think Trott's got the right characteristics and right temperament to be able to deal with [the pressure] well," Strauss said. "I also like Colly's tenacity at No. 4 and I think in big games you always expect a lot of your senior players. And Belly's a class act. He played exceptionally well at Edgbaston and I think he'll play well again here this week."
The reception from the Oval crowd is one area in which Trott may encounter some unexpected pressure, given his South African origins. But Strauss, who was himself born in Johannesburg before moving to England as a child, did not expect there to be anything other than support from English fans during such a crucial fixture.
"I don't know if the crowds going to have problems with him, I certainly don't," said Strauss. "He's served his apprenticeship here, he lives here, it's been the case for other players in the past, and he shouldn't be treated any differently. The reality of the situation is, he's come in and he deserves his chance. He's averaging 80 this season, his career stats are very good and he's a gutsy individual. He knows the reasons he's been selected and he knows the reasons I'm confident he'll come in and do well."
Whatever happens this week, Strauss warned that England could not afford to let the occasion overwhelm them, as it so nearly did with the Ashes up for grabs on this very ground in 2005. "We've got to guard against emotion taking over for all of us, "he said. "It's an important game, and in important games there is an element of nerves there, an element of excitement. You play your best cricket when you're emotionless. It's a case of your head ruling your heart most of the time and perhaps we didn't do that as well as we should have done in Headingley.
"There are lessons to be learned from that Headingley Test match," he added. "Clearly none of us are struggling for motivation this week. Everyone is genuinely excited about playing this game of cricket. It could be a very, very special game of cricket. If we start the game well we have a really good chance of putting them under a lot of pressure to get back in the game."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo