Strauss calls for renewed focus
England's captain, Andrew Strauss, has challenged his players to raise their intensity back to the levels they produced for their crushing victory in the second Test at Adelaide, as they prepare to take on a youthful Australian team that has no option but to throw everything they've got into a match that could decide the destiny of the Ashes.
With Australia trailing one-nil in the series with three games to play, Strauss knows that a victory at the WACA would guarantee the retention of the urn, but that in itself is a tall order at a venue where England have won just once in 11 Tests. "We're expecting five days of very tough Test cricket," he said. "If Australia were wounded in Adelaide and have a point to prove, then they're going to be that much harder to beat. We've got to be ready to counteract that."
England have dominated the last seven days of this Ashes series, including all five days of their "perfect" performance at Adelaide. But the one occasion in which they have been truly unsettled came on the first day at Brisbane, when Ricky Ponting unleashed a side containing ten of the players who lost the series in England in 2009, and with Peter Siddle's hat-trick epitomising their emotional onslaught, claimed ten English wickets in little more than two sessions.
Though that surge of adrenalin could only take the Australian team so far on that occasion, Strauss was aware of the dangers of being caught cold after a week of relative down-time in an otherwise intense campaign. "I think motivation to win and desperation to win can be pretty positive things," he said. "If it spills over into getting too emotional about things then it can be detrimental. But we've got to be just as desperate as Australia - because if we're not, we'll come unstuck."
Nevertheless, the past week of down-time has been full of potential pitfalls for England. A low-key practice match in Melbourne fizzled out into a momentum-sapping draw, and while the team's key strike bowler, James Anderson, was on the other side of the world attending the birth of his second child, the rest of the squad were being reunited with their families ahead of Christmas, with all the attendant disruptions that that can cause.
"We've obviously got some good momentum in the series from how we played in Adelaide, but we've had a good seven or eight days off, away from Test match cricket," said Strauss. "The intensity dropped over that period, so it's important we get the intensity again, and start this game well. It's about us keeping our feet on the ground, remembering what we've done well so far in the series and making sure we replicate that. It counts for nothing if we give it away here."
"But in a lot of ways, it's a good thing," he added, "because you can get too caught up in the euphoria and expect to just be able to turn up and bowl teams out again. That's not the way cricket works. You've got to earn the right to get on top of opposition sides, so it's been quite helpful in a sense to get away from it for a few days, let it sink in, come to Perth and realise these are going to be slightly different conditions.
"What we need to do as both batters and bowlers here is slightly different to Adelaide," he said. "We've also built up those energy reserves. It's going to be five hot days here, and we're going to need to play consistent cricket for the entire match.
On the subject of the families, Strauss insisted that their arrival had been nothing but beneficial. "It's been a great fillip for the squad to have the families here," he said. "After six weeks or so in each other's pockets, dinnertime conversation gets a bit staid and boring after a while. It always provides a big lift when they arrive - and I think that good, positive, warm feeling is a nice way to start a Test match. Jimmy's fine, absolutely spot on, he's brought back that slightly euphoric feeling with him. We're in a good place mentally, and I hope we transfer that on to the pitch."
The greater concern for England is the loss of Stuart Broad to a stomach injury, a set-back that has deprived the side of their most in-your-face seam bowler, which in turn has raised questions as to whether Chris Tremlett, an improbably gentle giant at 6'8", is the right man to maintain the aggression in England's bowling ranks, despite the likelihood of wicket that will suit his imposing frame.
Despite bowling tidily at the MCG, Tremlett went wicketless in two innings, and was outplayed in the conditions by Tim Bresnan, whose solitary wicket was the seamers' only success in 76 overs. "All our back-up bowlers have got something they can add to the mix, no doubt about that," said Strauss. "The challenge is always to pick the XI you think is most likely to win you this Test match. We've got to balance the different attributes those bowlers have with what we think is going to be most effective. We will be announcing that decision at the toss."
Ponting, meanwhile, knows he is staring into the abyss - a third Ashes defeat as Australian captain would leave him in an untenable position regardless of his formidable personal record - but if that is the case, he's determined to face the music and dance. The twin selections of Phil Hughes and Steve Smith is the sign of a new youthful approach that the former Australian captain, Steve Waugh, believes is the only way forward for a team in transition, and Ponting believes that an energetic attitude is the best way to catch England cold.
"I think there's a great opportunity for us here," said Ponting. "I've been really excited about the last few days. England will have at least one change in the side, one that we know of anyway, and Anderson, much as he's talking it up and not really worrying [about jet-lag], we've all done those flights in the past and it takes a couple of days to get over them. So we'll see how he pulls up. I honestly feel that the pitch conditions here are as foreign to English players as probably anywhere else in the world, and hopefully we can exploit that this week."
England, however, have done their homework in that regard. The planning for this series involved 10 days of preparation including a three-day warm-up at the WACA against Western Australia, and Strauss believed his team was ready for all eventualities. "The last Test match I played here four years ago wasn't massively quick and bouncy, [nor was] the warm-up game. But there are differences here. You need to leave balls, and have to be more judicious about which ones you play and leave here than on other pitches.
"You need to adapt your game - and that is what cricket is about all over the world. You go to India, you need to adapt your game to the conditions there - and likewise here. Australia's record here is very good, so that suggests they're better at adapting to these conditions than other teams. But that means it's a great opportunity for us to show we're a better side than we used to be."
But if the WACA really is to be Australia's last stand in this series, they are primed to go down swinging. If England are even fractionally off their game, they can expect to be chinned much as they were on that first day at the Gabba.
"If you look back at the great success we've had as the Australian team in the last few teams, it's been with guys who are willing to take the game forward whether we've been in trouble or dominating the game," said Ponting. "That's the way that we play our best cricket, so these guys have grown up playing their cricket that way, and if they play their natural games they will have some impact on the game."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.