Anderson fit for Boxing Day
England could go into the Boxing Day Test with an unchanged side, after James Anderson allayed fears about his fitness with a lively performance in the team's two net sessions following the 267-run defeat at the WACA. Steven Finn also hit a good rhythm in an hour-long spell at the MCG, as the squad set about refocusing following a four-day break from practice.
In the aftermath of the Perth defeat, changes appeared to be on the cards for England, with the 21-year-old Finn looking weary following a rigorous introduction to Ashes cricket. More worryingly from the team's point of view, Anderson reported stiffness in his side following his less-than-ideal preparation for the match, which had involved 48 hours of flying time to return to England for the birth of his second daughter.
However, a chance to rest and recuperate appears to have done the job for both bowlers. "He's 100% fit," Andrew Strauss, the England captain said, "he had a niggle but has managed to shake it off and is available for selection."
Finn, meanwhile, went head-to-head with Ajmal Shahzad, whose old-ball skills could yet come into play in the final reckoning, if England feel that the surface will be conducive to reverse swing. Prior to England's return to action, Strauss had hinted that Finn was set to be retained in the bowling attack, having claimed 14 scalps at 33.14 to be the leading wicket-taker in the series.
"It has been a demanding Test series, especially with our reliance on only four bowlers, and Stuart Broad didn't bowl in the second innings at Adelaide," said Strauss. "So the bowlers have had quite a lot on their shoulders, but I don't think that's a reason for him not to play. We must look at the conditions here and decide what type of bowling attack will most suit, and also how fresh Finny is and the rest of the bowlers before we make any decisions."
"It'll definitely be harder for their attack," said Australia's vice-captain, Michael Clarke. "On a big stage, a very important Test match, to lose such a big player, it would definitely put a dent in their team, but I'm very confident that Anderson will be fit to play. Tremlett did really well, grabbing his opportunity in Perth, and Finn has done well in this series as well. But Anderson is probably the leader of their attack, the most experienced, They will miss him if he's not fit, no doubt."
The deciding factor in the make-up of England's team will be the nature of the pitch, which is expected to be slow and low and a far cry from the high-kicking conditions that greeted bowlers on both sides at the WACA. For the sake of the Boxing Day spectacle, it has to be hoped that it is a better surface that the one which England encountered for their three-day warm-up against Victoria earlier in the month, but either way, it is likely to be a pitch that rewards patience and accuracy.
Those are traits which Finn is renowned for possessing in abundance, although his adjustment to Australian conditions has not been entirely smooth on this trip. Australia have taken him at 4.5 an over in the course of the series, and at over 5 during the WACA defeat, although with Graeme Swann expected to play a much greater holding role in the forthcoming match, Finn's ability to force breakthroughs is a knack that England are reluctant to overlook entirely - especially if, as Strauss implied, England are going all out for victory rather than looking to settle for a drawn series and a retention of the Ashes.
"I think Finny has been a little frustrated that he hasn't been as consistent as he would like," said Strauss. "Last summer in England, his lengths were very good consistently and maybe he has not done it on this tour. But he is a bowler with a knack of taking wickets and it's a great skill to have. Every match he plays he is learning about bowling in Australia. The vast majority of what he has done on this tour I've been very happy with, and I expect him to continue getting better."
The other factor that could count against Finn is the prospect of reverse swing, which has been a regular weapon at the MCG in past campaigns, although the unseasonably damp weather in Victoria this year has led to more lush conditions and hence less abrasion on the Kookaburra balls. Shahzad is England's best exponent of reverse swing, and for that reason, he appears to have leap-frogged Tim Bresnan in the pecking order.
Strauss, however, will defer all such decisions until England have had a better read of a wicket which the MCG curator, Cameron Hodgkins, said "will offer something up front, then get quite flat."
"It's always dangerous to assume a pitch is going to play a certain way," said Strauss. "The wicket we played on against Victoria was very slow and low and there wasn't much in it for the bang-in-type bowlers, but according to reports the wickets have actually gone OK, so it would be wrong to think the Test wicket will be like that.
"They will be two tough Tests, you expect that out here," he said of the challenge awaiting England in the coming fortnight. "Huge support for Australia, Ashes on the line, there's going to be a lot of pressure around and personally that excites me. It's a great test for us as a side and I think we'll handle it well. I'm very confident that the team won't be overcome."
England (probable) 1 Andrew Strauss (capt), 2 Alastair Cook, 3 Jonathan Trott, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Paul Collingwood, 6 Ian Bell, 7 Matt Prior (wk), 8 Graeme Swann, 9 Chris Tremlett, 10 James Anderson, 11 Steven Finn.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.