Ashes in the bag, but series still at stake
January 3-7, Sydney
Start time 10:30 (23:30 GMT)
The Big Picture
The Ashes have been retained, but there's still so much at stake as the series moves on to the New Year Test in Sydney. Another performance as crushing as either Adelaide or Melbourne proved to be, and England will have triumphed 3-1 - a margin of victory befitting a campaign that has been as meticulously crafted as any in the long history of Anglo-Australian rivalry. Another slip-up of the sort that threatened to derail them in Perth, however, and the series will be squared at 2-2, the first such scoreline since 1972, but one that would leave the Aussies feeling decidedly chipper after one of their most exacting home summers since the mid-1980s.
All the signs point to England. They are settled, confident and - despite a few justified hangovers on the morning after the Ashes were retained - supremely focused on a speck in the middle distance which reads "World No. 1". They've got a long way to go yet, but seeing as they have not lost a series of any description since September 2009, they are well on their way to that aim. Australia, by contrast, have just succumbed to their fifth Test defeat in seven matches, and are reeling not only from the sheer destructiveness of England's performance at the MCG, but the implications of the collateral damage as well, with Ricky Ponting sidelined for the first time in six years.
Nevertheless, we've been here before in Ashes cricket. Twenty-four years ago at this very ground, the seeds of Australia's renaissance were sown at the precise moment that England believed they had laid them out for the rest of the decade. When the unheralded offspinner Peter Taylor claimed eight wickets on debut to secure a consolation 55-run victory in the fifth Test of the 1986-87 series, it was assumed it was a case of dead cat bounce for an out-muscled outfit. On the contrary, that victory would be the first of 12 Aussie wins without reply in Ashes cricket, with their run finally ending at The Oval in 1993.
The lesson is simple. When Australia are down, they need to be kept there at all costs, because no side is more adept at improbable regeneration. The odds may be stacked against them, but if England dare to turn up without their fullest focus, the scope for an upset still exists.
Form guide(most recent first)
Watch out for...
Michael Beer and Usman Khawaja will be making their Test debuts, but they will have surpassed themselves if they attract even a fraction of the attention that will be reserved for third first-timer in the Aussie ranks. On Monday, Michael Clarke will become Australia's 43rd Test captain, and so step into a role that is second only in the nation's prestige to the office of Prime Minister. Whether he is worthy of such a position is a question that he needs to answer PDQ. Some 85% of respondents to a national newspaper poll do not believe he is up to it, and while his team-mates have rallied round obediently this week, it is no secret that he is not universally adored within the dressing room. With 148 runs at 21.14 in the series to date, he'll secure himself a quick hit of respect if he can rediscover his once-silky batting form.
Graeme Swann has been a ubiquitous presence in England's Ashes campaign, from his series-long tussle with Australia's main man, Michael Hussey, to his lead role in the sprinkler dance with which the squad celebrated the moment of victory at Melbourne. Through his acclaimed tour video, the insight track on a happy and harmonious squad has been plain to see. But his actual on-field contributions have been rather more subdued than he would have planned. Five matchwinning wickets at Adelaide and a vital holding role at the MCG have been offset by two anonymous outings at Brisbane and Perth. But Sydney is traditionally a spinner's sanctuary. He will expect to make feathers fly.
A new year, a new team for Australia. Ponting's broken finger means he will be absent from their ranks for the first time since the tour of India in 2004-05, some 73 Tests ago, while Ryan Harris's stress fractured ankle deprives them of arguably their most tireless fast-bowling option, and a man who claimed a career-best 6 for 47 at Perth a fortnight ago. Khawaja, Australia's first Muslim Test cricketer, will step into Ponting's immense shoes at No. 3, while Beer will finally get an outing after carrying the stubbies at the WACA and the MCG. Doug Bollinger is 12th man.
Australia 1 Shane Watson, 2 Phillip Hughes, 3 Usman Khawaja, 4 Michael Clarke (capt), 5 Michael Hussey, 6 Steven Smith, 7 Brad Haddin (wk), 8 Mitchell Johnson, 9 Peter Siddle, 10 Michael Beer, 11 Ben Hilfenhaus.
Paul Collingwood's form remains a concern for England, but he will surely play, albeit at No. 6, for what could yet be his final appearance in Test cricket. After his heroics in the fourth Test, Tim Bresnan has earned the right to keep his place in England's pace attack, despite the claims of the rested Steven Finn and the ever-eager but as-yet-unused Ajmal Shahzad.
England (probable) 1 Andrew Strauss (capt), 2 Alastair Cook, 3 Jonathan Trott, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Ian Bell, 6 Paul Collingwood, 7 Matt Prior (wk), 8 Tim Bresnan, 9 Graeme Swann, 10 Chris Tremlett, 11 James Anderson
Pitch and conditionsSydney's traditional characteristics will please Swann after a series in which only one surface, Adelaide, has truly played into his hands. But, according to David Saker, England's revered bowling coach and the architect of their strategies for all five Tests, it will also swing at the SCG. James Anderson will be licking his lips, but so too Mitchell Johnson. The curator Tom Parker says win the toss and bat, and to expect spin from day three, but heavy overnight rain may tempt the captains to bowl.
Stats and trivia
- Australia's record at the SCG is formidable, with 14 wins in 16 Tests dating back to 1996.
- However, England are the only side to have beaten them at the venue in that time. Their 225-run win in 2002-03 was their last win on Australian soil until last month's Adelaide Test .
- Alastair Cook needs 23 more runs to reach 600 for the series, a landmark achieved by just six England batsmen in Australia, most recently Michael Vaughan (633) in 2002-03.
- Ricky Ponting 's absence leaves him stranded on 99 Test wins, which is still the most individual victories by any player in Test history.
Quotes"He'll be an aggressive captain, always looking to take wickets out there, make changes to the field and with the bowlers. That's the way Australians have played our cricket as long as I can remember. I think he'll be a very positive captain."
Michael Hussey gives a vote of confidence to his new leader, Michael Clarke
"We had one night out after the game, you should celebrate a Test victory and an Ashes-retaining victory heavily. I tried to a lead a merry dance, but that was one night and we've moved on."
Graeme Swann says that England's focus is back on the job after some heady times following the Melbourne win
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.