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October 30, 2013
England have set up a potential fast-bowling shootout in their opening tour match against a Western Australia Chairman's XI with Boyd Rankin, Steven Finn and Chris Tremlett all vying for what is likely to be the final bowling slot in the first Ashes Test in Brisbane.
Matt Prior will lead England in the absence of Alastair Cook, who misses the match because of a back complaint exacerbated by the long-haul flight from London last week.
There is also a contest for places in the batting line-up. Michael Carberry, England's shadow opener, will step in for Cook, and there is also competition for places down the order for the No. 6 place at the Gabba with Gary Ballance and Ben Stokes being given the first opportunity ahead of Jonny Bairstow.
Bairstow may have regarded himself as the man in possession, even though he missed the final Test against Australia at the Oval, but his Yorkshire team-mate, Ballance, is not short of supporters. The techniques of both players against quick bowling have at times been questioned, which makes their selection at the WACA, the paciest and bounciest of Australia's Test pitches particularly intriguing.
Cook will be frustrated to miss out on the opening match, recognising that England need to set the tone with the bat as quickly as possible. They are anxious to remedy a disappointing batting return in the home Ashes series. Although they took the series 3-0, they failed to reach 400 in any of the five Tests.
"Last time we saw that big runs make a massive difference and set the game up," Cook said before he left London. "Sometimes in England, 240-250 can be a good score with the overhead conditions, but the majority of the time in Australia 400 is the bare minimum."
Prior, the first wicketkeeper to lead England since Alec Stewart in 2001, must also contend with a suggestion from Ricky Ponting, the former Australia captain, that England are past their best.
Ponting couched it in polite terms as he stopped off in Perth on a promotional tour for his autobiography. "I think the England team might be slightly past their absolute peak," he said "I just think they're getting to that stage where a lot of their guys have been around a long time and they've been at the top, or near the top, for a while.
"Some of their players would say the same, that they're probably just tapering off a fraction and our boys are on the way up. That's what I'm excited about with this contest.
"I think the Australian team's only going to improve, and sometimes when you have that sort of contest some funny things can happen. I'm not being unrealistic, I know this group of players are going to have to play at their absolute peak to win the Ashes. But I think they can. We've got a great record at the Gabba. If we happen to win that first Test, I believe that's possible."
Prior, one of nine thirtysomethings in England's squad, suddenly felt much older - and he had not even taken the field as England skipper. "It's his opinion, which is great - he's obviously a great ex-player," he said. "It's up to us older players to show that we're not that old just yet and hopefully got a few more years to go. Ultimately it comes down not to talking but performing."
Cook has to be careful to manage a long-standing, if minor, back ailment, but he has yet to miss a match with it and it cannot be compared with the debilitating condition which has plagued Michael Clarke, his rival Ashes captain. Prior called his absence "purely precautionary."
England's other omissions include Monty Panesar, who has had a stomach bug, and Kevin Pietersen, who joined the tour late after being allowed compassionate leave because of the death of a close friend in South Africa.
England XI Joe Root, Michael Carberry, Jonathan Trott, Ian Bell, Gary Ballance, Ben Stokes, Matt Prior (wk/capt), James Anderson, Steven Finn, Boyd Rankin, Chris Tremlett
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