Dead rubber? Not a bit of it. England’s retention of the Ashes in Melbourne made for an oddly unsatisfying atmosphere given that there is still one Test to go. Australia can still salvage a series draw, while 2-2 for England would be a horrible result. Looking at the way Australia played in Melbourne on top of their performance in Adelaide, they are the sort of team England need to get used to beating 3-1 away from home if they have serious pretensions of being the world’s best. Nothing about Andy Flower’s time in charge suggests he will tolerate any drop off from his players. And nor should he.
Australia have won 14 of their last 16 Tests at the SCG, on what is a win the toss and bat pitch. Rain is forecast to play a part in play tomorrow and Thursday, making a draw an outside bet. A turning pitch is also the perfect place for Graeme Swann to reassert himself. Effective in Adelaide but neutralised in Perth and used for constriction in Melbourne, Swann will love the chance to attack again. Bad news is that his nemesis Mike Hussey averages 101 at this ground.
If England have an area to improve on, it’s definitely the batting. If it’s possible to look fragile while scoring 500 then England managed it in Melbourne. They lost their first five wickets in the space of 110 runs and their last five in 54. Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell in particular have things to prove after their needless hook shots at the MCG. Collingwood has less runs than Ricky Ponting in this series, while Bell is desperate for a first Ashes hundred.
Usman Khawaja has looked incredibly chilled in the Sydney heat. There is an Obama-like quality to the young man who as the country’s first Muslim Test cricketer is the poster-boy of racial integration in Australian cricket. He has good looks, confidence, talent and a sense of humour. What pressure?
Khawaja is not the only debutant in Sydney – Michael Beer will play as Australia change up their attack from Melbourne. They are switching personnel and strategy almost at random in this series. They started with five batsmen, one allrounder (Shane Watson), three quicks and one spinner. In Perth and Melbourne that basically became four batsmen, four quicks, two allrounders. Here it will be four batsmen, three quicks, two allrounders, one spinner. The whole thing has a very England late-90s feel about it. A feature of England under Andy Flower has been the decisiveness in strategy and leadership. England have been clear about playing four bowlers since Andrew Flintoff retired – persisting with it through tough times in South Africa last winter and only changing to five after a Test in Bangladesh when conditions demanded it. The success is such that a once sceptical media hardly reference it any more. The bowlers have benefited from the lack of confusion, have learned to take the extra responsibility and now look capable of being aggressive and economical at the same time.
In announcing the Australian team the day before the game Michael Clarke has made an immediate statement of difference from the Ricky Ponting regime, when team selection was usually left to the morning of the match. Clarke cuts a measured figure in front of the camera, but has the unfortunate habit of talking too much. In one ramble he compared Ponting to a coach, saying that Ponting’s injury would make it easier for him to help the batsmen without the added pressure of his own game. What would Justin Langer, Australia’s batting coach, make of that?
Clarke is an unpopular man in Australia – he hasn’t helped himself with more semi-nude photoshoots than Jordan giving the papers plenty of ammunition. He has got previous under pressure though, hundreds against West Indies and New Zealand following personal problems involving ex-girlfriend Lara Bingle. It’s always worth remembering how much the media inform public opinions and how quickly things change. Bobby Robson was a saint when he died, but things had been very different in the run-up to and during the 1990 World Cup where England reached the semi-finals. A hundred in Sydney and suddenly the narrative of the Michael Clarke story begins to look a bit different.
Graeme Swann was quick to needle Kevin Pietersen for his comments about having helped England by ousting Peter Moores. “He is obviously right because Straussy is a much better captain.” For all Swann’s jocularity, and Pietersen’s determination to project his modesty, you sense there might be a couple of buttons being pushed there. Pietersen may be fully behing the Strauss/ Flower regime, but given the nature of his brief stint there is no way he would regard himself as a poor captain, and would be bound to expect serious consideration if the job came up again. Swann is never slow to bring KP down a few pegs, whether it be mimicking his accent or his mocking his sincerity. Perhaps it’s the Twitter factor – KP’s extra celebrity is evident given he has 8000 more followers than Swann despite Swann’s long-standing association with the format, and he played round a straight one when a misjudged joke accused Swann of perjury on it last year.