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By Shrikant Shankar
Dec 25, 2013
The Ashes 2013-14 is set to resume after the Christmas break at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) on Boxing Day. With Australia already having won the urn back, emphasis is on England to put themselves on the map. They were the favourites to win when they landed Down Under, but after a dismal show, England trail Australia by a 3-0 margin. England have underperformed and Australia have certainly punched above their weight; and that has culminated in the disparity between the two teams.
After the first Test loss in Brisbane, England were without the services of Jonathan Trott due to a stress-related illness. After the third Test loss in Perth, their playing staff has been further reduced as Graeme Swann announced his surprise retirement. The off-spinner’s mid-tournament retirement throws more light on the plight of the England team. Something is clearly not right in the setup. Whether it was always present or was it induced after receiving a thrashing from Australia is not clear as of yet.
But England enter the fourth Test at the MCG, which starts on December 26, 2013, as the underdogs. Alastair Cook has to not only worry about his beleaguered team, but also his own form. By the end of the third Test in the 2010-11 Ashes series, Cook had 495 runs to his name. So far in this series, he has only 154. There is a stark difference. But his job is to motivate his team and get the best out of them while performing with the bat himself.
Many have already suggested that England will lose the Ashes 5-0 and that is what they will try to evade. The match is at the imposing MCG, which has a capacity of nearly 100,000. They will make changes, some imposed, but would want to stay away from too many. Cook and Michael Carberry will open the batting as usual, but would want better and longer opening stands. Joe Root has fixed himself as the No 3. Kevin Pietersen has got out to some rash strokes and has been heavily criticised by former England captain Geoffrey Boycott. But he will keep his place at No 4 and if it all he clicks, then Pietersen can be the difference.
England’s top run-scorer in the series, Ian Bell will be at No 5. The find of the series, Ben Stokes will most certainly be at No 6. He scored a magnificent debut century at the Western Australian Cricket Association (WACA) Ground at Perth and kept English hopes alive till the fifth day. He is a genuine all-rounder and can bowl at a good speed. England really do not have any replacement for out-of-form wicketkeeper Matt Prior, so, he too will keep his place. Now the serious selection dilemmas arrive. What will be the bowling combination?
Spinners Scott Borthwick and James Tredwell have been drafted into the England squad. The failed experiment with Simon Kerrigan in the fifth Ashes 2013 Test will not be repeated at the MCG. But Monty Panesar is likely to replace Swann. Stuart Broad has been England’s best bowler, but his fitness remains a concern. His foot injury has to be treated with care and he should not be rushed back. Since, Broad might be indisposed, James Anderson might also keep his place. Anderson has looked really out of his comfort zone and not been anywhere close to effective.
Steven Finn may finally get a chance and can be set a similar task to the one Australia gave Mitchell Johnson. He is their fastest bowler, but whether he can rattle the Aussies is yet to be seen. Tim Bresnan will keep his place purely because of his lower-order batting abilities. The conditions at the MCG are like any in Australia and favour pace. There might not be as much bounce as seen at The Gabba and the WACA, but there will be enough. So, three pacers and one spinner is probably the way to go in Melbourne.
Australia, on the other hand, have already won the Ashes. The ignominy of being thrashed by England in the 2010-11 series has been washed out. But will the intensity in the remaining two matches be the same? The players would love nothing short of a whitewash, but it is easier said than done. It only takes one or two players to be a little complacent and things can get away from them. Michael Clarke and coach Darren Lehmann will work on that and try and motivate the team to keep the intensity at the same level.
Doug Bollinger and Nathan Coulter-Nile have been added to the match squad, but like James Faulkner, they will be spectators for the fourth Test unless someone gets injured. The teams for the first three Tests were exactly the same and those players know the levels at which they performed. The rest may not be at that level. And it is for these reasons, the team will most likely remain the same at the MCG. That means David Warner and Chris Rogers will open the batting.
They will be followed by Shane Watson at No 3. He will be buzzing after his century at the WACA. The indomitable Clarke will be at No 4. Steven Smith got a fine century in Perth as well and was Man of the Match, so there will be no change at No 5. George Bailey and Brad Haddin will follow Smith respectively. Haddin has been in excellent form with both the bat and with the gloves. Then comes the real difference between the two sides, Mitchell Johnson. The left-arm fast bowler has terrified all the English batsmen with some sheer pace and accuracy. Johnson has taken 23 wickets so far in the series — nine wickets better than second-placed Broad. He has also scored 147 runs. He is already the top contender for the Man of the Series award.
Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle make up the rest of the pace department and they got their share of the wickets in Perth. Nathan Lyon hasn’t been spectacular, but consistent. So, that makes up the Australian XI.
Clarke has won the toss on three occasions and while it is an important factor in a Test match, that is no excuse for England folding the way they have done in the series. There were signs that England were beginning to give a fight in the fourth innings of the third Test and that is what Cook and coach Andy Flower will be looking to carry on.
Also expect the Australian players to give it their best with the on-field banter. Boxing Day is upon us and expect a right-royal fight from the Australians. England have to turn up and be up for it. Christmas will be over by the time the Test starts, but both teams will be looking for their presents come the end of the match.
Australia (probable): Chris Rogers, David Warner, Shane Watson, Michael Clarke (c), Steven Smith, George Bailey, Brad Haddin (wk), Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle, Ryan Harris, Nathan Lyon.
England (probable): Alastair Cook (c), Michael Carberry, Joe Root, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Ben Stokes, Matt Prior (wk), Tim Bresnan, James Anderson, Steven Finn, Monty Panesar.
Time: 10.30 local | 05.00 IST
(Shrikant Shankar is a writer/reporter at CricketCountry.com. Previously he has done audio commentary for various matches involving India, Indian Premier League and Champions League Twenty20 for ESPNSTAR.com. You can follow him on Twitter @Shrikant_23)
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