England hold all the aces


Cricket:PERHAPS THIS is as big a Test as any of them. The Ashes have been retained and Australia are wounded, both physically and mentally. The captain has been hounded and has gone, done by his own team. So too a leading bowler, Ryan Harris, whose ebullience did for England in Perth as much as the landmark performance from Mitchell Johnson.

They have a new captain, Michael Clarke, in dreadful form himself and, despite all the outward displays of solidarity, neither universally liked nor respected in his own ranks, and in Usman Khawaja and Michael Beer, likely Test debutants as number three and the spin option.

It does not sound like a recipe for success against an England team who are going from strength to strength. Yet Australia may yet rise from the canvas and deliver the blow that would level the series and, at a stroke, diminish all that England have achieved over the past couple of months.

England will be reminded by Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower this rubber is very much alive. And that as well as England bounce back from defeat, almost a trademark now, so too did Australia after the second Test at Adelaide, the first of their two innings defeats. Together Flower and Strauss have to reassemble their troops and refocus on what this match really means.

Since the Bodyline series only Len Hutton’s 1954-55 tourists and those of Mike Brearley in 1978-79, who took on a side devastated by World Series cricket, have won three or more Tests in a series in Australia. Unless the weather interferes, the coach and captain will accept nothing less.

This is the match in which they can demonstrate a ruthlessness that despite their considerable achievements, they have yet to demonstrate to the full. They have an advantage. Before the tour began David Saker, the architect of the bowling plan, said that of all Australia’s pitches, the Sydney Cricket Ground would suit England’s play more than Australia’s.

It does not turn as once it did, he would have said, but it swings – Australia were tormented by Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir a year ago – and in Jimmy Anderson England possess the best exponent of the art in the game. And if it did happen to spin, then there is none better at the moment than Graeme Swann.

England’s batsmen cope with the moving ball on a slowish pitch better than their Australian counterparts. Finally, they can out-field any team in the world. It all represents a considerable credential.

Now comes the sting. How clean will a new broom sweep? So driven has been Ricky Ponting, so utterly devoted to seeking retribution for what happened to his team in England in 2009, he trained himself into a slender shadow, to the extent that some are suggesting he overtrained and lost some of his power. It has served to give him a haunted look as the tide has turned against him.

There is just a chance his finger injury has come at an apposite time: sometimes a change is as good as a rest. It means, though, that the burden falls on Clarke, who has failed consistently in this series. Will the extra responsibility galvanise him into action or weigh him down so heavily that he sinks? England will come at him stronger than ever now.

There will also be a huge challenge for Khawaja, a young man for whom no one has anything but the highest regard. He is being asked to fill some huge boots though, and in the most challenging of positions. Khawaja is being asked to rescue a situation and to do so from the front line.

This may well be the final Test that Paul Collingwood plays. If that is so then he deserves to have gone out on the highest of notes, And then, after 68 matches, his own announcement on his terms. That would be the way to go.

Guardian Service