Australia vs England | Thursday 21 November - Monday 25 November | The Gabba, Brisbane | 02:00
If words are ever required to spark aggression between these two nations, one need only turn to Shane Warne. The mildly schizophrenic former Australian spinner does not deal in one-sided criticism, hitting out at Ricky Ponting for picking on Michael Clarke’s captaincy in his autobiography, then saying the captain needs to do more to make the team a happier unit off the field. While Warne hardly ever criticises his “best friend”, he has a point. Australia have not looked the same smiling, cocksure side they were under former captains, though a lack of good performances would be the main contributor here. What Warne may be alluding to is that Clarke is simply not as dynamic off the pitch as he is on it. This will lead to an erosion of team culture, something that will be difficult for Clarke himself to repair.
Perhaps greater support in his leadership on the field will lead to change. ODI captain George Bailey has been included in the squad and is set to make his test debut in Brisbane, adding stability not only in the middle-order, but in decision making. Shane Watson’s injury scare seems to have abated, and if he is fit to bowl, Australia may look to exclude all-rounder James Faulkner. With Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle likely to take the new ball, and Mitchell Johnson included based on recent pace and form, there is not much room for Faulkner. It seems logical to include Lyon as the primary holding spinner, despite Steve Smith and Clarke himself being able part-time turners. Johnson and Bailey will be the only players England would not have faced in the Ashes at home, Mitchell Starc injured and replaced by the former. With Rogers and Warner the opening partnership and Watson batting three, a middle-order of Clarke, Smith and Bailey looks promising.
The English have not won an opening test away from home since 2004. However, the notorious slow starters, though conceding heavily in their first tour match, have somehow managed to hit the ground running in the batting department. Cook and likely opening partner Carberry both registered 150s against Australia A, while Trott, Bell, Root and Pietersen have all been in the runs. The bowlers haven’t fared too badly, with Broad and Finn most notable. England have packed their squad to the rafters with tall, fast bowlers. Travelling with Broad, Tremlett, Finn and Rankin means the final three are forced to compete for the spot of third seamer, the selectors ignoring the consistent county form of Graeme Onions. It also means that if Anderson breaks down, England have little to turn to when it comes to variety. Monty Panesar has been included as the back-up spinner to Graeme Swann, his personal problems seeming more of a burden on the squad than anything else.
England have also included the likes of Gary Ballance and Ben Stokes, who along with Boyd Rankin are, as yet, uncapped in the test arena. Jonny Bairstow has also made the squad and with his position at number six almost certainly out of his reach, may only see game time if Matt Prior fails to recover from a calf injury. Captain Alastair Cook was lambasted by Shane Warne (who else?) for his lack of imagination as a captain. Warne is of the opinion that England will never regain the number one place in the world if Cook continues to captain negatively and defensively. It looks as if Warne is simply stirring the pot, naming KP or Swann as his choice for captain. Cook’s record speaks for itself, and until it begins to inspire doubt, has no business being questioned.
The Gabba will host the first test and although renowned for being green, with consistent pace and bounce, this time last year saw it go rather flat in the test against South Africa, forcing a draw. In fact, the 2010 Ashes test hosted here also ended in a draw.The holding spinner will likely be included in the sides for this reason. Australia have not lost at the ground since the great West Indian side toured in 1988. There is very little rain forecast for the test, apart from thunderstorms on the final day.
BEST: To Score a Hundred, Michael Clarke 4/1
Although he has been plagued by injury in recent times, when Australia needs it most, their captain comes to the party. He loves the ground, having scored 259 not out in his last test outing here, preceded by 139, both in the Australian first innings. If you’re feeling lucky, back the trend at a great price.
VERDICT: Draw 29/20
Despite the juicy prices on offer for both England and Australia, all signs point towards a draw. Both sides have batting lineups that inspire confidence and with the weather predicted, batting should turn out to be a dream. It looks as though it will be struggle for either side to take twenty wickets here. Expect a whole bunch of runs.
Disagree with Maverick? Let us hear your thoughts. Please comment below.