England have settled on their team to begin the defence of the Ashes. They will not, however, be letting the rest of the world know until the toss for the first Test takes place on Thursday morning. So, yah boo sucks to everyone.
It is entirely in keeping with a policy whereby the names of 11 cricketers are invariably cloaked in high-level secrecy. The idea is to avoid offering the opposition any semblance of advantage. These are the one-per-centers, a variation on what can happen for the want of a nail.
The tourists arrived in Brisbane yesterday, excited, apprehensive, desperate for the days to tick by. No Australian on the street seems to think their team can regain the Ashes but the campaign begins at the perfect venue for the home side.
Australia have not been beaten at The Gabba for 25 years, since West Indies, still operating a hegemony in world cricket, prevailed by nine wickets. Since the ground is almost always the venue for the opening Test of a series, Australia are unaccustomed to going behind early, if at all.
It is some record to protect and by now each succeeding side is reminded of its duty to the country: to ensure Brisbane remains a fortress. Four of their number this week were in the side in 2009 when Australia suffered their first defeat at Lord’s since 1934. If they will have no wish to complete a home/away double they will also be painfully aware that no sequence can remain unbroken forever.
Like everybody else, Australia will already know 10 of their opponents and will be working on the presumption that they are pretty sure of the 11th, who will make up the fast bowling attack. The most mysterious third man since Kim Philby is almost certainly Chris Tremlett.
As the man who took the final wicket in England’s epic win in the Ashes in Australia nearly three years ago, there may be a sentimental allure to involving Tremlett. That has certainly been helped by the performances of his rivals for the position, Steve Finn and Boyd Rankin.
One has been regularly disappointing until much too late in both matches he has played, the other has been finding the difference between being effective for 10 overs in a one-day match and having to reel off concerted spells over two innings. If there is an element of Tremlett being picked by default, it may be wiser to err on the side of picking somebody who has done it before rather than someone who has not.
David Saker, England’s estimable bowling coach, was at pains yesterday to ensure that he divulged no secrets. On these occasions reading between the lines is what counts and Saker said just enough about Tremlett, whom he admires, to indicate which way the selection is heading.
“I think he’s right on it,” Saker said. “His training in the nets this week – I know it’s only nets – was excellent. We did some technical work, some ideas about where he was at the last time he was here. He took a lot of confidence out of the week.
“He has worked really well. I know he’s really confident he can do well. This week has been good and, if he gets the nod, I’m sure he’ll do a good job for us.”
It is part of recent English cricket folklore that when Saker took over as England bowling coach in 2010 he saw Tremlett in the nets and went into the coach’s equivalent of a schoolgirl swooning at the onset of One Direction. Tremlett had not played Test cricket for three years but Saker immediately pencilled him in for the Ashes that winter, advised the selectors accordingly and was rewarded from the third Test on with an imperious performance.
His rivals for Thursday are Finn, who played the first two Tests on the last Ashes tour, and Rankin, who has yet to play a Test. Saker sees strengths in both but unless he was playing the double bluff he was not quite so generous in his estimation.
“I think Boyd is going OK; he’s progressing in the right direction,” he said. “I thought his last two or three spells in Sydney were excellent. In his spell after tea on the third day, when we started so badly, the new ball he bowled with real purpose although he didn’t get a wicket. From that time on, he bowled well every spell, which was really pleasing.
“Again Steve got wickets, which he’s very good at. He bowls balls that get people out. He’s still a work in progress; he’s come back from some changes in his action which he’s still trying to work through. Getting eight wickets in the game was a good achievement for him. But he still needs more work, no doubt about that.”
There you had it; Michael Clarke, Australia’s captain, seems to have been right all along when he named England’s probable XI last week. This still depends on wicketkeeper Matt Prior recovering from his torn calf muscle but Saker was so upbeat about him that it would be astonishing if he failed to take the field.
Despite the coach’s plaudits, he was prepared to concede that none of the potential third men have bowled as well as they ought to have done to gain a Test spot. Australia have been so heartened by this that they have let it be known the third seamer will be targeted (they have said something similar about Graeme Swann as well so maybe they are simply being swept away by the ludicrous exaggerations of the phoney war).
“Teams might target certain players on our team but we pride ourselves as a group to do the job really well,” said Saker. “I know as a bowling group we’ll put pressure on them, and if they do want to come after our bowlers, good luck to them if they’re good enough to do that. But if they’re doing that there’s a good chance we’ll get some chances.”
Australia had better do their targeting while they can. Tim Bresnan, with the party but not yet an official part of the squad, is recovering rapidly from his stress fracture. He is bowling at full tilt in the nets and is expected to be available for the second Test in Adelaide. Saker insisted he was not a guaranteed selection there – Fortress Gabba might have crumbled by then – but he would provide a welcome option.