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Ashes 2013: Matt Prior to lead England against Western Australia

It was widely expected that Cook would miss the opening match due to injury

Matt Prior, the vice-captain, will lead England on Wednesday in the first match of their Australia tour. The absence of the captain, Alastair Cook, with a stiff back may be more of a precaution than a necessity but it still suggests that both sides in the forthcoming Ashes series will have concerns about their leaders in the lumber region.

It was widely expected that Cook would miss the opening match against a weakened Western Australia team as he sat out the squad’s practice at the Waca ground for the second successive day. Nor is he the only high profile player not in the starting XI. Other players almost certain to be selected for the First Test, who will not feature in the curtain-raiser, are Kevin Pietersen, Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad.

It is difficult to tell whether it is good news or bad for Jonny Bairstow, who was dropped from the team late last summer and is not playing. He is bound to view it as the former, but it still means that his county colleague, Gary Ballance, has an early opportunity to stake a claim for the troubled number six batting berth as does the exciting Durham all-rounder, Ben Stokes.

The selection is a departure from England’s policy on the triumphant tour of three years ago when they invited the potential Test team to play in the first two matches. Cook’s injury forced a change and Pietersen has only just joined the squad after being given compassionate leave.

In some ways the match will be a battle of the giants on a pitch likely to be livelier than most that the tourists will encounter, if it is not quite the sprightly surface of yore. Chris Tremlett, Steve Finn, Boyd Rankin, all a minimum of 6ft 7ins will be straining at the leash to join Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad as the third member of the pace attack.

A plethora of bouncers will not be guaranteed but equally there is unlikely to be a great deal to which batsmen will go forward with any optimism that the ball will be in the appropriate region.  At the least it will be an early marker of how England intend to go about their business in the coming weeks.

They have adopted a relaxed air about Cook’s back, which has become a chronic complaint, suggesting that the long flight from England was a major contributory factor. But that was almost a week ago and the journey from Perth to Hobart where England play next is hardly a short hop.

Michael Clarke, the Australia captain, who has a back complaint of longer standing (or lying down probably) made his return to competitive cricket on Tuesday in New South Wales in their opening Sheffield Shield match. He allayed many of the concerns which are accompanying the latter part of his career with a solid 88 from 190 balls.