England ready to banish the ghost of painful 2006 collapse

Finn expected to be fit for pivotal Test as Australia agonise over bowling changes
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The Independent Sport

England return to the scene of the crime tomorrow. Four years ago in Adelaide, they contrived defeat from a match that was impossible to lose, that they had dominated for more than two days.

The second Test of the Ashes in late 2006 was the clearest example that no game is ever up. Had it been a mile race, Australia would have been a lap and a half behind, cut the deficit to a lap in the middle and then made the rest up as their opponents were within touching distance of the finishing tape.

For England that was that. The side had been vanquished in Brisbane, had somehow clawed it back but were finished after Adelaide. It was a matter only of how long the next three defeats would take. Five men will walk out for the tourists tomorrow having experienced the wretchedness of that impossible loss.

Each of them – Andrew Strauss, Paul Collingwood, Kevin Pietersen, Alastair Cook, Ian Bell – will remember it, if only for a fleeting, brutal moment. The Adelaide Oval is among the most beautiful cricket grounds in the world but to some of the men of England it may feel like a torture chamber.

There is the impression in this country that Australia are on the run and that was given credence last night with the burgeoning rumour that they were about to drop the fast bowler Mitchell Johnson, who had a woeful match in Brisbane. That would not speak of a side at ease with themselves. But England should still be exercised by what happened here before.

Strauss, now the England captain, was in some ways the catalyst for the events that ensued on the final day. About 45 minutes into the morning, nothing much having happened and paid observers starting to do their crosswords until the draw was finally declared, he was given out. Wrongly as it happened, adjudged to have been caught off bat and pad at short leg, but it was the opening Australia and Shane Warne needed. He took 4 for 49 in 32 arduous overs.

"There are a lot of memories from four years ago we want to banish," said Strauss yesterday. "But we played some of our best cricket on the tour here. Obviously that final day is one that none of us is proud of. But I'm not sure how relevant it is any more.

"My dismissal began it all. No, I didn't hit it. Australia got some momentum on the back of it and it became increasingly difficult and pressurised to bat in those circumstances."

It would be wrong to blame the defeat on Steve Bucknor's incorrect call but it panicked England. The second match in this year's series is also probably crucial to its destiny. A win here could be a decisive advantage because of the cramped nature of the series. There is a break after this match with the last three matches taking place in quick succession between 16 December and 7 January, broken only by Christmas and the New Year.

"Whichever team wins this game is going to be a in a great position for the rest of the series," added Strauss. "Never say it's impossible to drag it back because past experience in 2009 showed it was a very seesawing affair and it may well be the same here. But you know which side you would rather be in those circumstances."

England will feel they gained a substantial advantage from the draw in Brisbane, a match they might easily have lost after a weak start. But they are desperately intent on insisting that they did not win and that their record breaking score of 517 for 1 was just that and only that.

"For us to be jumping down congratulating each other would be a long way off the mark," said Strauss. "We're 0-0 in the series. This Test match takes on even greater importance in view of what happened in Brisbane and we're going to have to improve our performance, no doubt about it. We came back, we showed a little resilience but you can't afford to be behind in cricket matches too often because eventually the other team will convert that."

If England win the toss they will undoubtedly bat and if they reach 551 for 6 as they did four years ago they may not declare as they did then. It looked (and should have been) impregnable but there had only been two higher first innings totals in Test matches which had resulted in eventual defeat. The first had been more than 100 years earlier. The second had been at Adelaide only two years earlier and it had happened to Australia, who had made five runs more against India. England will not make that mistake again.

Much of the attention yesterday was on the Adelaide wicket and whether some grass might be left on it by the new groundsman. It is unlikely. The weather has not been as dry as it usually is but it would still be a surprise if the pitch was not a slow belter deteriorating to allow the bowlers some room for manoeuvre on the last two days.

Ricky Ponting, the Australia captain, does not expect much in the way of difference – despite The Gabba at Brisbane going against its normal nature – and he thinks the three Australians surviving from four years ago may get something out of the result.

"I think you can," he said. "Whenever you can dig yourself out of tough situations in games you can always reflect back on those moments. I guess we've got a bit of a different team to the one that played back then, there are still a few of us from that game. It probably does more for the individuals that were involved in that game than the team."

England are almost certain to keep the same team, though Steven Finn has a sore shoulder, and they may give passing thought to Ajmal Shahzad because of his reverse swing skills. But it would be a strange time for change.

Australia are a different matter. The dropping of Johnson is widely predicted and Ben Hilfenhaus, who observes the eternal verities of fast bowling more than the rest, is far from safe, with Ryan Harris poised to come in. That they do not know yet may be England's best hope of laying to rest the ghost of 2006 which has been the cause of so many nightmares since.

Teams, TV times and the toss: Adelaide Oval details

Australia (probable): R T Ponting (capt), S R Watson, S M Katich, M J Clarke, MEK Hussey, M J North, B J Haddin (wkt), M G Johnson, X J Doherty, D E Bollinger, R J Harris.

England (probable): A J Strauss (capt), A N Cook, I J L Trott, K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, I R Bell, M J Prior (wkt), S C J Broad, G P Swann, J M Anderson, S T Finn.

Umpires T Hill (NZ) & M Erasmus (SA).

Pitch report Likely to be a typical Adelaide surface, starting as a batting paradise and wearing – though unseasonal rain may have the effect of offering encouragement to the bowlers.

Weather Max temp: 31C. Hot and dry but with a chance of thunderstorms.

TV Tonight: Sky Sports 1, HD1, from 11.00pm.

Odds Australia: 13-5 England: 11-4 Draw:19-20 (Bet365).

Adelaide Oval Statistics

Highest total Australia: 674 in 1948; England: 551 for 6 dec in 2006.

Lowest totals Australia: 82 in 1951; England: 124 in 1895.

Highest individual score Australia: 299no, Don Bradman (1932); England: 206, Paul Collingwood (2006).

Best bowling (innings) Australia: 8 for 43, Albert Trott (1895); England: 8 for 126, Jack White (1929).

Toss wins Australia: 16 (batted 15, bowled one, 10 wins, three defeats, three draws).

England 13 (batted 10, bowled three, four wins, seven defeats, two draws).

Ponting's return to form? The under-pressure Australia captain has a great record at the batting-friendly ground and has scored more runs in Tests there than any other batsman, with 1,433 between 1996 and 2009, averaging 59.70.