The England selectors meet on Friday to pick the team for the first Test at Edgbaston, and the chances are that three issues will dominate the agenda.
Should Ian Ward, the latest Test recruit, continue at No 7, or should Owais Shah, clearly the next one, be allowed to leapfrog him? (Answer: Ward, if the selectors mean what they say about being more consistent; Shah, if they prefer to be utterly ruthless.) Secondly, who should be on stand-by in case Graham Thorpe doesn't recover from his calf injury? (Answer: Mark Ramprakash, the only contender with a proven record against Australia – his Ashes average is 45.) Finally, should Dominic Cork and Matthew Hoggard continue as the support bowlers after showing their limitations in the Test at Old Trafford? (Answer: yes and no. Hoggard gives way to Craig White, but Cork clings on because he can bat and because Edgbaston usually provides the swing without which his bowling doesn't mean a thing.)
There is another issue, which probably won't even get a mention. England's string of Ashes defeats goes back to the dawn of time, which for this team means 1989 – the year Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart first pulled on an England cap. Great servants in so many ways, Atherton and Stewart have hardly ever been at their best against Australia. Atherton's batting average in Ashes Tests is 31, Stewart's 27. If either was the type to make excuses, there would be reasonable ones to be made: Atherton had a bad back throughout the last two series, which stopped him swaying or ducking the inevitable bouncers; Stewart has been lumbered with the wicketkeeping gloves in 17 of his 24 Ashes Tests. And one or other of them has usually had the captaincy to contend with.
Now, for the first time in an Ashes series since Graham Gooch resigned, eight years ago, neither Atherton nor Stewart is captain. And also for the first time, both are on central contracts – not much use to Stewart in a particularly flaming June, but at least they will have regular breathers in the next two months, when, in another first, England have to contend with back-to-back home Tests.
All this will help. But there is something else that could help, which nobody is talking about: England's batting order. Stewart, as every cricket fan knows, is a poor starter against spin. Atherton, as every cricket fan knows, is a poor starter against Glenn McGrath. Just how poor, we can now say for sure, because my colleagues at Wisden have come up with a new type of head-to-head statistic, called Wisden 20:20, which gives a batsman's precise performance against an individual bowler – how many balls he has faced, how many runs he has scored, even how many times he has been hit on the pad.
Atherton's record against McGrath is extraordinary. He has been out to him 13 times (as we knew) for only 162 runs (as we didn't know). That's runs off McGrath, in all their Test meetings, regardless of whether it was McGrath who got him out. So Atherton's average against McGrath, head-to-head, is 12.
Those who say he is McGrath's bunny speak truer than they know: this is the average of a tailender.
Stewart's average against McGrath is 33, which is very respectable against a great bowler. Nasser Hussain does even better, with an average of 50; and Thorpe better still, with 58 (which suggests that McGrath is not a great old-ball bowler). So Atherton has played McGrath markedly worse than any of his senior team-mates. Hussain and Thorpe are not openers, but Stewart is, and his record as an opener against Australia is good – he averages 41, as against 25 when he goes in lower down. Yet the idea that Atherton and Stewart might need to swap places does not seem to have crossed anybody's mind.
This state of affairs is unlikely to be changed by one cry in the wilderness – sorry, in The Independent. Atherton will walk out to open next week with Marcus Trescothick, as sure as ducks are ducks. And Stewart will keep wicket, which means he won't open – even though his best innings in the last home Ashes series, a blazing two-hour 87, came in the one Test when he was asked to open as well as keep.
However, there are crumbs of hope. Atherton ran into top form last week with a large, leisurely, match-winning hundred for Lancashire. Stewart, who is even more of a form player than most, had such an awful sequence in the one-dayers that he must be about to come good again – and he showed signs of it with his 67 on Monday in the Benson and Hedges Cup semi-final.
The spurs are all in place. Both men desperately want to win an Ashes series for the first time in their long careers. Stewart has been widely written off in the past fortnight, and the last time that happened, when he was left out of the one-day side for South Africa 18 months ago, there was hell to pay. Atherton is suffering the indignity of seeing his McGrath stats paraded in the papers (sorry Mike).
And there is one encouraging precedent. Gooch, their old opening partner, had been a Test cricketer for 15 years before Australia brought out the best of him. At the end of his most wretched Ashes series, against Terry Alderman in 1989, Gooch had an average against Australia of just 26. Thereafter, it was 44 – even though there was a late slump in his final five Tests.
Anything Gooch could do, so can Ath and Stew.
Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden.com.