After months of speculation and innuendo, England appear to have bowed to the purists by preferring the spin of Monty Panesar to Ashley Giles for the Ashes series. That, at least, was the inference to be drawn from the selection for the final warm-up match yesterday against South Australia.
This much-awaited and unexpected announcement was overshadowed, however, by the absence from the side of the fast bowler Stephen Harmison.
He woke up feeling soreness in his side and was left out as a precaution but the injury, so close to the start of the first Test in Brisbane next Thursday, must be extremely worrying for the tourists. Sajid Mahmood and James Anderson were alongside Matthew Hoggard and Andrew Flintoff as England's seam attack.
Although Harmison's form has been moderate for several months, nobody seriously expects that England could defend the Ashes without his pace and bounce. His absence meant that the team in Adelaide flew in the face of most expectations. It had been commonly felt that management, if for balance alone, would opt for the more prosaic Giles before the poetic Panesar.
Australia, meanwhile, announced a squad for the first Test yesterday which contained six fast bowlers. As their quest to regain the Ashes will depend largely, if not exclusively, on the form of their leg-spinner, Shane Warne, this might be judged as mildly excessive.
At the least, it seemed to betray uncertainty about whom they think might be best equipped to put the frighteners on England, since it is now generally accepted that the tourists can expect to be assailed with a battery of pace, deliberately designed, as they say, to make them smell leather.
The home side's selectors had a different perspective about their choice, which is otherwise based largely on the tried, trusted and increasingly aged.
Of the seam sextet, Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee are certain to be in the XI who start the match in Brisbane next Thursday. They will probably be joined by Shane Watson, the all-rounder who can propel the ball at speeds approaching 90 mph, who all of Australia are praying is their Flintoff and who so far has played three largely undistinguished Tests in three series in the past two seasons.
That would leave Stuart Clark, Shaun Tait and Mitchell Johnson vying for one spot. Clark, the senior and steadiest among them, played well in South Africa last winter, but the public mood is clearly veering towards Tait and Johnson, both of whom are young, raw and hostile.
There is the germ of an obsession in the country for finding not only an attack capable of undermining England with fast bowling, but also one in which the component parts are different. This has its roots in England's incisive four-man seam attack during the 2005 Ashes in which each member complemented the other. Harmison had pace and bounce, Hoggard had accuracy and swing, Simon Jones had pace and reverse swing, and Flintoff occasionally had the lot.
Thus, Australia have Lee to provide the brutal velocity, McGrath to supply the metronomic accuracy allied to steep bounce, Watson to offer some more pace in the all-rounder's role, and one other. There has been some hand-wringing that Clark would be much too like McGrath, although a neat rejoinder has been delivered by Geoff Lawson, a Test fast bowler from another era, who pointed out it did not matter if they both took wickets. Quite.
The rest of the squad was predictable and if England had come up with such a vintage combination as they frequently have the Australians would certainly have dubbed it "Dad's Army". The long-standing opening partnership of Justin Langer, 36 next month, and Matthew Hayden, 35, remains intact despite pressure from Phil Jaques who has already scored, two hundreds against England on this tour.
Hilditch justified it simply by saying: "They have been one of the most successful partnerships in Australian cricket history." That is true. They have put on 5,326 runs together and shared 14 century partnerships, fewer only than Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes (16) and Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe (15). Still, Australia will field six players who are 35 or more. Shane Warne, indeed, is one of only three men still playing Tests who were born in the Sixties the others being Brian Lara and Sanath Jayasuriya. They are growing old together and the question will shortly be answered whether the selectors are allowing them to grow too old together.
England are the Boys' Brigade by comparison and Giles is the oldest of their squad at 33, although the media tour guide has him at 27. Paul Collingwood, 30, who now plays after the departure of Marcus Trescothick, spoke for them all yesterday when he said: "It brings a smile to my face how different it is from four years ago. We were talking about competing at the time; now we're talking about winning and that's the biggest difference." That and the fact that the Australians are four years older.
Young, gifted and quick: Australian pace rivals for first Test place
Right-arm fast bowler, right-hand batsman.
Tests 2. Wickets 5. Average 42. Best bowling 3-121. Runs 8. Ave 8.
Another genuine quick with unusual slingshot action. Played in last two Ashes Tests when Jason Gillespie was dropped but has had shoulder problems since then. Took 3 for 21 in England's tour opener in Canberra.
Left-arm fast bowler, left-hand batsman.
Tests 0. ODIs 10. Balls 420. Wickets 14. Average 25.78. Runs 19. Average 6.33.
Uncapped at Test level, has played 18 first-class matches. Genuinely quick left-arm seamer who, despite inexperience, can trouble the best batsmen with his awkward height, angles and variety.
Men on a mission: Australia's squad
Ricky Ponting (captain)
105 Tests, 8,792 runs, average 58.22.
4 Tests, 21 wickets, av 18.76.
Adam Gilchrist (Wicketkeeper)
85 Tests, 5,124 runs, av 48.80.
84 Tests, 7,326 runs, av 53.08.
11 Tests, 1,139 runs, av 75.93.
100 Tests, 7,393 runs, av 45.35.
54 Tests, 211 wickets, av 31.45, best 5-30.
56 Tests, 3,947 runs, av 51.25.
119 Tests, 542 wickets, av 21.55.
2 Tests, 5 wickets, av 42.
140 Tests, 685 wickets, av 25.25.
3 Tests, 81 runs, av 20.25.Reuse content