England played the XI that most observers expected in the warm-up victory over Western Australia, so surely that will be the side that plays the first Test?
You would have thought so but England's coach Andy Flower yesterday declined point blank to discuss the topic either for the first Test in Brisbane starting on 25 November or more imminently the first-class tour match against South Australia beginning in Adelaide today. Flower just about conceded that 11 eligible players would be appearing for England in each fixture but beyond that he was not prepared to go.
It was as if such information was governed by the Official Secrets Act and spooks were in the next room checking to see if he transgressed. Just in case their listening equipment failed they can be assured he did not. The England XIs both for today and later in the month remain undisclosed.
Maybe Flower is still not quite sure (though the smart money says he has known which XI he would like to play at Brisbane for about six months and perhaps two years).
The tour has started astonishingly well for England and aren't Australia falling apart?
Indeed, England have started very well. The tourists conjured a win from nowhere in beating Western Australia by six wickets when a draw looked preordained. It lent immediate substance to their claim that this time they would not treat the early warm-ups as training intrusions before the big event. This happened as Australia came to the end – at last – of a seven-match losing sequence which has seen them castigated in the press and become the object of deep suspicion among the public. Although they ended that run of defeats by beating Sri Lanka in the third one-day international on Sunday, England appear to be the more composed team at present.
In Perth, their bowlers all looked in good nick by the end and the batsmen, who played with a worrying looseness in the first innings eventually atoned. South Australia are likely to provide tougher opposition on a flatter pitch, and Australia A next week in Hobart will be stiffer still, considering that some of their players will be thinking of the Ashes. But there is no point in playing 14-a-side matches which may as well be at Girl Guides cricket with the real thing so close.
So all is hunky-dory for England at this stage?
No, it is not. The batsmen have struggled to assemble authentically large first-innings scores of the sort that put opposition batsmen under pressure and will be necessary in the next two months.
There are particular and general points. Opening batsman Alastair Cook needs runs and time at the crease. He had an indifferent season in England after being profoundly impressive as stand-in captain on the tour to Bangladesh earlier in the year. Nor should it be forgotten that it was his hundred in Durban last Christmas that established the platform from which England engineered their most complete Test win for years.
Cook is an ineffably strong character and he will need to be to get out of this trough. His innings of 110 against Pakistan at The Oval in August effectively saved his short-term career and, although he embodies the art of playing within personal limitations, he needs to move his feet or die.
As Flower said yesterday: "It's only two innings into the tour. We have got two more preparation games for him to spend some time in the middle and I expect him to do so. Because he is a quality batsman with a really good Test record and he's a strong bloke. That's why."
In general, England have not been making first-innings runs for the past 18 months despite their improving record. Fail to do so here and the Ashes will be up in smoke. England have passed 400 in 12 of the 23 proper first innings of a Test since Flower took over, but last summer in six Tests they did so only twice, both times at Lord's: once against a Bangladesh side whose attack could be described as limited only in polite circles and then against Pakistan, which needed a world-record eighth-wicket stand.
But Kevin Pietersen has regained some of his old cockiness, Andrew Strauss scored a well-ordered 100 in Perth and Ian Bell looks like a million dollars. "I think our batsmen probably haven't performed as well as they would have liked over the last couple of years," Flower said.
What are England likely to do before Brisbane?
Difficult to say because Flower steadfastly refused to say. Asked a perfectly legitimate question about whether Tim Bresnan or Eoin Morgan, both Test team members last summer, might play in Adelaide today he said: "As I say, I can't discuss selection."
England will be tempted to stick to their intended Test team as closely as possible, though they then have the conundrum of what to do against Australia A next week. The fringe players need cricket now because of the possibility of injury with Test matches so close together.
What of Australia? Do England know what their first Test XI will be?
Yesterday the chairman of Australia's selectors not only announced the A team to play the tourists next week but dropped considerable hints about the side for the first Test which will be formally announced on Monday. Andrew Hilditch also implied that it was quite possible for the hosts to lose the Ashes this time around while virtually warning England that they were in for a hard time for years afterwards, given the quality of Australia's up-and-comers.
Maybe that says something about the mindsets of the two sides at this crucial sparring juncture.
When Hilditch named his strong and young A team it virtually had him salivating. "This is probably a bit younger squad than we have picked before but it's quite an exciting glimpse of the future for us," he said. "Although the focus is on the Ashes as it should be, the future is critical to us moving forward and this squad is very much part of that future. We've got to continue to move on to stay a force in world cricket."
There was no doubt that Hilditch was answering his critics. The selectors have been derided of late and squarely blamed for Australia's defeats at home and abroad. Hilditch was at pains to point out that the losses, even in India recently, had been narrow.
He did not rule out the possibility of changing the team for Brisbane or of throwing in a couple of debutants. Mike Hussey is the most vulnerable, Callum Ferguson the most likely debutant. "They're very much in the mix. I think you do so from time to time. I am not sure we're going to do it on this occasion but you have to trust your domestic competition to have players ready to play in international cricket."
So England should be confident if Australia are so bad they already planning for the future?
Well, they are not that bad and it would be dangerous to think otherwise. Some of their premier cricketers might be nearing the end and their bowling is not as good as they make out, but they have some bloody-minded, skilful players who give nothing away easily, a host of whom are waiting for a crack.
But Hilditch knows England are close and asked about regaining the Ashes, he said: "I think it is going to be a really big task. England is a really good side playing good cricket. We have come off some Test losses so that's going to impact on morale to a certain extent. That being said, we were pretty close in India."
He poured scorn on media suggestions of a mutinous dressing room. "I have heard the media thinks there is some disquiet. I don't think there is anything to it whatsoever. There are no issues of that nature. I was very pleased in India." But in India, as elsewhere, Australia lost.
15 days to the Ashes
The number of Ashes matches in which Ricky Ponting has captained Australia, winning seven, losing four, drawing four. Since being made Test captain, the Tasmanian has endured two series defeats to England in 2005 and 2009.Reuse content