The Ashes 2013-14: The burning question for England as series begin

Who will be crucial third seamer for this week's First Test

Sydney

It would be wrong to suggest that the talking will stop in Brisbane on Thursday. This is an Ashes series, and when the players take the field in the First Test the talking, and much else besides, may merely be starting.

What will cease is the punditry phony war. The proper business will be at hand. There is a palpable air of excitement, undiminished by the sense that the teams played so recently for the great prize. It will be only 88 days since England confirmed their ascendancy at The Oval, denied an unprecedented 4-0 series victory by bad light.

If that margin would have flattered them after Australia increased the prospects of a result with two aggressive declarations, nobody should be deluded into subscribing to the much-touted theory that 3-0 was more than they deserved. Australia had their moments, and plenty of them in Manchester, but England won most of the big ones throughout the summer.

Two different kinds of history beckon for these tourists. Either they will become the first England team since the 1880s, when they did not play five-match series, to win the Ashes four times in succession, or they will be forever remembered as the side who lost the urn so soon after winning it.

The former remains more probable than the latter. England have had a faintly troubled preparation period which has involved repeated injury scares and too much rain, but without approaching peak form they completed it yesterday with a seven-wicket win against the Cricket Australia Invitation XI.

Each of the top-six batsmen have made fifties, four of them have made hundreds. They are in form. Three of the four bowlers are in the order they would expect. Graeme Swann, who Australia rather fancy themselves to clamber into, bowled 49 overs in the match at the SCG, enough of them at right-handers for him to remember where he should bowl at them.

One place remains the subject of debate and a matter for concern. The identity of England's third fast bowler in their four-man attack is still uncertain, or if it is certain it is so without any compelling evidence provided to make the choice. It could be crucial, indeed terminal at a ground where Australia have not lost for 25 years.

One of their more cerebral cricketers, Ed Cowan, who remains on the fringe of Test selection, reflected on the matter yesterday after the finish of the final practice match in which he scored 51 and 42 for the CA XI and was around long enough to have a look at all the bowling. England, he was sure, were ready, but he pinpointed their problem. He was not dismissive of either Steve Finn or Boyd Rankin, whose performances in the match may have propelled Chris Tremlett to the front of the selectors' minds. But nor did he try to conceal the truth with kindness.

"It was a hard place to bowl fast this week, with the sand in the outfield so it's hard to gauge," he said. "But, having said that, there was a bit in the wicket on day one.

"I thought Boyd bowled beautifully with the old ball yesterday – that spell screamed Test bowler – but that was probably the only one in the game that really lived up to what they are looking for from him.

"But I'm sure he'd be a very, very different proposition at the Gabba. He bowls a heavy ball, he's quick enough. But if you continually get too short at the Gabba, you'll get murdered. I think those two were probably too short all game."

There is the dilemma. Finn has lost confidence, and although he can still be a titan when the ball is reverse swinging, he seems to have forgotten how it was he did what he used to do. Rankin would be making his Test debut, a risk heightened because he has not yet established what length is wise to bowl on Australian pitches. Tremlett can be a menace but it is extremely questionable that he can be the menace of three years ago.

Which leaves the fitness of Tim Bresnan, recovering rapidly from a stress fracture as he travels around Australia with the squad but not rapidly enough. Had the selectors picked Graham Onions of Durham they might have saved themselves some bother now. But Onions's 70 wickets at 18.46 in helping Durham to the Championship were deemed insufficient. How they need Bresilad, the cricketers' cricketer.

"I just think Bresnan's a massive player for them," Cowan said. "He's a bit of an unsung hero. He bowls a huge amount of overs, never really gets hit out of the attack, takes big wickets – and as we saw during the last Ashes series, he scores some really important runs. That's a huge 'out', and I think Australia will look to exploit that third seamer."

Recent series defeats to England and, more narrowly, South Africa, should not conceal how tough Australia are to beat at home generally. Their selectors, straining for loyalty as if it were itself a winning commodity, have tried to stay faithful to those who finished the series in England. There are two additions for Brisbane with Mitchell Johnson being recalled and George Bailey being invited to make his debut at No 6. Little about it bespeaks an overwhelming task force.

Protecting the Gabba record is the priority. Everything else can follow. But if England take a 1-0 lead, the tourists could and should dominate the series. And that's big talk.

The key determinants

Battle of the bad backs

Both captains have intermittent back complaints. Michael Clarke will have plenty of chance to test his against a bouncer barrage.

Lively pitches

Australia promise there will be no dry slow turners as in England last summer. Expect pace and bounce – until it goes wrong.

Wicketkeeping

England need Matt Prior fit. Jonny Bairstow is a work in progress and may not be ready for Test duty.

Coaching styles

Andy Flower, serious, sometimes grave, means business. Darren Lehmann, ever genial, open, means business. Which style will prevail?

Swann song

Australia's spin options are negligible. Graeme Swann (right) is crucial to England and every effort will be made to hit him out of the series.

Weather warning

Bushfires are a huge problem in Australia but rain has followed England. Storms are forecast for Brisbane early next week which may require revised plans.

Sledging

The crowds are primed to sledge the Poms. Stuart Broad (right) will be a special target, but it's ok: he has broad shoulders.

Ashes dates

First Test 21-25 November, The Gabba, Brisbane

Second Test 5-9 December, Adelaide Oval

Third Test 13-17 December, WACA, Perth

Fourth Test 26-30 December, Melbourne Cricket Ground

Fifth Test 3-7 January, Sydney Cricket Ground

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