By Neil Robinson 25/08/05
Australia stands within one victory of retaining the Ashes. That might seem an odd starting point after the last two Test matches in which the tourists have struggled to hold off an aggressive and increasingly dominant England. But the valiant resistance at Old Trafford has put Australia in the position of being able to secure the urn in the fourth match at Trent Bridge, whereas England could win here and still need a result at The Oval to win it back. Such was the importance of that four-over last-wicket stand at Old Trafford; had it failed the situation would be reversed.
Australia have already reacted to their below-par performances in the last two games by replacing Jason Gillespie with debutant Shaun Tait. In a straight choice between Tait and the experienced Michael Kasprowicz, the selectors have opted for the young unknown quantity. The decision is a welcome sign of faith in their traditional attitude of never taking a backward step, but it could easily backfire on them. With Tait playing alongside Brett Lee 50% of Australia’s four-man attack now consists of bowlers of high pace but variable control who will either take wickets or leak runs, possibly both. Australia will be hoping that a penetrative spell from Glenn McGrath can put England under pressure and allow Tait to begin his career against batsmen unwilling to take risks.
But there was another doubt cast over Australia’s bowling attack on Tuesday, when McGrath reported soreness in his right elbow, followed by “weakness with the joint.” It is no coincidence that England’s resurgence in this series coincided with McGrath’s freakish absence at Edgbaston; to lose him again now would be a cruel blow indeed. Team physio Errol Alcott said that McGrath was “responding to treatment”, but the signs of wear and tear on the great veteran are growing daily more visible in this most sapping of series.
McGrath’s presence will be all the more vital at Trent Bridge since the conditions are likely to favour the more conventional swing of which he has become such an able exponent. The new stands erected in recent years have meant that swing with the new ball has had a key effect in games played here. England’s recent success has been founded more on their ability to reverse swing the old ball, so signs of their versatility in this respect will be essential. Matthew Hoggard, a slightly peripheral figure in the series so far, should come to the fore.
Despite their disappointment at being unable to force the win at Old Trafford, England will surely go into this match on a high. They have had a week to relax and take stock of their performances, and to observe the immense stimulus they have given to the game in this country. The first weeks of the football season have been knocked off the front and back pages by the last two Tests, cricket sets are selling faster than footballs and the whole country is alive with expectation.
Perhaps that might be their biggest problem. England have already achieved what their most conservative supporters hoped for going in to this series. Now though, real hope of regaining the Ashes has been generated. Could extra pressure come to bear? Well, the pressure was already on going in to this series, still more so after the debacle at Lord’s. This is a side which seems to be completely at one with itself, and sure of its own abilities. Now, as the endgame approaches, the whole of England expects that every man will do his duty.