/ 17 December 2010

Expect another cracker at the Waca

This really is a massive game of cricket. Win it and England have the Ashes job done with the prospect of a dominance not seen since the Australian cricketing austerity of the late 1970s. A draw, even, and Australia would need to come back remarkably strongly in the final two Tests, knowing that Sydney is the ground that would favour ­England’s swing and seam above all the others.

An Australian win, though, would throw a panther among the black swans in the park — MCG, all to play for, teams level, Australia in the ascendant. Now that would be a ­challenge.

Before the series started, the consensus was that the sides were well matched and that things would be decided by one team seizing the critical moments. This would be like fencers looking for an opening and then striking for a hit. In Brisbane Australia had England on the run for three days but could not finish the job, since then they have not had a look-in.

Adelaide could not have been more perfect had Andy Flower written his game plan on a piece of paper, posted it to Father Christmas and got it in his stocking. He craves improvement on that only in terms of consistency, citing in particular the manner in which his batsmen were able to repeat the heroics in successive matches.

But there has been a break in Melbourne since then, as if to draw a line under the first part of the series, and the fear is that it will be Australia who, as a canvassed boxer saved by the bell has had time to recover his senses and come out for the next round, will gain most from the interim period.

England have had things to ponder. The team dynamic has changed: Stuart Broad will be in a commentary box rather than on the field; Jimmy Anderson has flown home and back again in the space of 48 hours which means, even with the flat-bed comfort and sleeping pills, he will need a rapid recovery; and the families are in town now — the laddish togetherness that had bound them through the first part of the tour will be a transient thing from here on.

Flower’s insistence on keeping partners out of the way until now was carefully thought out, debated and disagreed with in some quarters, but has served them well. Now his work will be to ensure that the relief that comes with reuniting families does not in itself prove a distraction and a hindrance. The team is on the threshold of greatness in the English pantheon and cannot be allowed to blow it away in familial joy.

The pitch in Perth will hold the key. This, as has been emphasised many times, is not the Waca of old. The accolade of the fastest, bounciest pitch in the world has passed to Old Trafford in recent years. Instead, not helped by commercial imperatives that see no future in games that last three days rather than five, the pitches have been restrained.

On Tuesday, 48 hours before the game started, this wicket, on a redeveloped part of the square and used only twice before, was far from finished – a light green strip set in a dark green square. The mower will surely have been out before Thursday, although the blades will not have been set too low, and a further day under 30-degree heat will harden it up more than it already is.

The colour promises more than it delivers. It will crack but Waca cracks have solid edges and do not lead to erratic behaviour: it will last and even get better. Once the new ball goes, there is some hard graft in store for the bowlers.

Of all the grounds, this is still the one that best feeds the Australian strengths square of the wicket, as bowlers can get excited by seeing the ball hit the gloves high and pitch too short. This will not be another Adelaide. Australia, disarray or not, will come back strongly. But there is resilience now in the England team. A personal view is that far from flagging, Anderson will double his effort and prosper, and bowl England to victory and the Ashes. —