Vic Marks: Prior engagement key to England's Ashes aims
Both sides have had much to ponder in advance of Brisbane Test, says Vic Marks
The contrast with the past two Ashes series is all too evident. In 2010 just before the Brisbane Test and in 2013, in England, the Australians had little idea on the eve of the series what constituted their best side.
Three years ago they proudly announced a squad of 17 for the first Test at the Gabba; in July at Trent Bridge they were still rocking from the sacking of Mickey Arthur and the ostracism of David Warner. But now it seems as if they have a better idea than England about who is in their best team.
Australia announced their squad – of only 12 players – nine days before the start of Thursday's Brisbane Test and the impression is that it did not take them long to decide on that 12. Admittedly, some fast-bowling options have been removed because of injury but the only cause of serious debate was over the sixth batsman. They plumped for George Bailey, a rock-solid character even though he has so far been a white-ball specialist at international level. The rest picked themselves.
Meanwhile, England have had more to ponder. Who opens with Alastair Cook? Who is the third paceman? Will Matt Prior, after 57 consecutive Tests, be fit?
Australia have a craggy old XI. There has been some talk from Ricky Ponting downwards of England being "over the hill". In which case where does that leave the Australians? The average age of their likeliest Test team (with James Faulkner as the 12th man) is well over 30, with the rookie Bailey a sprightly 31; the likely England team, with Prior behind the stumps rather than the youthful Jonny Bairstow, has an average age of 29.
But old and craggy does not necessarily mean weak. After their opening pair the Australians have dispensed with their flighty left-handers. At a stroke this diminishes the threat of Graeme Swann. Their bowlers have pace and experience even if they are not entirely reliable (there are always doubts about Ryan Harris's body and Mitchell Johnson's radar). Hence the fitness of Shane Watson, who has been suffering from a hamstring strain, is critical.
Provided Watson is fit to bowl, he can reduce the strain on Harris and provide cover if Johnson has one of those days. Michael Clarke will wish to use Johnson purely as an attacking force. He will want leeway to introduce his quickest bowler when the time is right but also to withdraw him if the force is absent. But in a four-man attack no one is allowed to hide.
England will be equally anxious about the fitness of Prior, though publicly at least they will be nowhere near as concerned as Michael Vaughan, who has trenchantly queried Bairstow's wicketkeeping prowess. The former captain says Bairstow cannot be regarded as among the five best keepers in England. No one can possibly quibble with that. However, there are one or two pluses if Prior is ruled out and Bairstow ends up playing.
Possession of the gloves could easily enhance Bairstow's contributions with the bat. At this stage of his career he needs to be given freedom to play an expansive game; Bairstow is no grafter, he is a shotmaker. As an all-rounder, rather than a specialist batsman, he would have more scope to trust his attacking instincts rather than attempt to transform himself into an uncompromising 'Test' batsman. Wicketkeepers from Adam Gilchrist down have often exploited that extra freedom and Bairstow could do the same.
But there are genuine concerns. Bairstow is a callow keeper. Moreover it is unlikely that he would be such a sound judge as Prior of which lbw/caught behind shouts should be reviewed by the third umpire. Operating the Decision Review System has become an increasingly crucial task for the keeper and it is one in which Bairstow has no experience. So England hope Prior's calf strain recovers and they may wonder about the wisdom of him doing too much cycling, his latest enthusiasm, on the rest of the tour.
Suddenly it appears that Michael Carberry is England's opening batsman. There is no certainty there either. Carberry exploited his chances superbly at the start of the tour. On arrival in Australia he had nothing to lose and he batted accordingly with an uncluttered mind. Now there is a danger he will begin to mull over the magnitude of the challenge over the next few weeks. Perhaps he will just be excited. But the probability is that his mind is not quite so uncluttered now.
The selection of the third paceman is not straightforward. Tim Bresnan's stock may well be rising, which is often the case when a player is injured and unavailable. The problem is that Boyd Rankin is unproven. Steve Finn is too profligate but seems the likeliest to take wickets. And what evidence is there that the Chris Tremlett of 2013 is the same bowler who caused considerable havoc in 2010-'11? The version of three years ago would be in the team. So far on this tour Tremlett has bowled 37 overs and taken one wicket. The selectors will have to trust their eyes rather than the stats of three years ago. In the end Finn may get the nod, with the considerable reservation that he does not fit the desired pattern of "bowling dry".
To douse English expectations further, they have a poor record in Brisbane. They last won there in 1986 with a side with only three deficiencies. Since then there have been four defeats and two draws – thanks to an epic rearguard action three years ago and an epic thunderstorm in 1998. Hopefully the surface will be livelier than the one encountered in 2010. The outcome for the series? England to retain the Ashes. Observer