This could be a closer contest than many people with their whitewashes clearly believe.
Some of the talk has been bombastic. Michael Clarke's side may notionally be the "worst Australian team to visit these shores" but then we have heard that one before, to England's cost. They may not be a match for their illustrious predecessors under Ricky Ponting and before him Steve Waugh and Allan Border, but no Australian side is ever without its inherent danger: this is, after all, the Ashes. England, on the other hand, may not be quite as powerful as they have been painted and have much to prove – with a new opening partnership, a middle-order batsman pushing to establish himself and debate about the identity of a third seamer.
Strictly on a man-for-man basis it is England who are the stronger. It may be almost a year since they lost Andrew Strauss's 21 Test hundreds, but between them the current side still have 82, with Jonny Bairstow alone without one among the probable first eight batsmen, and this against 35 for the Australians, of which Clarke has 23 on his own. It is in the bowling that the sides are drawn closer – and any team with a decent hand of bowlers is a match for anyone. There may have been some hyperbole in the assertion of the former coach Mickey Arthur that Australia possess the best attack in world cricket, but the depth of pace bowling talent, if not the standard of fitness, is considerable and enviable.
For their part England have in Jimmy Anderson one of their finest bowlers of all time and in Stuart Broad a mercurial performer approaching 200 Test wickets who can transform the direction of a match in a single compelling spell. The back up to this pair is less secure, with Steven Finn currently lacking some of the reliability that consistency brings, Tim Bresnan yet to play a Test match since his elbow operation and Graham Onions a magnificent county performer on sappy pitches who endured a terrible time in New Zealand that had appeared to have ruled him out. Beyond that neither Chris Tremlett, not yet deemed ready for a return following debilitating injury, nor Boyd Rankin, the giant Irishman who is thought to need more experience, are up for consideration.
Australia's attack has the advantage of superior velocity in the cases of James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc and Ryan Harris.
Only in terms of spin do England have a clear edge. The record of Graeme Swann is formidable, particularly so against left-handers of which Australia have possibly four in their top six. The probability that the left-arm paceman Starc will be part of the side would also increase the effectiveness of Swann against right-handers, in much the same way he utilised the rough created by their left-arm-over pacemen Trent Boult and Neil Wagner against New Zealand. His opposite number, Nathan Lyon, should not be underestimated however. He may have been only part of the groundstaff at Adelaide Oval the last time the sides played a series, but he has reliability and would seem to have been treated ignominiously by the Australian management during the disastrous India tour. He flights the ball nicely and, if not as robust a spinner of the ball as Swann, gets some grip as a result. England's second spin option is Joe Root, much better as an off-spinner than simply a fill-in, while Australia will use Clarke's left arm, which he insists he is perfectly fit to deliver despite the obvious concerns over his back condition.
Australia's final XI will be less conditional on the pitch than England's. The sun hammered down on Trent Bridge as it has done for several days and once the creases had been marked out first thing on Tuesday morning, it was put back under the covers to try and prevent it baking into a crumble. It has not had a watering beyond what is termed a sprinkle in more than a week, while there are claims that the new drainage system – as with others around the country a boon for spectators rather than groundsmen – is sucking the moisture from the ground at a rate difficult to control.
But this is a surface that looks as if it could have been played on at the weekend. There is little grass to speak of and none of it live, the ground is rock hard and already there are cracks that might be expected to open up as the match progresses. At some stage, even without the help of footmarks, it will offer turn for the spinners, the trick being to estimate quite when, rarely an exact science. It might also bring some variable bounce into the equation as the cracks expand.
The Australian attack looks settled with Starc and the exciting young paceman Pattinson joined by arguably the world's most industrious seamer in Peter Siddle. The batting is less predictable beyond the new opening pair of Shane Watson and Chris Rogers and the fact that Clarke himself will bat at four or five depending on whom he is given. Although no longer a selector, this order, he says, remains in his exclusive remit.
All the indications are that the errant David Warner will come back in the side having served his ban and despite no match practice (which may be no bad thing given the form he was in prior to his indiscretions) and that Phil Hughes, the left-hander tormented by England previously, will also play. Whether the final spot goes to Ed Cowan or a right-hander, Steve Smith, will provide a debate, for there are indications that while Clarke may like Smith, the selectors would prefer Cowan, to bat at three. It may well be that is the case. There was also a rumour circulating that Australia may consider a second spinner in the left-armer Ashton Agar, which would necessitate omitting a batsman. Clarke will have to take what he is given.
Each of the three seamers from which England will choose offers something different: Finn has genuine pace and height; Bresnan is the most reliable exponent of reverse swing, which given the dry pitch and the worn pitches that are alongside, will be a big factor (although with Aleem Dar officiating, and mindful of the Champions Trophy controversy, England will be wary of how they look after the ball); and Onions can bowl the tightest line, particularly to left-handers who crave width and hate being cramped.
There were few indications at final practice, a time when clues can often be gleaned. None of Anderson, Broad or Onions bowled, while Finn and Bresnan did so to Cook in tandem. Later Finn, alone of the bowlers, batted. But for all the options spoken of by Geoff Miller for a 13-man squad, Andy Flower is believed to have known his XI after the match at Chelmsford last week. It is a close call but both Anderson and Broad can reverse the ball expertly, and certainly for several days the pitch should play beautifully for batsmen, and need something more than attrition to chisel out wickets. Finn has been below his best certainly but there have been signs that his game is returning. He also is the man in possession. He could be the anointed one.
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