CRICKET / The visitors, down 1-0 in the series, have decisions to make on who to play
Thunder cracked ominously overhead as Damian Hough — the Adelaide Oval groundsman — stood on his new outfield and offered some insight into the 22 yards of freshly cultivated drop-in turf in the middle on which the destiny of the second Test will rest.
It will be, or rather he hopes it will be, a pitch of the Adelaide Oval old school: slowish, good for batting, bit crumbly later with the prospect of some turn but also reverse swing and uneven bounce.
However, he cannot be really sure. The construction is of the same soil that has been stockpiled for pitches for the last three decades and the grass that helps bind it is the same, so in theory it ought to play the same.
Except this is not an exact science. On the two pitches that have been used by South Australia for Sheffield Shield matches, Hough has experimented with the grass length and there have been two mundane draws.
Yet Adelaide has tended to produce results: only four Tests have been drawn in the last two decades.
Hough confessed he is not really sure because no match has had a fifth day on the drop-in pitch, which is when things at Adelaide have always started to get interesting.
Yet even those who have seen the pitch close up have made differing assessments. On the one hand, it is said to look an excellent pitch, on the other, it is very dry, in an eyebrow-raising sort of way.
All of which will make team selection a tricky business. Take the first scenario, along with Hough’s assessment. England have adjustments to make in any case following Jonathan Trott’s return home.
The two candidates for the No.3 slot, Joe Root and Ian Bell, have different claims to his position.
There are calls for Bell to ‘take responsibility’ and step up two places but, it seems counterproductive to upset further the dynamic of the middle order.
Before the tour it was envisaged that Root would open with Alastair Cook. The fact that Michael Carberry has forced his way into the England side instead does not negate the idea that Root is perceived as a top-order player.
Even a few days ago, it appeared fairly certain that England would stick to the blueprint that has brought success, not least in the Test here three years ago which it won by an innings.
With Tim Bresnan fully fit, an obvious move would be for him to replace Chris Tremlett as the third seamer, particularly as he is an excellent exponent of reverse swing.
This would leave the No.6 position, which would probably go to the debutant Gary Ballance, as was envisaged at the start of the tour before Carberry’s emergence.
Yet there is a second option open if the alternative reading of the pitch is taken. Three years ago, Graeme Swann took five for 91 in the second innings, while Kevin Pietersen took the vital wicket of Michael Clarke at a crucial time.
In part this was down to the large areas of rough created by the Australia left-arm paceman Doug Bollinger rather than any intrinsic deterioration in the surface.
England will note that not only is there Johnson’s left-arm bowling to scarify the surface outside a right-hander’s off stump, there is also the chance that Australia will include the all-rounder James Faulkner, who also bowls left-arm pace, instead of George Bailey.
If England really did think the pitch might crumble, the inclusion of Monty Panesar as a left-arm spin option alongside Swann becomes a possibility.
In which case, it could play Bresnan and push Matt Prior up to six (a risk given his poor run with the bat), or bring in the all-rounder Ben Stokes as a third seamer capable of pace and good reverse-swing skills. The dilemma is fascinating. England may not make a final decision until the morning of Thursday’s Test. Whoever wins the toss will be certain to want to bat first, as Hough emphasised, but even this has a cautionary tale attached, certainly where recent Ashes matches here are concerned.
In 2006, Australia famously won an unwinnable match having lost the toss. Four years later, Andrew Strauss lost the toss, England was in the field and soon Australia was on its knees at three for two, never to recover.
If it is overcast, the ball might swing. No one knows how the new stands will affect the atmospherics. This game is full of intrigue. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013