Finally, it’s here. The selectors have finally picked a squad that’s narrowed the incumbents from the pretenders (unlike that 17 man squad from a week ago), and then promptly flown in another batsman. The Poms have gotten some solid practice on Australian soil – in Tasmania, the most English conditions Australia can provide. Our out of form pacemen have come out verballing in a way that makes one yearn for the days when McGrath would target their top player and predict a 5-0 victory. It’s been a strange mix of the familiar and the shaky in the lead-up to this most anticipated of Test series, so it will be a relief to all and sundry to finally get out on the pitch and hit a few out of the middle.
Australia’s pre-season has been full of speculation of new faces being inserted into the line-up, but the status quo asserted itself when the 13-man squad was announced and only the spinners’ turnstile was turned (once again). Situation normal for Andrew Hilditch and the selectors, even if they were brave enough to stand up to Warney and his declaration that Hauritz was the best spinner in the country. Thing is though, unless you happen to BE Warnie, if you’re a spinner at the Gabba, you better be a half decent bat. Despite the curator’s protestations that playing a spinner is a strong option, history both this season and in the past says otherwise. There’s a little bit of rain about in the lead-up to the match, but the 7-day forecast suggests a strong chance of 5 days’ worth of play, so we should be looking at a result.
Hussey finally earnt his retention in both the public and the selectors’ eyes with his recent Shield century, combined with failures by Callum Ferguson and Usman Khawaja – meaning that barring Clarke succumbing to his chronic back problem, it will be the top 6 we’re so familiar with for Australia, rounded out by Brad Haddin behind the stumps (100% assured of his place now Tim Paine broke bones in the silly hit and giggle the other night). The only doubts surround the bowling. Mitchell Johnson, who has been out of form and wayward at best with the ball for the last 12 months, hit himself a 100 for WA and got a timely confidence boost. Ben Hilfenhaus is assured of his spot, and given how much Ponting loves his effort, Siddle will likely secure the 3rd pace spot. This leaves Doug Bollinger and Xavier Doherty competing for the last bowlers’ position in a decision likely to be made Thursday morning, and Steve Smith waiting in the wings after Ian Bell carted him all over Bellerive Oval.
The Poms have looked shaky against the likes of Pakistan of late, particularly with the bat. England’s batsmen however have gained some form in their 3 lead-up matches, culminating in Ian “The Sherminator” Bell scoring a strong 192 in Hobart. Paul Collingwood also gained some valuable time in the middle, and Alastair Cook started to look like the class opener England has needed for decades rather than the overmatched opener who belongs back in Blighty. Hobart is a long way from Brisbane though, and traditionally touring teams without a long period of acclimatisation struggle with the seam, pace and bounce on offer at the Gabba. Not just the batsmen either. Australia won’t face anyone as erratic as Harmison this season, but it’s hard to imagine the likes of Stuart Broad bucking the trends of the last 30 years and suddenly being able to resist the urge to bung it in short. Jimmy Anderson is probably the only paceman with the experience to resist that particular siren call. If you’re interested in some speculative punts on the England batting market, both Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood seem to be at value odds. The same cannot be said of the Australian 1st innings markets, where the shaky form and amount of players returning from injury mean that no value is really presenting itself. I’d like Simon Katich if he’d had some more work in the lead-up, but it’s too difficult to gauge his current form.
History suggests that the first two Tests are the toughest for any touring team – bouncy pitches, plenty of seam, muggy conditions. Australia have won 20 of the past 24 at the Gabba that have given a result (since 1980), so if the weather holds out as the predictions say it should, Australia to win seems a very strong play.
The Long Handle’s plays for the 1st Test:
Australia to win @ 2.25 (Centrebet)
Jimmy Anderson England most wickets 1st innings @ 3.5 (Sportingbet)
Ian Bell England most runs 1st innings @ 6.70 (Betfair)