Melbourne - Test cricket’s biggest day of the year will carry plenty of significance even though the destiny of the Ashes has been swiftly decided. Australia’s march to a 3-0 margin from as many matches caused a major outpouring of joy and relief across the host nation, while England was caught up in a similar level of disbelief, anger and finger-pointing. Having had a few days to get their heads around the fact that the Urn will not be flying north at the end of the series, the combatants now commence a contest that may lose the merest fraction of tension but very little intrigue. If anything the result in Perth means that Melbourne will be focused more strongly on individuals rather than teams - players on both sides will be fighting for validation, vindication and some extra points over opponents they have fought across eight matches and two nations already this year.
Australia have shown absolutely no desire to rein themselves in after building unstoppable momentum through the first three matches of the series. Theirs is a team of the now, with every intention of making the most of that richly rewarding present. It should not be forgotten that many members of this team not only experienced the loss of the Ashes at home in 2010-11, but were also part of the most humiliating day of that series - a Boxing Day on which they were gutted for 98 then seemed powerless to stop England rolling to 0 for 157 at the close. There will be plenty of yearning among Michael Clarke’s men to atone for that day, while also pushing on to a wider margin than the present one.
For England there is a need to stop a slide that has now cost them not only the Ashes but two members of the original touring party. The sense of a strong and successful side breaking up is growing stronger by the day, leaving Cook, Andy Flower and their players battling for cohesion in thought, word and deed. Rightly or wrongly, Swann’s parting shot has offered an insight into the divisions that do exist within the team, the sorts of rifts that open further when placed under the stress of defeat. Having lost so comprehensively, the tourists must begin to think about who they want in their team for the future, and Melbourne will be the start of that sorting of wheat from chaff.
In a series of Australian triumphs, Chris Rogers has been a muted though subtly influential member of the team. He struggled for batting rhythm early in the series and when he found it in Perth chanced an overexcited single that cost him the chance of a substantial first innings tally in a pivotal match. The exit of Swann, a bowler who has kept Rogers transfixed on the batting crease more often than not, offers the Victorian left-hander some timely breathing room, and he would love nothing more than to make the sort of score that would shore up his place in the team and also build confidence ahead of future battles in South Africa.
If it is unkind to question the commitment of Kevin Pietersen to England’s cause, then it is certainly worthwhile to query the quality of his batting in this series. Corralled so effectively by the Australian pacemen and also Nathan Lyon, his response to assiduous planning has been disappointingly flat for a player of such undoubted class. In a team atmosphere thick with thoughts about regaining the Ashes at the next time of asking in 2015, Pietersen is in need of an innings to prove he can still outwit high class bowling as much for his own peace of batting mind as to answer the critics who take such delight in chirping at him from the boundary’s edge. An unchanged team appears likely as Australia seek to make their stability a virtue. Nathan Coulter-Nile and Doug Bollinger wait in the wings. Monty Panesar will come in for the retired Graeme Swann, while Stuart Broad is firming to be fit following the badly bruised foot he suffered in Perth.
AUSTRALIA (POSSIBLE): Chris Rogers, David Warner, Shane Watson, Michael Clarke (capt), Steven Smith, George Bailey, Brad Haddin (wk), Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle, Ryan Harris, Nathan Lyon.
ENGLAND (POSSIBLE): Alastair Cook (capt), Michael Carberry, Joe Root, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow (wk), Stuart Broad, Tim Bresnan, James Anderson, Monty Panesar.