As I flew to Melbourne yesterday for the business end of this engrossing Ashes series, it occurred that – if Australia v England followed the normal pattern these days – I could just as easily have been flying home.
The essential hollowness of the three-Test series, encapsulated by events at Centurion, where India are already chasing their series with South Africa because of a first-day collapse, has been underlined by the to and fro of the Ashes: England up one minute, Australia in the ascendancy the next, who knows what thereafter.
Here, then, are the 10 questions still to be answered – questions which only a five-Test series, with its scope for ebb, flow and subplots, can engender…
1) Which one is the real Mitchell Johnson? The butt of Barmy Army jokes and songs who bombed in Brisbane, or the purveyor of panic who prospered in Perth? You suspect not even Johnson knows. And that in itself may unsettle England, who will have to work out pretty quickly in Melbourne whether they can leave everything alone outside off stump as per the Gabba. If Johnson swings it at the MCG without the aid of the elements, England could be in trouble.
2) Has Alastair Cook peaked too early? No one’s expecting him to repeat his deeds of the first two Tests by scoring 450 runs at Melbourne and Sydney but there was a looseness about the stroke that cost him his wicket in the first innings at the Waca – and kick-started the England collapse. Cook may be more prone to the vagaries of the new ball than Mike Hussey, his run-machine counterpart but you suspect one more Cook hundred in this series could secure them the Ashes.
3) Will England’s four-man attack come back to haunt them? Good judges have insisted from the start that you don’t win five-Test series in Australia with four bowlers and the lack of overs for Graeme Swann in Perth – only nine out of 86 in Australia’s second innings – left the three seamers exposed. Australia’s decision to omit Johnson in Adelaide is now being hailed in some quarters as a masterpiece in rotation but even the bowler let slip the less palatable truth in the post-match press conference in Perth, admitting he had been ‘dropped’. Now England may have to do some dropping/rotating of their own, with Steven Finn – leading wicket-taker but expensive with it – under threat from Ajmal Shahzad and Tim Bresnan. England’s can’t afford exhaustion now.
4) Is Ricky Ponting’s decline terminal? The broken little finger complicates the issue but Ponting may be playing for his life in the next two Tests. The spectre of three Ashes defeats looms and his only half-century of the series came in the dead fourth innings in Brisbane. He has been jumpy alright, caught behind down the leg-side twice after leaping across his stumps. But England must beware: Ponting averages 62 at the MCG and knows his career could be about to be defined.
5) What next for Kevin Pietersen? The fickle interpretation of 227 followed by 0 and 3 is that he prefers the flatter tracks but there was something careless about his play in Perth rather than craven: a waft to leg, then a waft outside off. Refocused, he can come again in Melbourne, where the promise of immortality (à la The Oval 2005) may just prove too tempting. But the tag of greatness remains tantalisingly up for grabs.
6) Is Paul Collingwood playing his last Test series? For once the question is more than a column-inch filler. Collingwood is 34 now and must dig ever deeper into that well of competitiveness to eke out the results. But there remains no one in the England squad more adept at fire-fighting, no one more capable of pulling off the stunning catch and no better team player. Two more Tests, please, Colly, then you can go out with your head held high.
7) How much of an attack leader is Jimmy Anderson? He was superb but unlucky in Brisbane and just plain superb in Adelaide. But he didn’t use the new ball as well as he might have done on the first day in Perth, and got sucked needlessly into the sledging war. If Melbourne is a green-top, he could yet be England’s hero. Time to put his dismal 2006-07 Ashes behind him once and for all.
8) Can Graeme Swann prosper in Australia? Perth seemed to back up those who highlighted the general plight of the offie in Oz but Swann only needs one more decent second-innings haul – possibly at Sydney – to pull his weight. In 2009, he contributed to England’s two wins, at Lord’s and The Oval, as he did the other week in Adelaide. First-innings wickets should be considered a bonus out here. Another second-innings hatful would go beyond the job description.
9) Are England better than Australia? Working on the basis that they figured out a way to win on a flat track in Adelaide, whereas Australia needed conditions to be in their favour to win in Perth, the answer is ‘yes’. But that will count for nothing if Johnson and Ryan Harris strike it rich over the next fortnight. The overall trend may be upwards for England and downwards for Australia but plenty will be persuaded otherwise if Andrew Strauss doesn’t come home with the Ashes.
10) Is it weird being in the sunshine at this time of year? Very. But I’ll do my best to cope. Happy Christmas!
Lawrence Booth writes on cricket for the Daily Mail and you can sign up here for his weekly newsletter ‘the Top Spin’, which was named Online Column of the Year at the 2010 Sports Journalists’ Association awards
Read more on the Ashes:
Patrick Eagar’s Perth portrait
Sam Collins’ session-by-session at the Waca
What the Aussie press said on day three: columns of conviction
Benj Moorehead feels the joy in England’s pain
John Stern at Perth takes a walk round the ground and triggers wickets
The second day from Perth session-by-session
Why it’s good for English players and Anderson to go home
The real Australian selection policy: Alex Bowden
Aussie press round up, day one: columns of conviction
The A-to-Z of the Australian cricket in 2010 by Alan Tyers