LONDON, (Reuters) – England will look to leave Australia in a spin and retain the Ashes by taking a 3-0 series lead at Old Trafford from tomorrow with team selection seen as key on the famously dusty track.
The wicket in Manchester may have been moved by 90 degrees since Australia last played there in the nerve-jangling drawn 2005 test but it is still expected to turn and there is an outside chance both sides will play two spinners.
The ground where Shane Warne bowled his “ball of the century” to bamboozle Mike Gatting in 1993 and where Jim Laker took 19 wickets in 1956 is calling out for another spin hero and England’s Graeme Swann is the only man who really fits the bill.
England, on the verge of a third successive Ashes series win after almost 20 years of previous Australian dominance, have included Monty Panesar in their squad as they mull two spinners but it is more likely Australia who will plump for the gamble.
Ashton Agar, 19, has made more impact with the bat than ball after scoring 98 on debut in the first test at Trent Bridge and fellow spinner Nathan Lyon, with 76 wickets in 22 tests, looks set to come in either as a replacement or accompaniment.
“I know how you’re going to get all the England players out. That’s an easy one. We’ve just got to execute our plans for it, and I think we’ve done that pretty well over a period of time,” Australia coach Darren Lehmann, who took over from the sacked Mickey Arthur just before the series, told reporters.
“We’d be mad to pick (Agar) if we didn’t think he was technically up to it. He’s 19, I’d hope he has plenty of room for improvement, the same as Nathan, they’re both young kids, although Nathan’s played a lot more.”
Australia, who have lost their last six tests, need to win to have any chance of regaining the Ashes with a draw no good as it would leave England two up with two to play. A level series means the holders keep the urn.
Whether the extra need for victory makes the tourists go for two spinners remains to be seen, especially after a slightly injured Agar failed to threaten with the ball in the second test at Lord’s, where England won by 347 runs.
Pundits expect Michael Clarke’s men just to go with Lyon and replace injured fast bowler James Pattinson with Mitchell Starc, dropped after the first test, or Jackson Bird.
Both took two wickets in the drawn three-day match against Sussex which finished on Sunday. Australia may worry left-armer Starc will scuff up the wicket perfectly for expert off-spinner Swann to trouble right handers just like left-handed batsmen.
Bird is more of a swing bowler and forecasts predicting cloud and the first rain of the series in famously wet Manchester could make him the favourite.
But it is the batting which has been Australia’s problem this tour and changes may come in the top six despite Phil Hughes (84), Usman Khawaja (40) and Steve Smith (102 not out) all making contributions against Sussex.
David Warner also found form after being banished to play with Australia A against their South African counterparts following his punch at England’s Joe Root in a bar in June.
He smashed 193 in Pretoria but the hot-headed batsman’s chances of a return may have been hurt by becoming involved in an on-field argument with opponent Thami Tsolekile.
England fans were so used to their own team being in disarray through the 1990s and during the 5-0 drubbing Down Under in 2006-07 that they can hardly bring themselves to contemplate a whitewash series win this time.
The team management have their eyes secretly on 10-0 with a five-test series starting in Australia in November. They are keen to manage their pace bowlers’ workloads and have rotated their squad with Chris Tremlett coming back in with Steven Finn and Graham Onions missing out.
The tall Tremlett, who last played for England in January 2012 before injury, could challenge Tim Bresnan for the third fast bowling berth if the pitch is deemed bouncy enough.
Another addition is James Taylor, who scored 121 not out for Sussex against the Australians and has been called up to play in case Kevin Pietersen fails to recover from a calf strain.
Taylor’s knock and the fact they are 2-0 up without their most explosive batsman yet really contributing may lead Alastair Cook’s side to only play Pietersen if he is 100 percent fit.
“He will be assessed by the medical team closer to the start of the Test and we have therefore included an extra batsman in James Taylor who has been in good form,” England selector Geoff Miller said in a statement.