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England fly out for history quest

Andrew McGlashan
October 23, 2013 « Agent denies released Texans' drug use | Chartbeat test »

England fly out to Australia on Wednesday evening to begin their attempt at securing a fourth straight Ashes series victory, something they haven't achieved since the 19th century.

A squad of 17 - which won't be far off being doubled when the backroom staff are taken into account - is led by Alastair Cook and will depart for Perth where they will begin preparations for the Test series that starts on November 21 at the Gabba.

Tim Bresnan, who was diagnosed with a stress fracture of the back after the Durham Test where England clinched the series, will also leave with the squad but is not an official member yet and his recovery will be monitored during the early weeks of the tour. There are three uncapped players in the party - Gary Ballance, Ben Stokes and Boyd Rankin - while Michael Carberry has just a single Test to his name.

Ballance, the Yorkshire left hander, and Durham allrounder Stokes are two of the players vying for the troublesome No. 6 spot, alongside Jonny Bairstow who was in possession of the position until The Oval Test, and deciding who fills that role will be one of the key decisions to reach during the lead-in period before Brisbane.

The first warm-up match, against a Western Australia XI, begins on October 31 after a period of acclimatisation. England's proficient use of the tour matches on the 2010-11 tour, where they won two and dominated a draw in the other, was highlighted as a key factor in their success on that trip even though they began slowly in Brisbane, being bowled out for 260 on the opening day.

England's recent record in opening Tests away from home is poor: they have not won the first encounter since beating South Africa, at Port Elizabeth, in 2004.

There are concerns this time about the strength of the opposition England will encounter in the early weeks of the tour. The matches against Western Australia, Australia A and New South Wales all clash with rounds of the Sheffield Shield. The sides fielded by WA and NSW are likely to be particularly under strength and it has been suggested that reinforcements will be called in. Ultimately for England, though, the importance will be getting miles in the bowlers' legs and hours at the crease for the batsmen.

Three years ago, Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss fielded the first Test starting XI in the first two warm-up matches before resting the four frontline bowlers - James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Steven Finn and Graeme Swann - for the match against Australia A in Hobart.

Anderson, Broad and Swann are, fitness permitting, certainties again but Finn will have to fight to regain the place he lost after the opening Test at Trent Bridge in July. On that occasion his berth went to Bresnan, who provided greater control and added depth to lower order. This time, unless Bresnan's recovery is unexpectedly rapid, his competition will come from Rankin, who impressed during the one-day series against Australia last month, and the recalled Chris Tremlett who had a major impact on the 2010-11 series when he was brought in for the Perth Test onwards.

Tremlett, who played his previous Test against Pakistan in January 2012, was expected to start on his homeground at The Oval in August but, at the last minute, was overlooked as England changed the balance of their side by handing debuts to Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan.

The experiment was not a success and neither have made this tour: Woakes was solid, but has been leapfrogged by Stokes, and Kerrigan suffered a nightmare debut as he was mauled by Shane Watson. Despite Stokes' presence in the squad, the odds favour England returning to their preferred balance of six batsmen, the wicketkeeper, three fast bowlers and Swann.

Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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