• Australia v England, 2nd Test, Adelaide

England face up to rebuilding phase

George Dobell
December 3, 2013
Alastair Cook and England have plenty to ponder © Getty Images
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Like the Adelaide ground in which they will seek to recover from 1-0 down in the series, the England side finds itself in a rebuilding phase on the eve of the second Ashes Test. Just as England still have the likes of Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell, Adelaide Oval still has green and lush grass banks and offers a view - just about - of the spire of St Peter's Cathedral. But for both ground and team much has changed and the fact is that neither will be the finished article heading into this game.

Months of planning go into each Ashes series yet, ahead of this Test, England are in the uncomfortable position of having doubts over at least three positions in their side. They require a new No. 3, are likely to have a debutant at No. 6 and have a decision to make about the fourth member of their bowling attack. It is far from ideal for a team that prides itself on continuity. Even after their defeats in the UAE and Ahmedabad, England had fewer selection dilemmas and a settled spine to their side.

It might have been even worse. Bell has become the latest player to be struck in the nets by a ball thrown by Graham Gooch's 'dog thrower' device but, after treatment on his shoulder, he has been cleared to play. It seems likely that his desire to bat at No. 3 will be denied, though, with Joe Root more likely to be promoted.

It is not an ideal solution. Not only has Root struggled to convince against the harder, newer ball to date in his Test career - he was undone by bounce in both innings in Alice Springs - it will also mean that two of England's top three have much to prove at the top of the order. It was not meant to be this way.

But England - and Andy Flower, in particular - have great faith in Root. In the longer term, they still aspire to him opening the batting. He has shown an admirable temperament and decent technique and, on the slower pitch anticipated in Adelaide, might find life more comfortable.

The Adelaide curator, Damian Hough, admits he cannot predict exactly how his first drop-in Test pitch will behave. But, made as it is of the same soil and grass varieties as previous Adelaide tracks, he anticipates it will have "all the characteristics of a typical Adelaide pitch."

"It will definitely not be as quick as the Gabba," Hough told ESPNcricinfo. "Hopefully there will be a little bit for the quicks early on, but then it will be a very good batting track. It might start reversing and it should deteriorate and take some spin, but it will be a good batting track."

With that in mind, there is an outside chance that England could play two spinners. It is true that Monty Panesar's left-arm spin might prove more effective against Australia's army of right-hand batsmen, but his form last season was modest and the addition of his limited batting and fielding would be a risk in a line-up that batted so poorly in Brisbane.

Instead, the final bowling place will probably be contested by Tim Bresnan and Chris Tremlett. Bresnan said he was "definitely ready to play in this Test" and he might also add some depth to the batting. It is worth noting, however, that Bresnan has only once scored more than 30 in an innings when England have not made more than 400.

Gary Ballance impressed the most in Alice Springs, and it is his role as a specialist batsman that England are likely to favour © Getty Images
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It is England's failure to make 400 in any of their previous 17 Test innings - a run that stretches back to Wellington in March - that remains at the heart of their difficulties. Perhaps because of mental weariness - a key issue in forcing Jonathan Trott home - there have been diminishing returns from England's top seven for some time. Maybe it is the schedule, maybe it is the intensity of the England environment, but batsmen who have proved themselves proficient at this level are struggling to rediscover the form that took England to the top of the Test rankings.

It is possible, however, that the manner of defeat in Brisbane has exaggerated the magnitude of their problem. England looked rattled by Mitchell Johnson and co. in the first Test and there is no doubt that bowlers of such uncommon pace present difficulties.

But it is also likely that, in the second innings at least, the England dressing room was not the calm and stable place it might have been in normal circumstances. As the extent of Trott's torment became known - and it appears it was following his second-innings dismissal that it became most apparent - it is only natural that his team-mates were distracted and unsettled. They will have an opportunity to show their batting timidity was an aberration when this Test starts on Thursday.

Certainly all the talk coming from the England camp is encouraging. Bresnan was in Churchillian mood when talking of the side's "mental fortitude" in adversity and insisted that England were "a group of guys that, especially when our backs are against the wall, come out fighting." Such talk is all well and good and, up to a point, England have a fine record in that regard. But Bresnan could be expected to say little else and it is actions, not talk, which will decide this series.

There are, in theory, three men in contention for the No. 6 position: Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes and Gary Ballance. It appears likely that Ballance is in pole position at present though, if Panesar is included as a bowler, it is possible Stokes' all-round skills will win him a place. With Matt Prior in a slump with the bat, however, and Ballance having impressed most in Alice Springs, it is his role as a specialist batsman that England are likely to favour.

The sense remains that England are playing not just a team but a nation. The latest front page story to greet England's arrival in a new town suggested that two of their players were out late drinking. That they barely drink alcohol and were quite entitled to be out late hardly warranted a mention.

The England camp received the 'news' with amusement and even pleasure. The players involved - Pietersen and Stuart Broad - have not always been the closest of friends and the sight of them enjoying social time together might be perceived as encouraging. This series is assuredly not lacking in propaganda and spin.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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