England in good shape for series that matters

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England's captain Alastair Cook with his troops. AFP PHOTO / Marty MELVILLE

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The appetiser may be scheduled to take place a week on Saturday, when the age-old foes do battle at Edgbaston in the Champions Trophy, but that contest hardly warranted a mention on the various platforms that may have an interest.

And the plethora of journalists who have interviewed Ricky Ponting since he arrived for his short stint in Surrey’s colours have made no secret of the fact there is only one topic they are interested in talking about and it isn’t whether he’s had any luck on the greyhounds recently.

The Ashes, in case you’ve been on another planet, are coming and England’s thumping of New Zealand in an all-too brief two Test skirmish has whetted the appetite just that little bit more.

Michael Clarke et al may have most of their focus on the upcoming 50-over tournament, but I bet they partook in a touch more than a passing glance at events in Headingley.

And they will, or should, have come to the conclusion that England are in pretty decent shape.

In fact, they only have two issues to deal with before hostilities commence at Trent Bridge in July and that should mean the hierarchy are in a good place.

The problems, if they can be considered to be that, concerns Alastair Cook’s opening partner and the anticipated return of Kevin Pietersen.

The latter, by all accounts, is back practicing with his injured knee recovering as well as can be expected, and the debate surrounding the former will be sharpened when the Surrey man is back in the fold.

It isn’t a wild guess to suggest one of Nick Compton and Jonny Bairstow will miss out and, of what I’ve seen, it has to be Compton who receives an unwelcome phone call from the selectors.

The Somerset batsman deserves a lot of admiration for the way he worked his way into the international set-up through sheer weight of runs in domestic cricket, but his flaws have been too easily exposed in the past fortnight.

His second innings effort at Leeds was the painful 90 minute showing of a man who knows his place is under threat and is drinking in the last chance saloon.

Tense to the point of barely being able to function, the upcoming greater challenges will hardly lessen the load and while he hasn’t let anyone down, his time has to be up.

Joe Root, who has taken to the international game as though he was born to it, is an opener by trade and the argument he is doing well at number five so he should be left alone is missing the point.

Bairstow, while not the most orthodox going around, has something about him and assuming Pietersen comes straight back in, he should be left at six.

Selections-wise, that is about it.

Any talk of two spinners to probe away at the Australians’ supposed weakness against that kind of bowling is wide of the mark as England – even at The Oval, which normally encourages that approach – are reluctant to change a successful formula.

Unless injuries crop up, the XI who take to the field in Nottingham will be the ones who beat New Zealand, with Pietersen instead of Compton.

That constitutes a strong outfit.

The preparation has been as good as it can be in this day and age of muddled up fixture programmes and the tag of favourites, which they were adorned with well in advance, looks more than justified.

That takes care of the hosts and the microscope, once the one-dayers are out of the way, can turn its focus on the relative health of the visitors.

So come on Australia, what have you got?

Alec Swann is a former Northants and Lancashire opener turned cricket writer. Outside of the joys of a Test match, Newcastle United and golf generally occupy his other sporting interests with a soft spot for the Newcastle Knights.
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