The last time England retained the Ashes down under was in the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne in 1986 when they crushed Australia by an innings and 14 runs to take an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series. With the debacle at Perth now behind them, Andrew Strauss' side has a second opportunity to retain the urn at the same Melbourne Cricket Ground over the coming days.
In the lead-up to the 4th test there has been much speculation about the late switch to a much greener looking pitch, which has given hope to Australians that Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris will find a similarly helpful, fast and bouncy wicket to the one that suited them so much at Perth. This is probably wishful thinking on behalf of the home side and the usual slow Melbourne pitch is a much more likely proposition.
This means that Australia will have to think hard about the make-up of their side. Do they risk going in again with four specialist quicks and the part-time spin of Steve Smith? Or do they hand Michael Beer a test debut in place of either Peter Siddle or Ben Hilfenhaus? Dropping the former would mean that Australia would lose its chief snarler in what appeared to be a new 'in your face' approach in Perth.
England also have decisions to make as to the make-up of the bowling attack, although Andy Flower confirmed earlier this week that they will stick to their four-man bowler approach in the absence of a world-class all-rounder. This is no surprise especially as Matt Prior isn't in the form to justify an elevation to number six.
England are likely to be unchanged although Tim Bresnan or Ajmal Shahzad may come in for Steve Finn if the latter is deemed to need a rest by the England management. other than that the only change could be Ian Bell being promoted to five ahead of Paul Collingwood.
For Australia, Ricky Ponting is almost certain to play despite a broken little finger and surely they won't repeat their error of The Oval 2009 by going in without a specialist spinner? If Beer does get the nod, expect Siddle to be the one carrying the drinks. Australia also has the option of bolstering the batting by playing Ponting's stand-by Usman Khawaja instead of Smith at number six.
Look out for…
We tipped Kevin Pietersen to end his long quest for a century in our preview of the Adelaide Test and despite crashing back down to earth in Perth, we fully expect him to reach three figures here again in Melbourne.
Ricky Ponting is too great a batsman not to stamp his influence on this series and despite his broken digit and poor run of scores, we would be very surprised if he doesn't make a significant score on the biggest of stages.
Finally, Graeme Swann had a quiet game in Perth after his seven wickets in Adelaide, but the surface at the MCG is likely to suit him better and we wouldn't be surprised to see him star in the 2nd innings. Australia may come to regret not picking their best spinner - the in-form Nathan Hauritz instead of the untried Beer.
Previously at Melbourne
Scene of the first ever Test match in 1877, there have been 53 encounters between England and Australia at the cavernous Melbourne Cricket Ground. Australia has the advantage with 27 wins to England’s 19 and perhaps a clue to the outcome of the 2010 edition is that there have only been 7 draws.
2006 – Australia won by an innings and 99 – England suffered a Boxing Day hangover as they were bundled out for just 159 with Warne taking his 700th Test wicket. England struck back by reducing Australia to 84/5 before Hayden and Symonds both reached 150. England then capitulated for a second time for 161 for yet another woeful defeat on the most dispiriting of tours.
2002 – Australia won by five wickets – Justin Langer hit 250 as Australia amassed a powerful 551/6 and then England only managed 20 more runs than Langer made on his own. They did better after following on with Michael Vaughan scoring a sparkling 145 as England at least set Australia a target. They then restored further pride by taking five wickets as Australia stumbled over the winning line.
1998 – England won by 12 runs – A pulsating test match with a dramatic climax. Rain ruined day one but Alec Stewart scored a captain’s hundred as England made 270. Steve Waugh (122) then masterminded runs from the tail as Australia led by 70. And when England could only make 244 in their second innings and Australia reached 130/3 in pursuit of 162 all seemed lost. Step forward Dean Headley – who engineered a spectacular collapse and a famous England win.
1986 – England won by an innings and 14 – Mike Gatting’s side secured the retention of the urn with a crushing victory in the Boxing Day Test. Gladstone Small and Ian Botham took five apiece as Australia could only muster 141. Then Chris Broad’s third successive hundred provided the bedrock of England’s 208 1st innings lead. Phil Edmonds and John Emburey then spun England to victory.
1982 – England won by 3 runs – The forerunner to Edgbaston 2005. An extremely tight match saw all four innings total between 284 and 294. When Australia were 218 for nine chasing 292 all looked lost for the home side. But Border and Thomson took them to within sight of the finishing line before that man Botham struck inducing an edge from Thomson that Tavare parried into the hands of a grateful Miller.
If the weather holds true then the MCG is a result wicket and we fully expect England to win a tight encounter and therefore retain the Ashes with the final test in Sydney still to come.
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