Melbourne: Australia have their tails up after beating England by 267 runs in Perth to get their Ashes campaign on track, but have plenty to ponder amid praise from a grateful nation as they prepare for the fourth Test.
The third Test victory, sparked by a stunning return to form by enigmatic pace bowler Mitchell Johnson, squared the five-Test series 1-1 on Ricky Ponting’s 36th birthday and left the Australian captain claiming the momentum was firmly with the hosts.
“Momentum and confidence is a great thing in sport,” Ponting said.
“We’ve got the tide going back in our direction now and more importantly we’ve got some of our key players, like this bloke beside me (Johnson), probably on top of the world and with as much confidence as they’ve had in their careers.”
The selection of a four-pronged pace attack for Perth was exonerated when Johnson teamed with fellow quicks Ryan Harris, Ben Hilfenhaus and Peter Siddle to dismiss England for 187 and 123.
Having been punished by England’s batsmen at one stage or another in the Brisbane and Adelaide Tests when bowling with spinner Xavier Doherty, the four clearly enjoyed themselves at the WACA, where the pitch provided spark as changeable breezes helped the ball swing.
“The big thing that I was just really happy about was the way we bowled as a team,” said Johnson, who was dropped after Brisbane following a wicketless performance in which he leaked 170 runs.
“The four fast bowlers, we stuck together and worked really hard. We were really patient.”
Patience may be required in far greater reserves at the cauldron-like Melbourne Cricket Ground, where officials are talking up the possibility of a record Ashes crowd of over 90,000 for the first day on December 26.
Wickets trickled like a leaky tap on Perth’s sometimes mischievous wicket, but the MCG’s tracks tend to be far more lifeless and Australia’s lack of a quality spinner could prove telling should the pitch wear late in the Test.
The untried spinner Michael Beer was left out for Perth but was named again in Australia’s 12-man squad for Melbourne.
“As for every game, we need to pick our best four bowlers for the conditions,” said Ponting.
“Beer wasn’t picked to bowl here (Perth), he was picked as our best spinner.”
“Whether he plays or not will depend on what the wicket looks like a couple of days before the game.”
Ponting’s endorsement of Beer, who has a handful of first-class matches to his name and an average of around 40, underlines the dearth of spinning talent since the retirement of leg-spinner great Shane Warne.
Beer’s selection has also come as discarded spinner Nathan Hauritz, who boasts 63 Test wickets with a handy average of around 35, has struck two centuries in successive Sheffield Shield matches.
Should Australia go with their pace quartet again, 21-year-old all-rounder Steve Smith may face a baptism of fire bowling leg-spin against England’s batsmen, who would find it hard to do worse than in Perth.
Australia’s Test win also glossed over their brittle top order, who failed twice at the WACA. Deep question marks hover over the form of 22-year-old Phillip Hughes, Michael Clarke and Ponting, whose participation in Melbourne is in doubt because of a broken little finger.
Ponting said he would leave the decision until the morning before the Test, if necessary.
“I’m not going to be silly and put myself ahead of the team especially in such an important game.”