| Matthew Hayden (left) and Justin Langer enjoy a break from practice in Brisbane Wednesday
Brisbane: The battle for cricket’s oldest trophy resumes on Thursday when England and Australia lock horns in the opening Ashes Test.
Steve Waugh’s Australians have won the past seven Ashes series and despite England’s improved form over the past few years, this upcoming five-match series looks like going the same way.
The Australians haven’t lost a series at home against any country in a decade and showed they were in great touch leading into the Ashes by demolishing Pakistan 3-0 last month.
“There’ll be no excuses, I think we’re peaking at the right time,” Waugh said. “Everyone’s feeling really strong, our practice sessions have been great.”
England have shown signs of improvement over the past two seasons but are once again struggling with injuries to several key players, including fast bowler Darren Gough.
They were thrashed 1-4 at home in last year’s Ashes and haven’t won a match on tour in Australia so far, though England captain Nasser Hussain remains hopeful his team can pull off an upset.
“Form in warm-up games is important to a degree, but if we had won every game and played out of our skins it wouldn’t have meant anything going into Thursday,” Hussain said.
Australia have had their own injury concerns but nothing too serious. Paceman Jason Gillespie had to pass a fitness test on his calf before being cleared to play and wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist was hospitalised for a night with an elbow infection.
The biggest issue facing Australia has been in choosing from the depth they have at their disposal, forcing the selectors to made two significant changes before the opening Test at the Gabba in Brisbane.
One of Australia’s greatest ever players, Mark Waugh, was dropped after 128 Tests, prompting him to announce his retirement from international cricket, and replaced by Darren Lehmann.
Fast bowler Brett Lee was axed after a form slump and replaced by veteran paceman Andy Bichel.
“If they lose a quality player, they can replace them with another quality player,” England coach Duncan Fletcher observed.
While the Australians have dominated their recent clashes and have the significant advantage of playing at home, nowhere is their superiority bigger than in the statistics books.
While six of Australia’s seven batsmen average 43.50 or more in Tests, England have just one at that mark. And Australia’s four bowlers, Glenn McGrath, Gillespie, Bichel and Shane Warne, all have significantly better records than England’s bowlers.
England’s hopes of testing the Australians seem to rest with their in-form top order batsmen, particularly openers Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan. The pair has been in great form in their recent matches with Sri Lanka and India, but Waugh warned they should expect stiffer examination from his team.
White for Flintoff
England, meanwhile, named Craig White instead of Andrew Flintoff to their team for the Test. Flintoff, who has been stuggling to recover from a hernia operation, failed a fitness test on Wednesday.
White will complement a three-man pace attack including young pace bowler Simon Jones, while left-arm spinner Ashley Giles was also picked.
Australia: Steve Waugh (captain), Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Ricky Ponting, Damien Martyn, Darren Lehmann, Adam Gilchrist, Jason Gillespie, Shane Warne, Andrew Bichel, Glenn McGrath.
England: Nasser Hussain (captain), Marcus Trescothick, Michael Vaughan, Mark Butcher, Alec Stewart, John Crawley, Craig White, Ashley Giles, Andrew Caddick, Matthew Hoggard, Simon Jones.