Cricket Expert & Columnist
It's time to perform
Perth offers Australia their best chance of victory, says Mike Atherton, but are they up to the challenge?
Last Updated: 15/12/10 1:42pm
'Plenty of bark but not much bite' sums up Australia's Ashes so far.
They've talked a good game but now Ricky Ponting's side must 'put up' in Perth or shut up about their chances of regaining the urn.
Call it innate natural pessimism, if you will, but I've felt all along that if Australia are to win a Test in this series then it will be here.
Over the years Perth has offered Australia a clear home advantage, as England's record of one win in 11 attempts suggests, because the WACA is one of the few remaining pitches around the world that has its own peculiar conditions.
Although this pitch is not as fiery as it used to be, it is still quicker and bouncier than most around the world and demands good, solid disciplines.
For English batsmen who are traditionally more used to playing a front-foot rather than a cross-bat game it represents a significant challenge.
Whether Australia have the attack to make the most of that advantage, though, remains to be seen. Suggestions that Mitchell Johnson's return is all part of a rotation policy are nothing short of laughable.
I have had some sympathy for Australia's selectors in the build-up to this Test as they seek to silence the alarm bells.
Striking the right balance between avoiding panic decisions and not letting things drift is tough when you are under severe pressure.
Most people here feel that the selectors have dawdled a bit, that if they were going to make a change or two they should have done so 12 months before the Ashes began to give the newer players a chance to bed in.
Dropping somebody like Nathan Hauritz on the eve of the Ashes or Marcus North two games in makes little sense and can only affect the team's consistency.
But that's all to England's advantage.
All eyes will now be on Phil Hughes to see if he can step up to the challenge on his return to the top of the order. He was the next great thing when he arrived in England in 2009, yet now he is virtually being written off as someone who can't play.
Both ends of the spectrum are wrong; while he is not a great player by any stretch of the imagination he is no dummy either.
He scored two Test hundreds in South Africa in his second game, possesses a decent Test and first-class record and, as any bowler who has been on the receiving end will no doubt tell you, he has talent and ability to burn.
It's important that England don't just write him off and I'm sure they won't; his issues with the short ball are well-documented and Andrew Strauss must operate with a short leg and short gully in place and tell his seamers to bowl tightly.
England won't want to give him room to slap it through the offside because Hughes is the type of who could get Australia off to a bit of a flyer.
Steven Smith is also a perky player; I would have picked him for the first Test at the Gabba and batted him at eight behind Marcus North and Brad Haddin.
I rate him as a very good lower-order player and a more than handy leg-spinner if your team is on top. But he's not good enough to be the main spinner yet and I'm sure that England won't mind him coming in at six. Australia are playing him in the wrong position, in my view.
The bizarre selection of Michael Beer, and Xavier Doherty before him, shows just how desperate Australia are in the spinning stakes.
If they selectors were determined to overlook Hauritz I would have thought the better option would have been to keep North, a tidy off-spinner who knows conditions at the WACA, and employ Smith as the second spinner.
If Australia can get into a position where they have a 200-run lead, as they did in Brisbane, then having a leg-spinner in their armoury can be no bad thing. He may bowl a bit of rubbish but he may also send down some cracker jacks and get you a wicket or two.
Instead, it looks as though Australia are trying to manufacture a spinner who simply isn't there.
I suspect the break between Tests will have done Australia much more good than England.
The word was that Australia needed to get away from each other as things were getting a bit tetchy in the dressing room towards the end of the Adelaide Test.
In contrast, I'm sure England's in-form batsmen would have preferred to have cracked on with the next Test rather than turn out for a rather flat tour game that was played in a rather flat, odd atmosphere.
On the bowling front I don't think it is a crucial issue whether Chris Tremlett or Tim Bresnan comes in for Stuart Broad because the 11th man rarely affects whether a Test match is won or lost.
England may be tempted to go with Bresnan because he's a solid, dependable workhorse who will thrive bowling into the wind but surely they picked Tremlett for precisely this eventuality?
The Surrey man has bowled well on his previous Test appearances and I don't see any reason why he can't bring a bit of extra bite to England's attempt to retain the Ashes over the next five days.