Sydney: Australia captain Steve Smith brushed off concerns about his fitness on the eve of the fifth and final Ashes Test against England on Wednesday before Mitchell Starc’s return to spearhead the pace attack was confirmed as the only change to his team.
Left-arm quick Starc, the leading wicket-taker in the series after claiming 19 in the first three Tests as Australia wrested back the Ashes, missed the drawn fourth Test in Melbourne with a bruised heel but confirmed his fitness in the nets.
“Starcy’s pulled up pretty well this morning and said he’s ready to go,” Smith told reporters at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG).
“The break that he’s had from bowling has helped his heel heal, it’s coming on nicely, he’s confident. You’ve got to take the player’s words sometimes, and hopefully he gets through fine.”
The Australia skipper, who has accumulated a series-leading 604 runs at an average of 151, left no one in any doubt that he would be leading his side out on Thursday despite missing training on Tuesday because of a bad back.
“It’s a little bit stiff but nothing I haven’t dealt with before,” Smith said. “I’ll have a good hit and a good catch today and I’ll be fine tomorrow.
“I love batting out here at the SCG, it’s my home ground and I’ve made a few good scores. So hopefully I can continue the run.”
The side was confirmed after Australia’s training session with Starc returning in place of Jackson Bird, who laboured as a stand-in on an Melbourne Cricket Ground pitch, rated as “poor” by the governing International Cricket Council.
Left-arm tweaker Ashton Agar was also brought into the squad to offer Australia the option of going with two spinners if it looked like the SCG was going to offer a lot of turn.
Smith, though, said the state of the pitch made it unlikely that one of the quicks would make way for Agar to play alongside off spinner Nathan Lyon as the hosts look to wrap up the series 4-0.
“The wicket’s got a fair bit of grass and looks to be a pretty good wicket,” he added. “I’d say we’d probably opt for just the one spinner.”
Crane replaces Chris Woakes
England leg spinner Mason Crane will make his Test debut after all-rounder Chris Woakes was ruled out of the match by injury, captain Joe Root said on Wednesday.
Woakes missed a significant part of England’s home season after straining his side in the opening match of last year’s Champions Trophy and pulled up sore after the fourth Test in Melbourne last week.
The 27-year-old’s enforced absence will be the only change to Root’s side for the Test at the SCG, which starts on Thursday.
“He’s obviously an integral significant member of both the white ball and Test team and it’s important he’s not out for a long time like he was last summer,” Root told reporters.
“He’s going to miss this week and it’s a great opportunity for Mason to come in and make his debut.”
Woakes’s injury has probably resulted in a reprieve for out-of-form all-rounder Moeen Ali, who had been expected to make way for 20-year-old Crane.
England have already handed back the Ashes after losing the first three Tests of the series but Root has made it clear the tourists would not be handing out Test caps in Sydney willy nilly, as they did at the end of the 2013-14 whitewash.
Crane, who played at the SCG for New South Wales last year during a highly successful stint with the Gordon club, will become the youngest England spinner to make his Test debut for 90 years.
“He’s been outstanding. For a young man to apply himself and absorb himself in the environment as he has, is exactly what you want,” Root said.
“You can see a big progression in his game since he’s been involved in this tour. He’s right up for international cricket and he’s not someone who’s going to back down.
“On this surface, he’s going to be a really good option. It looks like it’s going to give a bit of turn throughout.” (Reuters)