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Australia vs England - 4th Test Preview

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England have nothing but pride at stake as they face Australia in the fourth test match of the 2013-14 Ashes series, which will begin this Thursday, 26 December.

Australia regained the Ashes which they lost to England earlier this year making this year's Boxing Day Test Match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) in Melbourne a dead rubber.

England

England's batting unit has mis-fired all series long, forcing England coach Andy Flower to make these candid observations  "It is very obvious we underperformed badly with the bat. Our first innings batting has been ordinary and we are not going to win many Test matches or many Test series if we don't score heavily in the first innings." England are currently the number one ranked test side in cricket, but after their most recent series defeat, it is unlikely they will stay up there for too much longer. In England's most recent defeat at Perth, only one player, number six batsman Ben Stokes, stood out and played out a gutsy but assured knock against the quality Australian bowling line-up. Stokes scored 120 in the fourth innings of the Perth Test match, his first-ever fifty plus score in test match cricket. Besides Stokes however, England's batting has been inconsistent and largely without tooth. Ian Bell, currently England's highest run scorer in the series, has yet to reach 200 runs in the series. England are likely to make at least a couple of changes to their Playing XI for the Boxing Day test match, with Jonny Bairstow expected to replace wicket-keeper Matt Prior. Middle-order batsman Gary Ballance is expected to come in for Kevin Pietersen to fill in the number 4 position and make his test match debut at the MCG. Whatever the changes made for the MCG test match though, it will be a time of deep retrospection for the England team, and also a chance to get their act together before the end of what otherwise was  an otherwise successful year.

The biggest news surrounding England cricket in the past few days has been the sudden and unexpected retirement of off-spinner Graeme Swann on Saturday. Swann announced at a post-match press conference that his decision to retire from test cricket was motivated largely by his body's inability to cope with the workload of bowling spells of 30-40 overs in a test match inning. England were forced to call upon two replacements, leg-spinner Scott Borthwick and off-spinner James Tredwell who has represented England in the limited-overs game, to fill in for Graeme Swann in the Playing XI. Monty Panesar, the left-arm spinner in the England squad however is the most likely to take the mantle of lead spinner in the England squad with Swann's retirement.  The other selection dilemna for the England team would be over the place of second pacer Stuart Broad in the Playing XI after Broad sustained a toe injury in the Perth Test match. Boyd Rankin is likely to make his test debut at the MCG if Stuart Broad is deemed unfit to play the fourth test match.

Australia

The Australian selectors announced an unchanged squad for the fourth test match at the MCG, and for the first time in almost 9 years, it seems likely Australia will field an unchanged Playing XI for four consecutive test matches. The Australian squad has looked strong and been upbeat right through the series. The bowling attack, led by left-arm seamer Mitchell Johnson, has been particularly impressive and has had a major role in the success of the Australian team so far. Mitchell Johnson has been brilliantly backed by Peter Siddle and by Ryan Harris, both of whom have picked up a wicket every 55 balls on average in the series, while Australia's main spin bowler in the squad, Nathan Lyon, has bowled with good control and extracted turn from the surface on a regular basis. Mitchell Johnson however, with 23 wickets in the 3 test matches at an average of 15.47 and a 7-wicket haul in his the first innings of the second test match at Adelaide has been a real stand-out performer for the Australian team, and rightfully the most likely man to win the Man of the Series award for his consistent and brilliant performances.

The batting has also been brilliant for the Australian team, with each of the top order batsmen in the Playing XI showing good resolve and batting well as a unit to string together consistent, big partnerships. Australia have dominated all the three test matches so far, and barring Chris Rogers, each of the top-order batsmen have scored centuries for Australia in the series. With Brad Haddin bailing Australia out a couple of times from tricky situations coming in at number 7, and opener David Warner scoring at a strike rate of over 90 runs/100 balls, Australia seem to have found the perfect combination to hold them in good stead, and would look to pull off one more victory in what is expected to be a capacity crowd at the MCG, come Thursday.

Likely XIs

England: Alastair Cook (c), Michael Carberry, Joe Root, Gary Ballance, Ian Bell, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow (wk), Tim Bresnan, James Anderson, Monty Panesar, Boyd Rankin.

Australia: Chris Rogers, David Warner, Shane Watson, Michael Clarke (c), Steve Smith, George Bailey, Brad Haddin (wk), Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle, Ryan Harris, Nathan Lyon.

Key Players

James Anderson: With Swann's retirement from international cricket after the Perth Test Match, the onus would now be on the shoulders on James Anderson, England's front-line bowler and the spear-head of their bowling attack,  to get England out of their current quandary. The bowling for England has been ordinary inspite of the bounce and pace available on the Australian conditions. Anderson, who currently has 7 wickets from the 3 games, is the bowler with the maximum scope for improvement on both sides and would look to live upto his reputation to help salvage some pride for the English team.

Mitchell Johnson: 23 wickets in 3 test matches at an average of 15. Mitchell Johnson has been hugely responsible for Australia's victory in the on-going Ashes series. Johnson would hope to maintain his high standards and put in another match-winning performance to extend Australia's unassailable lead in the series.

Prediction : Australia are in red-hot form and clear favorites with few injury and almost no player form concerns. Australia will win the Boxing Day Test Match of 2013 to extend their lead in the series to 4-0.