No worries as friendly conditions lie in wait for England's cricketers

TO borrow the well-worn words of Corporal Jones: Don't panic! England may have been comprehensively outplayed during the third Test in Perth, but they are still handily placed to retain the Ashes.

Although defeat at the WACA was a bitter blow, there is no reason to suppose it was more than a blip.

Last year, England suffered an even greater hammering against the old enemy at Headingley Carnegie before bouncing back to win the series.

It is the fashion nowadays to look for the positives – a subject on which the television pundit and former Warwickshire and England batsman Nick Knight could write a thesis.

But there are genuinely more pluses than minuses for Andrew Strauss's men as they head towards the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne.

Permission to speak, sir!

First and foremost, England remain the better side.

That might seem a blinkered statement after they have just been walloped by 267 runs, but it is fact.

Were it not for England's inability to cope with the unique conditions at Perth, where they have won only once in history and struggled to cope with the lethal cocktail of pace and bounce, one would be more worried by Australia's achievement in levelling the series at 1-1.

Conditions in the final two Tests at the MCG and Sydney should better suit the tourists and, in particular, off-spinner Graeme Swann, who remains their most potent weapon.

Swann has been effectively negated to date but can still play a big part – particularly at Sydney, where spinners queue up for a piece of the action as surely as pace bowlers at Perth.

The Nottinghamshire man was under-bowled at the WACA and remains key if England are to stick with a four-man attack, as they surely will.

Although there is a strong argument for playing Yorkshire pace bowler Ajmal Shahzad, there are unlikely to be changes.

Steven Finn was expensive at Perth but he is a young man and entitled to the odd off-day, while the only other possibility would be to drop Paul Collingwood and play a fifth bowler.

That might be worth considering if Sydney becomes a must-win game for the tourists but, for now, they should keep their nerve.

There is no need to over-react to one defeat.

So, what can England take from the WACA?

Well, the performance of Chris Tremlett for a start, who did all that could have been asked on his return to the Test side.

Clearly the conditions at Perth suited Tremlett, but there is no reason he cannot transfer that form to Melbourne and Sydney and continue to compensate for the loss through injury of Stuart Broad.

England's fielding was once again outstanding – exemplified by Collingwood's unbelievable slip catch to dismiss Ricky Ponting on the opening day, which briefly raised hopes of an Ashes-retaining victory.

Ian Bell showed further touches of his burgeoning quality during his first-innings half-century and looks increasingly wasted at No 6 behind Collingwood.

Former England captain Michael Vaughan is among those who believe the tourists should waste no more time in promoting Bell to No 5 – and it is high time the selectors took note.

The negatives, however, must be dissected and digested.

England's batting – so outstanding at Brisbane and Adelaide – was collectively woeful as they failed to pass 200 in either innings.

There are times Collingwood – for all his fielding brilliance – looks mediocre with the bat, while there remain serious doubts about wicketkeeper Matt Prior.

To his credit, Prior has improved with the gloves in recent times but he is hardly a Chris Read behind the stumps nor consistently impressive with the willow. He sorely needs a substantial score.

We can forgive the England batsmen at Perth in the sense they were probably "surprised out" as much as "bowled out" by Mitchell Johnson during the first innings, the Australian pace bowler suddenly having one of those red-letter days that not so long ago earned him the accolade of ICC Cricketer of the Year.

But the top-order's inability to cope with bowler-friendly conditions remains a serious concern – especially given England's oft-stated ambition to become world No 1.

Neither Australia nor England appear in that class at present, with the series having so far looked exactly what it is – a match-up between the fifth and fourth-ranked teams at the start of the rubber.

The pre-eminence and prestige of the Ashes, combined with its rich and evocative history, tends to make us think it is a battle for global supremacy as much as Anglo-Australian bragging rights, but the International Cricket Council rankings do not lie.

Perhaps the biggest reason for English optimism as attention turns towards the fourth Test lies in Australia's ongoing deficiencies.

Okay, so they might have won at the WACA, but several of their players remain alarmingly out of sorts.

Ricky Ponting – assuming he is fit for Melbourne and Sydney after fracturing the little finger of his left hand – has yet to fire in the series, while vice-captain Michael Clarke is coming under increasing pressure from Australia's media and supporters.

Opening batsman Philip Hughes looks more charitable than Santa Claus, twice making a present of his wicket in Perth; Steven Smith is not a world-beater with bat or ball, while Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus are honest toilers in international terms.

There remains a soft underbelly about the Australian team that cannot have been eradicated by just one game – any more than one game can suddenly have rendered England a bad side overnight.

Granted, Australia will take confidence and – how I detest this expression – "momentum" into the next Test, but perhaps the strongest factor in the home side's favour is that the pressure is primarily on England.

As the superior side, and especially given their performances during the first two Tests, it has got to be England's series to lose.

Of course, England do not actually have to win the series – merely to draw it to retain the Ashes as current holders.

Despite the harsh lessons of Perth, it would still be a minor surprise if they failed to do so.