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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Starc returns for fifth Ashes Test, Australia captain Smith 'fine' after stiff back

Jackson Bird drops out of the side that drew the fourth Test against England in Melbourne

Mitchell Starc stretches during an Australian nets session at Sydney Cricket Ground on January 2. Jason McCawley / Getty Images
Mitchell Starc stretches during an Australian nets session at Sydney Cricket Ground on January 2. Jason McCawley / Getty Images

Australia captain Steve Smith brushed off concerns about his fitness on the eve of the fifth and final Ashes Test against England 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 captain, 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."

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Meanwhile, Chris Woakes has been ruled out with a side strain opening the way for young leg-spinner Mason Crane to make his debut for England in Thursday's final Ashes Test.

England captain Joe Root confirmed 20-year-old Crane will play following the injury set-back to Woakes.

Woakes had scans on his injured left side on Wednesday and was ruled out of the Sydney Test as the tourists seek to win their first Test of the series.

The Warwickshire paceman missed a significant part of England's home season after straining his side during last year's Champions Trophy and pulled up sore after last week's fourth Melbourne Test.

Woakes has taken 10 wickets at 49.5 in the four Tests and scored just 114 runs through seven innings batting No 8 at an average of 16.28.

But he is a key member of England's limited overs sides, and with both a one-day international series and a Twenty20 tri-series to follow over the next month, England are not prepared to risk him.

"More than anything it's making sure he's not out for a significant period of time like he was throughout the summer," Root told reporters on Wednesday.

"It gives him another week to get himself right and hopefully that's the case and he's fit and ready to go when those games come around."

Crane, who has made two Twenty20 appearances, comes into the Test having taken five wickets for New South Wales at the SCG last year while playing Sydney club cricket.

"The way he went about those Twenty20s shows he is right up for international cricket and he's not someone that is going to back down from any challenge," Root said.

"He's performed very well when he's had his opportunities on this trip."

England coach Trevor Bayliss this week indicated Crane was in line to debut when he told reporters: "There's maybe no time like the present to find out.

"We think he's a guy that has got the goods, and the more he plays at this level the better he will get. You've got to start somewhere."

The injury to Woakes is likely to give the out-of-sorts Moeen Ali another chance.

Moeen has played 48 Tests and came to Australia as an accomplished all-rounder but he has under-performed, taking only three wickets and averaging 19 with the bat.