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Australia hit by fresh fears for Lee's return

No respite for tourists' frail attack as pace bowler's Edgbaston hopes fade

Their attack may be coming apart at the seams, but Australia's hopes of drumming up reinforcements in time for the third Test appear increasingly slim after their coach, Tim Nielsen, admitted yesterday that Brett Lee was unlikely to be fit enough for Edgbaston, or even the rest of the series.

Lee was ruled out of the opening two Tests with a side injury sustained in the warm-up match against England Lions. Australia play Northamptonshire in a three-day game starting on Friday ahead of the third Test, which begins a week tomorrow. For Lee to have a realistic chance of playing in Birmingham he needs to take the field in Northampton and Nielsen is far from confident of their most experienced paceman being ready.

"We will see how we go," Nielsen said. "He hasn't bowled yet, so we just have to sit with the medical staff over the next few days and chat about how much we need to get into him and whether it is going to progress him to the stage where he could play in the third Test. My feeling is, if it is not going to mean he is available to play in the third Test match, we are going to have to be really careful about rushing him back.

"The injury that he has is bowling-specific and history shows if you have those injuries again it tends to be six, eight, 10 weeks before they come right, if you actually re-tear the side. Two, three, four overs in the nets is probably not enough to prove that he is right to go. If he had to bowl, say, 11 overs in a row, like Andrew Flintoff did [on Monday], to win a Test match for us, we would want to be comfortable that he is strong and fit enough and able to do it."

Lee played the most recent of his 76 Tests on Boxing Day against South Africa in Melbourne as he has since been dogged by injury. He arrived in England far from assured of a Test place following the success of Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle and, to a lesser extent, Ben Hilfenhaus in Australia's series victory in South Africa, but took seven wickets at Worcester against the Lions in an impressive display of sustained fast bowling that was notable for its reverse swing, a skill his colleagues have struggled to match.

He has been badly missed, with Johnson in particular a shadow of the bowler who terrorised Graeme Smith's side earlier this year. At Lord's Johnson went for six runs an over in the first innings and was little better in the second, conceding 200 runs in the match. With Lee unfit he seems certain to keep his place, although Stuart Clark, who will play against Northamptonshire but has also been badly out of sorts, will come into contention.

"We have to be careful how we manage him over the next bit," said the Australia captain, Ricky Ponting, of Johnson. "Bowling coach Troy Cooley is working really closely with him. What you don't want to do with youngish blokes – Mitch has only played 20-odd Tests and is still pretty new to the game and fast bowling – is to fill their heads full of too much and have him thinking of too many things."