England must keep momentum as Australia welcome back warriors

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The Independent Online

On Monday, when Lee was admitted to a Birmingham hospital with an infection to his left knee, and with McGrath still struggling to recover from the ankle he twisted badly before the Edgbaston Test, it appeared that neither would be fit to play in today's third Ashes Test. Yet, after successfully coming through yesterday's practice session, both could make a dramatic return to Australia's starting XI.

Lee is certain to play after completing a 20-minute bowl and McGrath will join him should he wake up this morning with no reaction to yesterday's workout. The sight of these two opening the bowling will be a huge boost for Australia four days after losing to England by two runs at Edgbaston.

Lee spent two days attached to an intravenous drip but showed no discomfort during his workout and left the field smiling. McGrath did not bowl flat out during his two spells, but appears to have done enough to convince the selectors he is worthy of a place in the side. The fast bowler has not bowled for a week but even at 80 per cent he is well capable of troubling England's batsmen.

Playing McGrath will be something of a gamble but it is hard to keep a champion out of the action for long. He will be desperate to play and put Australia back in front. As a fast bowler he is used to playing through pain and before he had an operation to remove a bone spur on his left ankle, he constantly did. But bowling 50 overs in a Test match puts a fully-fit body through a lot and McGrath will be aware of the debilitating effect an injury can have on his skills.

England's players will convince themselves that the possible presence of these two will change very little. They will believe the momentum is with them following the remarkable two-run victory at Edgbaston. But it is just the tonic Australia needed. At the press conferences which followed at Edgbaston, it was difficult to tell which captain had won the match before the questioning began. Ricky Ponting, the Australian captain, was cool, calm and relaxed, while Vaughan looked shattered.

To win a match of such importance and nail-biting intensity would normally give the victors a huge advantage, but highs of this stature tend to be followed by hangovers and it could be difficult for England to reach such levels so soon. Against most teams, England would be able to get away with this but when facing Australia you have to perform to your best during every session of play.

"The emotions of Sunday morning were bound to take their toll but I am alright now," said an enthusiastic Vaughan. "There is a chance of us suffering from a hangover but we have to make sure it doesn't happen and we start the game in a positive fashion. Our start at Edgbaston really set the tone for the game. We played instinctively and we have do the same here. It is important to get on top of good sides early and stay in front."

England are set to name an unchanged team, although they are monitoring the fitness of Matthew Hoggard. Hoggard has looked pretty innocuous in the first two Test matches and has been having treatment on his right knee. Should the joint flare up, or England's selectors deem the pitch more suitable for a tall fast bowler, Chris Tremlett will make his debut. The pitch is dry, hard and flat. It will offer quick pace and bounce but at the same time will be good to bat on. In the opening two Test matches no player has scored a hundred but it would be a surprise if this remained the case. Old Trafford has always been a good place to bat and the figures back this up. In the last 12 Test matches here there have been 30 three-figure scores and only six five-wicket hauls. Yet it has not been a happy ground for England. England's last victory here over Australia was in 1981, and they have won only three of the 18 Test matches played since Ian Botham strutted his stuff.

"This series is the biggest challenge of my captaincy," admitted Ponting, who took charge of Australia in January 2004. "But the way we came back in the last innings at Edgbaston was very good for our confidence. It is a surprise that no batsman has faced more than 150 balls in a Test innings. Our top order have got off to good starts and then just got out. We pride ourselves on big partnerships and guys making big individual scores and we just have not got there yet. We have just got to be hungrier and bat for longer periods of time.

"It just seems like the last two Tests have been in fast forward, it has been remarkable cricket so far. If we can get the game into the fifth day we will be happy because it means the whole tempo would have slowed down and hopefully that means some of our guys will have batted for extended periods which we need to do to win Test matches."

Australia's batting woes have been made up for by the brilliance of Shane Warne, who has already taken 16 wickets. These dismissals have taken his Test tally to 599 and it is fitting that he will become the first bowler to reach 600 wickets at this venue. Warne did not make his Test debut at Old Trafford but it was here on 4 June 1993 that the legend was born when he bowled Mike Gatting with the delivery which is often described as "the ball of the century".

Teams: England from: M P Vaughan (capt), M E Trescothick, A J Strauss, I R Bell, K P Pietersen, A Flintoff, G O Jones (wkt), A F Giles, M J Hoggard, S J Harmison, S P Jones, C T Tremlett.

Australia from: R T Ponting (capt), J L Langer, M L Hayden, D R Martyn, M J Clarke, S M Katich, A C Gilchrist (wkt), S K Warne, B Lee, J N Gillespie, M S Kasprowicz, G D McGrath.