Forget weak points, these Aussies are lords of the game

Ponting's side started slowly but in the past fortnight began to play with the conviction evident in recent series. Mention has been made of the poor form shown by Michael Clarke and Jason Gillespie, but it is unusual for every member of a side to be on top of his game. Clarke is a brilliant player of spin but less convincing against the moving ball. He is an intelligent young man capable of rising to an occasion and ought not to be discounted. Gillespie has the record of a great bowler and will not lightly be cast aside. Rhythm cannot be bottled. Nor, though, is it permanently lost.

In any case it is unwise to focus on the weak points of this Australian side. Great issues are generally settled by great men. Among those appearing at Lord's, only three players have an undisputed right to be counted with the greats of the game - Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist. All of them are representing Australia. If England are to recapture the Ashes, these men must finish on the losing side. Don't put your house on it.

Nor does it stop there. Justin Langer scored a hundred in the solitary county fixture played by way of preparation for this series - the Australians considered one match to be sufficient. Langer had not played for months and might have been rusty. Ponting and Damien Martyn were also among the runs. Admittedly Leicestershire saved the match but that was because of a double-century from Chris Rogers, who opens the batting for Western Australia.

Brett Lee's performance in this match was also significant. His record with the white ball has long been impressive - he was the outstanding bowler of the most recent World Cup. At Leicester he took wickets with an old-fashioned red cherry. He looks extremely fit and can add the zip needed by a ageing attack. Lee's beamer to Marcus Trescothick was most likely a slip of the hand. Of course that does not excuse previous instances.

About the only danger to Lee is that he might overuse the bumper. At his best he sends down fast swingers, a delivery notoriously difficult to play.

Amid the pre-match huffing and puffing, Lee announced his intention to singe the ears of his opponents. Australia have long planned to unleash their fastest bowler on Andrew Flintoff, a batsman whose heart they are keen to examine. Inevitably, this duty will be assigned to Lee. He is the only candidate. But he must not expend all his energy on scalp-hunting. Softening up opponents is all very well but it's wickets that count.

Among the hosts, much will depend on the performances of the African contingent. Andrew Strauss has had much the same effect on England as Mark Taylor had when the capable and comfortable left-hander was brought into the Australian side in 1988-89. In short, Strauss has brought solidity and security to the England batting order. Kevin Pietersen is another case entirely, a destructive and confrontational player burdened with a wayward technique and blessed with a strong desire to contribute.

England will hope that the ball swings enough to allow Matthew Hoggard to worry the left-handers, and that Steven Harmison does not wilt under the expected onslaught. Flintoff will respond to Lee's provocations with bumpers of his own, deliveries bound to be closely watched by those with open minds (which does not include many members of England's notoriously nationalistic press contingent).

A fortnight ago England seemed to have a good chance of taking this fight the distance. Now the momentum is with the Australians. Somehow Michael Vaughan (a splendid captain) must produce his country's first Ashes victory at Lord's since 1934. Otherwise it is going to be a long summer for England.

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