I’ll take you on, Watson tells England pacemen

Australia 308-8 & 270-3 Northants 226-7 & 217

After outbatting the faltering Phillip Hughes here yesterday, the all-rounder Shane Watson insisted he would be happy to face Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison with the new ball should England's most potent pace bowlers be reunited at Edgbaston for the third Ashes Test this week.

Watson's 84 doubly underlined his credentials to open for Australia in place of Hughes after the 20-year-old left-hander's weakness against the short ball was exposed again as he fended a catch to gully off the journeyman seamer David Wigley.

"Facing those two guys [Harmison and Flintoff] with the new ball is one of the biggest challenges you can face in world cricket but I would definitely back myself against them," Watson said. "I feel I have the technique and the mental strength and it would be awesome to have the opportunity."

Hughes' dismissal in the ninth over gave Watson his chance after the stand-in captain Mike Hussey sent him in at three. The right-hander, on his first appearance of the tour, seldom looked ill at ease, although against an understrength Second Division county the runs should be viewed in context. After 15 fours and a six, it was the left-arm spinner Graeme White, who does not make the first team when Nicky Boje or Monty Panesar is available, who denied Watson his century.

In front of a 5,000 full house, Hussey, the former Northamptonshire batsman, hit a scratchy half-century but is unbeaten overnight.

Given that Ricky Ponting, the Australian captain, had indicated on Saturday that Mitchell Johnson, his misfiring fast bowler, would have "no excuses" should he fail to improve here on his wayward performance in the second Test, it can be taken as read now that the left-armer's participation at Edgbaston is in serious jeopardy.

Johnson, who had been touted as the man to blow away England's expectations, has been working closely with Troy Cooley, Australia's bowling coach, to try to remove the flaws in the 27-year-old's action that are at the root of his faltering form. But there has been little evidence of improvement. Relegated to first change, with Peter Siddle and Stuart Clark entrusted with the new ball, Johnson was restricted to three expensive spells at a cost of 107 runs. The impression drawn was one of a man whose confidence has dipped alarmingly. Taking the last wicket, when David Wigley sliced not his first expansive drive to gully, was no consolation.

His first spell yesterday produced almost identical figures as the combative Irish wicketkeeper Niall O'Brien and 21-year-old Ben Howgego, willingly took advantage, hitting him out of the attack with a sorry analysis of 7-0-45-0, including nine boundaries, in an opening stand of 99.

Hussey watched in sympathetic frustration from second slip as Johnson, bowling to a heavily off-side field, struggled to maintain his lines. The end of every over brought an arm round the shoulder or a pat on the backside, an unmistakable sign that things are not going well. When Johnson came back into the attack, with Northamptonshire eight down, his first over went for 12 as the tail-ender David Lucas successfully wielded the bat. The maiden over with which he followed up prompted ironic cheers.

Australia might yet reassure themselves that Johnson's form before this summer has been that of a bowler with undoubted talent and keep faith with him, at least for one more Test.

But with Clark, surprisingly left out at Cardiff and Lord's, eager to add to his 90 Test wickets, the temptation to take Johnson out of the firing line must be gaining strength.

Whozat? Australia's line-up dilemmas

*Under threat

Phillip Hughes

Dismissed for 10 in the first innings at Northampton, the left-hander improved his chances of keeping his place at the top of the order with 68 in the second innings but for the second time in the match he succumbed to a ball pitched short of a length.

Mitchell Johnson

Under a cloud and under scrutiny since Lord's, the strike bowler's confidence appears to be at rock bottom. Having gone for 42 in seven wicketless overs at Northampton on Saturday, he went for 45 in a repeat spell yesterday, conceding nine fours before claiming a wicket with the last ball of the match.

Marcus North

Hit an unbeaten century at Cardiff but his inconsistency surfaced again with two failures at Lord's. Declaration denied him a second innings at Northampton and, if the Aussies stick with Hughes, it could be his middle-order slot under threat from Shane Watson.

*In contention

Shane Watson

Batting at No 3 in both innings at Northampton, the all-rounder followed his 84 on Thursday with a 28-ball half-century yesterday. Clearly fit again after his recent thigh injury, he made a compelling case for selection by also picking up wickets as a fourth seamer.

Stuart Clark

Bowled steadily if unspectacularly at Northampton but brought the control that captains always value highly. With 90 Test wickets at 22.96, Clark's experience is unquestioned and, given Mitchell Johnson's problems, the reassurance he offers may look irresistible.

Andrew McDonald

Promoted to open in place of Simon Katich in Australia's second innings at Northampton, he responded by scoring 75 and looking somewhat more assured than his partner, Hughes. Took 4-15 with his medium pace as well but would be a surprise selection.

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