Johnson is still a concern but Hughes does enough

Northants 226-7dec Australia 308-8dec & 139-0
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The Independent Online

Nothing that has happened here should diminish English confidence ahead of the third Test. If anything, as Andrew Strauss and Co begin to prepare in earnest to build on their 1-0 Ashes lead at Edgbaston, it will only be enhanced after Australia's struggle to impose authority against modest county opposition.

It wasn't simply that Northamptonshire, sixth in Division Two, were able to take five wickets for 55 yesterday morning, or that they could then maintain a scoring rate close to four and a half an over in the afternoon that depressed the tourists' mood. It is that the worry over the form of strike bowler Mitchell Johnson looks no closer to being solved.

Phillip Hughes, the other member of the side causing serious concern, responded to his dismissal for 10 on Friday by sharing a century opening-partnership with Andrew McDonald. It was an innings – or at least a score – that will offer some comfort to the Australian selectors.

It was by no means flawless, either. David Lucas was convinced he had him caught behind down the leg side on 24, while he was lucky on 28 when an edge off David Wigley flew between wicketkeeper and first slip.

With no back-up opener in the Australian squad, Hughes may be spared, but there is no such security for Johnson, whose waywardness with the ball allowed England to make flying starts in both innings at Lord's.

But Johnson was no more able than Hughes to put his troubles to bed. After Australia had rather messed up their chance for batting practice and decided to put their bowlers through their paces, first use of the new ball was given to Peter Siddle and Stuart Clark, from which the inference could be drawn that Australia would persevere with their misfiring left-armer and were giving Clark, missing from the Test side since November after sustaining an elbow injury, the opportunity to bowl himself into contention at Siddle's expense.

Yet they may have to reconsider after Johnson was all too easily picked off, conceding 42 runs in seven wicketless overs. Former England under-19 captain Alex Wakely combined with Riki Wessels in a brisk fourth-wicket partnership that had given Northamptonshire's first innings much of its substance before they declared at 226-7, some 82 behind Australia's 308-8.

Clark, by contrast, showed good control, taking a top-order wicket each side of lunch, and while Siddle was almost as expensive as Johnson he did see his aggression rewarded with three wickets. All-rounder Shane Watson who will, like Clark, fancy his chances of a recall, was successful too. The day had begun with Australia's stand-in captain, Mike Hussey, retiring on his overnight 75. Rumours of a calf strain proved unfounded, yet the air of confusion persisted, not least in the mind, it seemed, of Marcus North who may be threatened by Watson's impressive performance here should the Australian selectors leave their opening pair intact. Despite the need to make some sort of counter-statement after Watson's 84, North came up with a loose, one-handed shot off Lucas, the left-arm seamer, hit straight to cover point. North had added only seven to his overnight 32.

Graham Manou, Australia's 30-year-old wicketkeeping understudy with no previous international experience, lasted one ball on his debut for his country, playing across the line to Lucas to be leg before. Johnson survived the hat-trick ball, but that was not the end of the tourists' troubles.

Northamptonshire fielded a weakened line-up – Monty Panesar and their three South Africans were excused – but lack of experience was balanced by added enthusiasm encapsulated in Jack Brooks, 25, a seamer making his senior debut for the county. He sent down a dozen overs on Friday without success but resumed the quest for his maiden wicket undeterred.

Brooks was working as a sales rep this time last year while playing Minor Counties cricket for Oxfordshire, so when he uprooted two of McDonald's stumps his excitement was understandable. Dancing with his hands clenched towards a welcoming committee of slips and gully, it was a celebration bearing the Monty hallmark. Two balls later, when Johnson edged to slip, he did it all over again.