Australia's cunning plans to retain the Ashes were dealt an unkind blow last night. Veteran fast bowler Brett Lee will miss the first Test which starts tomorrow in Cardiff and almost certainly the second next week at Lord's with a rib injury.
Lee was central to the Australia's strategy to undermine England's batting with reverse swing, of which he has become a recent master, and his absence means they must enter the match with an attack wholly bereft of Test experience in England.
Of the four bowlers likely to start, only one, Stuart Clark has played in an Ashes Test before. If it does not quite place the tourists in disarray it leaves them dangerously short of experience in alien conditions and with the Duke ball which is used in English Test matches.
It is an especially cruel blow to Lee, who has taken 310 wickets, fewer than only three compatriots, in 76 Test matches. He had to fight his way back to fitness after ankle surgery to be considered for selection and many pundits felt that he was in decline.
Australia's selectors recognised that they had little choice but to pick him given the raw nature of the rest of their attack and Lee demonstrated last week in Worcester that he could still be a significant force. He took six England Lions wickets in the first innings and another in the second with late, lethal reverse swing. Since it was the prime weapon in England's 2005 victory it settled once and all how the Australians would tackle England's batsmen. The tourists freely admitted that if the ball did not swing conventionally they would try to scuff one side up on the pitch to try to produce unconventional, known as reverse swing, more quickly.
Lee indeed was reversing it as early as the 14th over at Worcester on Saturday evening. But it was sometime around then that he began to feel a twinge in his rib and by yesterday morning it was clear he was in trouble and was sent to a London hospital for scans. By the evening he was officially ruled out because of a small strain in one of his abdominal muscles, the internal oblique muscle.
Alex Kountouris, Australia's physiotherapist, said: "It is not as bad as it could have been, so we are going to monitor it over the next couple of weeks. He is not out of the Lord's Test match but the chances are slim."
Lee, one of the boldest of competitors whose image went round the world when he was consoled by Andrew Flintoff after Australia's nerve-racking two-run defeat at Edgbaston in 2005, was philosophical.
"This is only a small obstacle put in front of me," he said. "If it was my ankle and something structural I would be a lot more concerned. Being a fast bowler, injuries are the nature of the beast and I will be working hard to look to bowl again around the two-week mark and reassess after that.
"When I first felt stiffness in my side, I thought it might have been getting back into the swing of things. I was going pretty much as hard as I could in that match and I suppose I had to prove to myself that I could still do it. In 16 years it is only the second time I have pulled a muscle in my body, which is pretty unbelievable for a fast bowler."
It is not quite like the great Glenn McGrath stepping on a ball and injuring his ankle minutes before the start of the Edgbaston Test in 2005 but it may give England a similar fillip so close to the action. Like everybody else they saw what Lee was doing at Worcester last week and it must have concerned them, whatever they say about wishing to play the best.
England will not make the mistake of being excessively confident. Clark is a menacing bowler, the left-arm fast man Mitchell Johnson gains reverse swing away from the right hander and Peter Siddle is a muscular right arm. But make no mistake: this is not what Australia wanted.
Key man: Brett Lee's record
*Brett Lee may have an indifferent overall record against England – he averages 40 with the ball compared to a career mark of 30 – but he was a key figure for Australia in the last two Ashes, taking 40 wickets in 10 Tests. In 2005 he took 20 wickets in England as well as famously nearly winning the Edgbaston Test with the bat. In 2006/7 he took another 20 wickets in five Tests. He also took seven wickets against the England Lions last week.Reuse content