Lee's mastery of movement could swing it

The Australians seem to have fine-tuned their line-up in the nick of time
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The Independent Online

Maybe Australia have timed it right. Maybe they have done what all supreme sportsmen do and have ensured that they arrive at their physical and mental peak in the right place on the right day: Sophia Gardens, Cardiff, 8 July 2009. Maybe.

The suspicion that they are slightly underdone was not wholly eradicated by events on the final day of their last warm-up match here, against England Lions, before the start of the campaign to keep the Ashes they reclaimed so resoundingly 30 months ago. As they left the field last night at Worcester, the launch-pad for so many famous series victories in England, they would have known their XI for the First Test on Wednesday (veering towards the almost certain more than the probable).

But they will also be suffused by slight doubt that it is the team to do the job they require, or that it is ready.

The last warm-up match ended in curious but worrying circumstances when England A were on 162 for 4, nominally chasing 445 set after the Australians declared at 438 for 4. Umpire Jeff Evans staggered and collapsed but was able to walk off after the captains shook hands.

Australia's circumstances are much better than they might have been but nothing that has happened so far has allayed the feeling that modern teams do not have enough cricket in local conditions before a series begins. If the two months' preparation of yore was ridiculously long, the two matches of today is foolhardily short.

Some important elements for Australia have fallen into place. The overwhelming likelihood (in the almost certain category) is that they will go into Cardiff without a specialist spinner. Given the compelling influence that Shane Warne has had on the destination of the Ashes in most of the last eight series, this should raise the eyebrows as far as the moon, if only in honour of the 40th anniversary of man landing there.

When Ricky Ponting turned to the off spin of Marcus North after lunch instead of that of Nathan Hauritz, the only specialist in the squad, it was probably not a double bluff. Hauritz was eventually summoned and snaffled a wicket, Ian Bell prodding one which was excellently held by Simon Katich at short leg. It was a dismissal that Bell, the reserve batsman in England's party, could have done without but if it advanced Hauritz's case it was surely not enough to clinch it.

But it is not spin that Australia sense will win them this series. With good cause, they seem to have made up their minds that reverse swing will propel them to triumph. In the shape of Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson, they are convinced they have the firepower.

Lee came on this tour fighting for his career. He had been injured and out of sorts, his natural ebullience and competitive nature dimmed. But he appears to have regained his pace, venom and attitude, and he has shown he has also regained mastery of the art of getting the ball to veer late. It brought him first-innings wickets, not least that of the hapless Bell, who was understandably deceived by one that was fast, full and swerved late, and again yesterday he knocked down Vikram Solanki's leg stump with something similar.

Johnson is not quite the bowler yet that Australia need him to be but he took two wickets in his long opening spell yesterday and there was a hint of the ball swinging away as Joe Denly was pouched by Brad Haddin behind. Were those knowing looks that could be seen in Australian eyes as those wickets fell? Johnson, they hope, will swing it in conventionally as well.

Reverse, the modern holy grail, came early as Australia sought to rough up the ball on the pitch. They can hardly have made their strategy plainer and England will have to be vigilant.

In 2005, as everyone knows, England's battle plan was more or less built on reverse swing and it took Australia by surprise. Johnson was not around then and Lee had yet to gain the skill. But under the tutelage of Troy Cooley, England's bowling guru four years ago, they have learned all they need to know and it should send shivers down English bats.

"Everybody got something out of this game, probably except me," said Ponting. "The conditions are probably similar to what they will be in Cardiff so it was really good preparation for us. Brett was outstanding in both innings. He really stepped up in that first innings and he's the best in the world at exploiting it when that ball starts swinging."

Ponting and Lee himself also talked up the claims of Steve Harmison. Ponting said: "He has pace, bounce and swing, and with that sort of a package could be one of the all-time great fast bowlers." Lee was also handsome in his praise – "one of the best fast bowlers in the world. He gets the best batsmen out" – but all England knows we have been here with Harmy before.

Suddenly, Australia's batting looks magisterial as well. Mike Hussey and North came into the match runless and formless and left it looking in the form of their lives. Hussey retired hurt on 62, apparently not wishing to aggravate an ankle he had turned in the nets. This means that his innings will be deemed as unbeaten and thus increase his tour batting average accordingly.

Had he not had a twinge, of course, and wanted to give somebody else a go he would have needed to retire out. Of such minor but significant issues are the traditions made. There was probably a case for establishing quite how sore his ankle was. Whatever the state of his joint he has ended speculation about his place in the side, but he will need Test runs quickly.

North's innings, which he took to an unbeaten 191 yesterday, was still more important. He has an unenviable task at the pivotal position of No 6 in the order and will need all the experience he has gained of English conditions in five seasons of county cricket for five different counties.

The four days that the tourists have spent under the shadow of the cathedral were precisely what they would have wanted. But they could hardly wait to leave for Cardiff last night.