An uncomfortable feeling began to blossom yesterday that England are involved in a case of déjà vu all over again. They have plenty of previous for arriving in Australia only for their team to start, as they say in these parts, going crook almost immediately.
Following the loss of Marcus Trescothick with a stress-related illness earlier in the week they were confronted yesterday with the equally grave scenario of losing their key fast bowler, Stephen Harmison, at least for the first Test starting in Brisbane on Thursday.
Harmison withdrew from the match against South Australia yesterday with an apparent recurrence of the side strain that brought a premature end to his season in England. No definitive prognosis was offered but the injury was sufficiently serious for him to be given a cortisone injection after a scan proved inconclusive.
"He's not guaranteed for Brisbane," said England's coach, Duncan Fletcher. "We're just going to see what effect the injection has. We're just going to have to see how he pulls up but he's got to get through quite a lot of overs in the nets. It's not ideal but it's the best we can get out of him."
Although Harmison's pace and steep bounce are vital to England's campaign, the suspicion is growing that he is not exactly prepared to burst the pain barrier to get on the field. Considering what is at stake he was probably wise to be cautious yesterday, but the Durham paceman remains desperately short of overs - he has bowled only 25 on the tour so far - to recapture the rhythm that can make him such a potent threat to any batsman in the world.
"He's an important part of the side, he was effective in the last Ashes and the other bowlers feed off him," said Fletcher.
In Harmison's enforced absence the other bowlers acquitted themselves pretty well yesterday to show that all might not be lost. If they did not quite capitalise after reducing South Australia to 25 for 4 with the new ball, nor did they allow the game to run away from them.
Four wickets fell for four runs in 12 balls as both Matthew Hoggard and James Anderson took advantage of the early, swinging ball and some injudicious strokes. With a batsman as accomplished as Darren Lehmann coming in at six that was hardly decimation and he duly gave a minor masterclass in rebuilding an innings.
For long periods England were short of nous and Monty Panesar was persuaded into bowling flatter than he might have liked. It was something of a surprise when Panesar was included in the side ahead of Ashley Giles, though aficionados of left-arm finger spin would have been affronted had it been reversed.
Panesar is clearly therefore the hot favourite to start in Brisbane, though his choice is not definite. His inclusion would considerably lengthen England's tail with, it could be said, four No 11s, beginning at No 8 with Hoggard, and a No 7 in Geraint Jones who was dropped in the summer for poor batting form.
Fletcher conceded it was a huge decision and the batting line-up still had to be considered once the team reached Brisbane early next week. Should Harmison not play, Sajid Mahmood, the most proficient of England's lower order, would bat at No 8. But Mahmood was the least effective of the bowlers yesterday despite his high pace and willingness to try variations.
The dismissal of Lehmann after his fifth-wicket partnership of 157 with Cameron Borgas provided England with late encouragement. Lehmann was run out going for a second run, which would have brought him to 100, an adept throw by Anderson from long-leg doing the trick.
Two catches were put down, both at slip, one by Andrew Strauss and one by Paul Collingwood who will share the first-slip duties this winter. Strauss will field there to the quicker bowlers, Collingwood to the spinners.
South Australia declared to open up the game and Strauss was immediately out leg before wicket to Australia's latest speed merchant, Shaun Tait, staking a claim for Test inclusion on Thursday.
England are not alone in having injury concerns. Shane Watson pulled up with a hamstring injury while bowling for Queensland in a one-day match and is rated as doubtful for the Test. Australia's strategy was to some extent being built round his ability to play as a batting all-rounder. The blow of losing him, though, would not be quite as big as that to England should Harmison fail to recover.
First day of three
South Australia won toss
South Australia - First Innings
M T G Elliott c G O Jones b Anderson 11
D J Harris c Collingwood b Hoggard 10
C J Borgas c Cook b Panesar 73
M J Cosgrove c G O Jones b Hoggard 1
C J Ferguson lbw b Hoggard 0
*D S Lehmann run out 99
ÝS A Deitz c G O Jones b Flintoff 24
C B Bailey not out 13
J N Gillespie not out 7
Extras (lb2 w1 nb6) 9
Total (for 7 dec, 81.1 overs) 247
Fall: 1-21 2-21 3-25 4-25 5-182 6-220 7-226.
Did not bat: D J Cullen, S W Tait.
Bowling: Hoggard 13-4-40-3; Anderson 14-4-46-1; Flintoff 12-2-34-1; Mahmood 15.1-1-57-0; Collingwood 1-0-1-0; Panesar 22-7-54-1; Pietersen 4-1-13-0.
England - First Innings
A J Strauss lbw b Tait 0
A N Cook not out 6
M J Hoggard not out 10
Extras (lb1 w5 nb2) 8
Total (for 1, 6 overs) 24
To bat: I R Bell, P D Collingwood, K P Pietersen, *A Flintoff, ÝG O Jones, S I Mahmood, J M Anderson, M S Panesar.
Bowling: Tait 3-0-11-1; Gillespie 2-0-4-0; Bailey 1-0-8-0.
Umpires: A R Collins and S J Davis.Reuse content