Strauss casts a calm eye over the early storms

Ashes Countdown: Opener applies reason to Aussie ridicule and promise of a bouncer war
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England's solace after their appalling start in Australia was enshrined in a newspaper headline. It should be considered more significant than all the so-called positives the team claimed - as they invariably do - to be taking from their woeful exhibition against the Prime Minister's XI.

"How on earth did we lose the Ashes to this lot?" screamed the Sydney Morning Herald by way of heralding the tourists' 166-run defeat. The mockery, the downright gloating and the humour of it also contained a truth. Australia did lose the Ashes to this lot and all of Australia fears that it may happen again. Do not talk up the lads who engineered the whopping victory, talk down the Poms and select one of the usual fall guys, Ashley Giles, above whose forlorn figure the words appeared.

In its way the walloping by the PM's invitation side may do some good. If England did not know it before they know it now: Australia, and that is every man jack of them, mean business this time. It is why New South Wales have selected such a powerful squad for the 14-a-side contest which started in Sydney today.

Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee are there to make a few early points and the NSW squad contain eight players who have a chance of appearing in the Ashes series. This is a phoney war in which real bullets are being fired.

It needed one of England's wiser heads to reflect on progress and it was a canny move to wheel out the opener Andrew Strauss, the effective vice-captain yesterday. "We did not do ourselves any favours but it will have no relation to what happens in that First Test whatsoever," he said.

"The result is not damaging. We would like to have played better but you have to put these things in context. It was our first run-out and conditions are very different. That is what these practice matches are for, to get used to the type of play and pitches here."

All that makes a kind of sense, which is more than England's cricket did in Canberra. Strauss and his colleagues must know that their bowling was largely hopeless, and was matched by their batting and fielding. England looked weary where the PM's boys were never less than exuberant.

One reason for this may be England's preparation. Seven of the team were in India until 30 October, when they returned to England, before leaving for Australia on 3 November. Three time zones in six days: a body struggles to know what has hit it and it struggles some more when the hungry young men of the PM's XI are pawing the ground. Modern schedules are frequently lamented, but nobody does a thing.

The early damage on this tour can be repaired, but time is already running out. During England's hapless sojourn in India for the Champions Trophy senior players insisted that it had no relevance to Australia. What mattered next, they said, was how England performed in the warm-up games in Australia. Presumably, if things continue not to go well, they will say only the Tests count. After that there really is nowhere to go.

For all the talk there has been of the importance of spinners in the series - and when Shane Warne is around it is a statement of the bleedin' obvious - it has become clear that Australia intend to attack England with pace and, more specifically, with bouncers. Shaun Tait was explosive in Canberra. Strauss deflected the notion with aplomb.

"Shaun Tait has a yard of pace but in international cricket you get used to facing guys of this pace. There are a couple of West Indians around, Brett Lee, Shoaib Akhtar and a few others, and if a guy bowls around 90mph and he is a bit off the money and bowling bad deliveries the ball goes to the boundary a little quicker."

But Strauss, like Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen, was out in Canberra mistiming a pull-cum-hook. Ricky Ponting, Australia's captain, was already suggesting that this was a possible English weakness, especially on the bigger Australian grounds, and the Canberra game will have confirmed it.

"I think we have played short- pitched bowling pretty well over the last couple of years and I can't think of any circumstances where we have struggled against it,"said Strauss (Canberra apart, presumably). "The pitches here are a little quicker than in England but not ridiculously quick. I always look to play the short stuff but if it gets up head high I look to pull out of the shot. In Australia the ball may be a little fuller and still get up head high, so it is a question of adjusting."

England are thinking on similar lines. Batsmen will get used to the smell of leather in their nostrils in the morning. Should make for a headline or two.

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