Timing is perfect for Bell, Collingwood and England

Batsmen follow bowlers in setting right mood for Brisbane

Those who aspire to Olympic glory will tell you that all their training is aimed at reaching a peak of excellence on a specific day at a particular time, when the gold medal itself is in touching distance. All in between is a bagatelle.

It cannot be quite like that for an England cricketer. Too much is going on for that. But the Ashes, more than anything else in their sporting lives, represent their Olympian heights. The Ashes alone are what they have been working towards these past months, whatever they may say.

In terms of training being connected with peaking all is - at last - almost tickety-boo. After a disciplined effort with the ball in which the seamers especially were commendable, the middle-order batsmen yesterday used their final practice before the long-awaited First Test to hone their game.

There was better, though not conclusively bright, news about the strike bowler-in-chief, Stephen Harmison. He bowled 15 or so net overs at mean pace to test the side strain which persuaded him to withdraw from the match against South Australia.

Out in the middle, where Harmison's overs would have mattered more, Ian Bell made a century - his first, though it is to be hoped not his last, in Australia. Paul Collingwood scored 80. Together they put on 178 from 62 overs for the fourth wicket.

They were as diligent as you would expect from such a duo. From the dangerous waters of 34 for 3 after the fall of nightwatchman Matthew Hoggard and opener Alastair Cook, poking at one, they needed to be. Almost excessively careful at first, they virtually ignored scoring. At one stage in the morning there were no boundaries for 19 overs.

This was a time for spending time in the middle. In the context of their first-class averages these runs were nice but meaningless. In the context of arriving at Brisbane next Thursday feeling as though the training has been worthwhile it was perfect.

They were able to see plenty of Shaun Tait, who is a different proposition from the bowler who played two Tests in England last year. He is still wayward but he is capable of delivering the ball full at an alarming velocity.

There was also the benefit of over after over of spin, from the off-break bowler Dan Cullen and the leg-spinner Cullen Bailey. The Cullen spin twins. Bailey was not exactly Shane Warne, with a tendency to pull them down too short, but it will have done no harm to face the ball turning away from the bat before the old maestro gets down to the real business.

In the afternoon Bell and Collingwood played with considerably more freedom. Bell hit a lovely six over long-off which Pietersen would have liked. Pietersen himself stayed briefly, making 32 from 35 balls, which was still time enough to include a reverse-swept four.

A forerunner of what he can expect was to be seen in the three men posted out for the hook shot against Tait. Collingwood will bat at four and Pietersen five in the Tests, a turn-up perhaps, but one to avoid possibly exposing Pietersen too early knowing he can go at a lick later.

Late in the day Tait limped off the field, apparently giving Australia another problem before the Test with Shane Watson (hamstring) and Damien Martyn (elbow, but less worrisome) reporting niggles. It turned out to be cramp.

Andrew Flintoff, who batted with deliberate circumspection, will obviously be relieved when the series is under way. "We've prepared well," he said. "Everyone is excited about next Thursday. It's huge. I have been involved in one Ashes series and the enormity of being able to play in another is exciting, as it is for every member of that dressing room and the back-up staff."

He was not saying much, but then Fred knows it is time for the talking to stop.

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