Ashes HQ ASHES HQ 2009

Lee settles things – for now

One of the relatively few questions – and certainly the most brightly burning – over the team line-ups for the Swalec Stadium Test has been the composition of Australia’s bowling attack. The top seven, Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle have had precious few questions asked of their places – their performances have been convincing enough in recent times. Brett Lee’s has emphatically not, though it remained the case that he had plenty of fierce advocates. But on the second day of the game against England Lions, Lee’s high-class bowling essentially assured himself of a berth at Cardiff.

Let’s remind ourselves: in the first 8 Tests of the 2008/09 season (he missed the last 4 with a serious injury) Lee had a single game in which he bowled superlatively, taking 9-171 in the Second Test against the Kiwis, and managed 12 wickets at 69.42 in the others. In the 12-a-sider against Sussex his match figures were 4-104 – respectable enough but hardly demanding to regain the place that he had, essentially, lost. Andrew McDonald’s neat line and length and the fact that Nathan Hauritz bowled at 50 mph so was perceived to offer essential variety (both have played a Test more recently than Lee as things currently stand) stood in his way, and Stuart Clark’s compact class has always meant he is a likely starter. Lee may have ruffled feathers in some of the World Twenty20 warm-up matches but he was collared when the internationals got underway. A poor performance in the match against the Lions would have been likely to have seen Lee excluded for the series opener.

Instead, a devastating burst either side of tea, where he swung the ball violently, late and on an ideal line and length without ever being profligate, have given a hint once again of what he can do at his very best. Two fabulous inswinging length balls to Joe Denly and Ian Bell would have dismissed most right-handed batsmen; the high-backlifted Vikram Solanki was never likely to last long against a relentless attack of inswinging yorkers and didn’t; Stephen Moore failed to control a short delivery; and left-hander Eoin Morgan had barely picked his bat up when an inswinger smashed into his front pad to give Jeremy Lloyds one of the easier decisions of the match. Lee had only begun the spell after irking Ricky Ponting with his apparently lackadaisical banter with the crowd – his captain immediately summoned him to bowl. Returning at the end of the day he produced two further stunning deliveries to beat Adil Rashid’s outside edge (hinting to swing back then moving away on pitching) and just fail to york another man with a backlift reminiscent of Brian Lara, Tim Bresnan.

Lee has struggled for effect in far more of his Test career than not, but in the few periods in which he has bowled well he has bowled superlatively. He may or may not last the course of the series and this day’s play is not necessarily any indicator of how he will bowl in the Tests. But he has now unequivocally earnt his right to have a crack from the off, and no England batsman will be happy to come in from their own day’s workout and see the highlights of his tea-straddling spell.

Clark, too, hinted at what he can do, and was most unfortunate to finish with 0-30 off 14 overs. Johnson appeared jaded on his way to 20-101-0, but his performances against South Africa mean no-one will expect this to last for long. Hauritz, however, looked not merely innocuous but cannon-fodder. He rarely bowled bad deliveries, but his lack of turn or variety meant he was taken to easily and conceded 80 off 18 wicketless overs. That Australia will insist on playing a specialist spinner purely because convention dictates remains eminently possible, but it would be highly disappointing to see such a course of action. It is clearer than ever now that Australia’s four-man attack for the opening Test (and indeed the series, if fitness is retained and form is maintained) should consist of Johnson, Siddle, Clark and Lee. Marcus North, Simon Katich and (if his back permits) Michael Clarke can bowl any spin which is necessary. Other than ensuring Australia’s side fits a template, Hauritz’s presence offers nothing whatsoever. Most of the pace bowlers are harder to score from; if merely bowling a non-turning ball at 50 mph (whether for the sake of “variety” or to speed-up the over-rate) is required, North or Clarke are quite capable.

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