Johnson faces demotion as Clark and Watson strike
Australians 308 for 8 (Watson 84, Hussey 75 ret ht) and 139 for 0 (Hughes 65, McDonald 69*) lead Northamptonshire 226 for 7 dec (Wakely 62, Wessels 50, Siddle 3-53) by 221 runs
The odds of Mitchell Johnson leading the Australian attack at Edgbaston are diminishing by the outing. On a day in which Stuart Clark and Shane Watson pressed their cases for Ashes selection, Johnson continued his profligate ways from Cardiff and Lord's with figures of none for 42 from seven overs against a youthful Northamptonshire batting line-up.
Johnson had hoped to use the three-day tour match to iron out the kinks on display in the first two Tests of the series, and reaffirm his status as the spearhead of the Australian attack. Instead, the left-armer was left to rue another disappointing outing, in which he failed to make a breakthrough or contain Northamptonshire's batsmen in the close confines of Wantage Road.
Australia's selectors are favoured to retain Johnson for the Edgbatson Test, albeit in a redefined role. Johnson was used as a first change option on Saturday behind Clark and Peter Siddle, but strayed too short and conceded runs at an alarming six-per-over on a pitch that provided pace and carry. At the very least, he can expect to be stripped of new-ball honours in Birmingham.
Assuming Ben Hilfenhaus opens at Edgbatson, Clark and Siddle appear to be in a straight shoot-out for the final fast bowling berth. Clark impressed in his opening spell, offering the control Australia so sorely lacked in the first two Ashes Tests, and claimed a wicket with the last ball of his first over. He finished with 2 for 45 from 14 overs, and appeared to have lost none of the metronomic precision for which he was renowned prior to elbow surgery.
"I've sat on the sidelines and watched, and it's been pretty hard to watch the two Test matches," Clark said. "I may have to watch for the next three, but I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure I control that destiny. If I bowl well, then I'm every chance of getting picked."
Siddle, by contrast, was far more erratic with his lines and conceded runs at near six-an-over. A late burst, in which he accounted for the wickets of Mark Nelson and David Willey, served as a timely reminder of his potency, but Australia can ill-afford to enter another Test with two errant pacemen. If Johnson is retained, Siddle looms as the unlucky omission.
Australia's seam-bowling ranks could also be boosted with the inclusion of Watson, should the selectors opt to reinstate him in preference of the inconsistent Marcus North. Following on from his dashing 84 in the first innings, Watson returned figures of 2 for 20 from five overs in his first competitive outing since Australia's ill-fated World Twenty20 campaign. His efforts stood in stark contrast to those of North - who was not called upon to bowl by Mike Hussey, and was scratchy at both the crease and in the field - but the North's centuries in Johannesburg and Cardiff will still be fresh in the minds of Ricky Ponting and the selectors.
Australia's first innings batting performance on Saturday was notable mainly for Hussey's decision to retire on 75, and Graham Manou's duck from his first ball as an Australian cricketer. The tourists eventually declared their innings closed to 308 for eight, and promptly leapt on the offensive as Clark seized the early wickets of Ben Howgego and Rob White.
Alex Wakely and Riki Wessels held the Australians at bay for well over an hour with respective half centuries, however the late bursts of Watson and Siddle precipitated Northamptonshire's declaration at 226 for 7.
Phillip Hughes used the second innings constructively with a pressure-relieving half-century, though not all his runs were convincing. The embattled opener survived a confident leg-side caught behind appeal off David Lucas - his same mode of dismissal in the first innings at Lord's - and earned a reprieve when he edged a David Wigley delivery between the wicketkeeper and first slip.
As has become customary, Hughes' innings was sprinkled with an array of dashing strokes, none more eye-catching than his six over long-on to raise his half-century. Andrew McDonald, batting in the uncustomary role of opener, looked far more settled during his 96 minutes at the crease and will resume on Sunday unbeaten on 69.
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo