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June 18, 2012
For all the huffing and puffing likely to be heard over the next month about Australia's six-deep battery of fast bowlers, the most significant strides the tourists wish to make on their ODI tour of the United Kingdom will be in a modestly-stocked batting department. The captain Michael Clarke and the coach Mickey Arthur acknowledged as much at their arrival pleasantries in Leicester, having brought a team minus Ricky Ponting (dropped) and Michael Hussey (newborn child).
Instead of Ponting and Hussey, the relatively modest talents of Peter Forrest, George Bailey and Steve Smith are jostling to make the kind of impression that could see them return to England for the Ashes in 2013. Others, like the wicketkeeper Matthew Wade and the opening batsman David Warner, will encounter their first serious examinations by an England side that pushed Australia to new standards of preparation and planning via their retention of the urn in 2010-11.
As comfortable as the tourists are with their bowling stocks, there is equally a sense of uncertainty about the overall standard of Australian batting, which falls away dramatically among younger and mid-career players after Clarke and his vice-captain Shane Watson. Certainly there is no-one the quality of Ian Bell to come in, as he did for the prematurely retired Kevin Pietersen, should Ponting or Hussey fade between now and the Ashes. So it was understandable to hear Arthur and Clarke call for more from the younger batsmen, amongst a bevy of questions directed towards the promise of young bowlers including James Pattinson and Pat Cummins, in the absence of senior figures.
"It changes the dynamics quite a bit and that is why we are looking for other players to stand up quite a bit and take over that responsibility," Arthur said. "Michael and Ricky are not going to be around for ever so this gives the guys out here to stake their claims and an opportunity to make their mark and show us they belong. I am looking forward to seeing who stands up and takes this opportunity."
Forrest, Bailey and Smith have all shown something in their brief international forays so far, though none have the array of shots or the assured styles that have allowed Ponting and Hussey to endure. Forrest's character is highly regarded by the Australia selectors, and Bailey is widely admired for his leadership of Tasmania. Smith, meanwhile, has hinted at more consistent run-scoring since his not-quite-convincing Ashes appearances in 2010-11. He will also have greater clarity about his role on this tour than in previous matches, in which he at times appeared to be in the team as much for his fielding as his opportunistic batting or fledgling legspin.
"Fortunately for us Ricky's still playing Test cricket and is a big part of our Test team. Fingers crossed I'm hoping next time we'll be here for the Ashes he'll be with us," Clarke said. "He's been such a great player for a long period of time, any team would miss Ricky Ponting, and we're no different.
"But as Mickey said, it's a real good opportunity for some new young guys to grab hold of their chance with both hands. I think they did that throughout the one-day summer, once Ricky was dropped from the team we managed to go on and win that tri-series for Australia, the boys went to West Indies and did a pretty good job in tough conditions, and again it's going to be new for a lot of players to play in English conditions."
The bowlers have a chance to turn English heads also of course, with Pattinson and Cummins in particular keen to learn as much as they can about bowling in these conditions. Mitchell Johnson has returned to Australia's squad after nine months recovering from a major foot injury, while Brett Lee continues to provide an experienced bulwark to the limited-overs attack.
Neither Johnson nor Lee have terribly strong Ashes records on English shores, and the man perhaps best placed to offer wisdom to Pattinson and Cummins is Ben Hilfenhaus, after his 22 Ashes wickets across a succession of reliable spells in 2009. Clarke said awareness of the conditions was a critical element for his young fast men to grasp on this tour, and the Australia A matches that follow it.
"The wickets can be quite slow over here, so it doesn't matter how fast you bowl, if you're not accurate, you're not going to have success, especially in these conditions," Clarke said. "We've got some good talented quicks, it's just now about getting some cricket under their belt, getting a look at these conditions and make sure our preparation is spot on.
"They [England] have got a very good attack and played four fast bowlers the other day, so I'd imagine if wickets are pretty conducive to that that they'll probably do the same, as we might as well. We'll have a look at how conditions are like. We've got six very good fast bowlers in our squad, who are all itching to get an opportunity."
Following three days of training at Grace Road, the Australians will play Leicestershire in a Thursday warm-up match before flying to Belfast for an ODI against Ireland on Saturday. The first match against England is at Lord's on June 29.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
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