Unconvincing Australia settle for draw
Australians 349 for 7 dec (Haddin 69, Hauritz 65*) and 379 for 7 dec (Hughes 78, Clarke 75, Ponting 71) drew with Sussex 311 and 373 for 7 (Hopkinson 115, Yardy 67)
These are worrying times for the Australians. A flat final day performance on a flat Hove pitch has given Ricky Ponting few signposts as to the composition of his best bowling attack 11 days out from the first Test in Cardiff. Only seven Sussex wickets fell on Saturday - a concerning development for a team containing five specialist bowlers - as Carl Hopkinson, making his maiden first-team appearance this season, raised a stirring century that ensured a draw, and almost forced a famous victory.
The only comforting thought for Ponting ahead of the practice match against Ian Bell's England Lions on Wednesday is the availability of Mitchell Johnson, the ace in Australia's pack. Peter Siddle will almost certainly partner him in Cardiff - Tim Nielsen, the Australian coach, described him as a "lock" selection on Saturday - but the make-up of the attack thereafter remains unclear and, in the absence of strong performances in Worcester, could be determined by conditions on the day.
Nielsen adopted a brave face after the final day's play in Hove, choosing to focus on the acclimatisation benefits of the Sussex encounter rather than the 373 runs conceded on Saturday. He did, however, issue a thinly-veiled warning to his players that no such leniency will be extended their way in Worcester from Wednesday, and left open the possibility of playing four pacemen in the Ashes opener from July 8.
"I really am pretty open to the idea of waiting to see what we get in Cardiff as far as a wicket is concerned," he said. "The more I'm reading about it, maybe it's not going to be the spinning nightmare everybody's talking about.
"The acid test will be this week with England A leading into the Test match. We can get better, there's no doubt about that, but I'd rather we're getting better with another tour game to go rather than heading into the first Test match. I'm really comfortable with where we're at, we haven't played the longer version of the game for three months.''
Ponting had described the tour opener at Hove as an opportunity for Australia's bowlers to press their cases for Ashes selection, but few took up the captain's challenge against a Sussex batting line-up without veterans Murray Goodwin and Matt Prior. Stuart Clark and Brett Lee threatened intermittently in their first extended hit-outs after surgery, while Ben Hilfenhaus conceded runs at more than six-per-over in a spell that netted the late-day wickets of Hopkinson and Robin Martin-Jenkins. The low, slow Hove pitch did not help the fast bowlers' cause but neither, presumably, will the Sophia Gardens surface in less than a fortnight's time. Clearly, there is much to ponder.
"There's no doubt the four quick bowlers who had a run around in this game would have loved to get six wickets in an innings and almost think they're putting (the Ashes selection debate) to sleep," Nielsen said. "But we've been at pains to explain to them that this week is all about getting back into the swing of things and finding some consistency as well. I was pleased this was such a good batting wicket and such a fast outfield because it made them realise you can't be off your game and get away with it."
Australia's spin-bowling strategy is proving similarly confounding for Ponting. Nathan Hauritz impressed on either side of the lunch break, varying his pace and beating the outside edge on numerous occasions, but could not make the breakthrough Australia so desperately needed. He was unfortunate to have had Hopkinson dropped on 69 - Ponting the culprit - and was eventually rewarded with the wicket of Luke Wright. That, however, was his sole breakthrough in the match, and his figures of 1 for 158 from 35 overs hardly inspire confidence ahead of the first Test.
"He can bowl better, there's no doubt about that," Nielsen said. "He got into a good rhythm at times and then unfortunately he'd have an over where he would have a couple of bad balls that went for four."
Australia's most prolific spinner on the fourth-day Hove pitch was North, who was overlooked by Ponting in the first innings. North claimed two wickets - an achievement matched only by Hilfenhaus in the second innings - but came in for some heavy treatment from Hopkinson and Michael Yardy (67), the latter of whom he dismissed for a well-compiled 67. Still, the prospect of North heading a makeshift spin attack alongside Simon Katich and Michael Clarke in Cardiff is increasing.
Ill-discipline is another factor the Australians will need to address promptly. Lee, Hilfenhaus and Hauritz were each guilty of over-stepping on five occasions in the second innings - one of which cost Lee the wicket of Chris Nash in the first hour of play - bringing Australia's no-ball tally to an unacceptable 37 in the match. Ponting's dropped catch and Clark's missed run-out were among the other disappointments from an Australian fielding unit that appeared to be suffering from ring-rust and a hint of fatigue in their first multi-day match since the tour of South Africa.
Unquestionably, the star of the day was Hopkinson, who in 55 first-class matches for Sussex has averaged a modest 26.30, including one century. Australia's push to field 12 players in this match denied it first-class status, but Hopkinson's 115 - raised with a blast to the midwicket boundary off North - was well worthy of official recognition.
"A hundred against Australia in an Ashes summer is what you dream of really," he said. "I had a little bit of luck today (with Ponting) dropping that catch - quite an easy catch - but sometimes it goes your way like that. I was always looking to score boundaries ... and trying to be as positive as I could."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo