Ponting noncommittal on pace spots
Ricky Ponting briefly broke from his cheery demeanour on the eve of Australia's final warm-up before the first Test to insist there were no bowling certainties for Cardiff. The statement was unfair on Mitchell Johnson, the side's No.1 bowler, and could cause slight angst for Peter Siddle, who will rest this week in preparation for Sophia Gardens, but it reminded the contenders of the prize if they dethrone enough England Lions over the next four days.
Brett Lee, Stuart Clark and Nathan Hauritz are fighting to join Johnson and Siddle on July 8 in a battle that is intense and unfamiliar. Ponting sees the situation differently despite Johnson's status and Siddle's strong support from the coach Tim Nielsen after the opening tour game in Hove last week.
"The important thing right now is that there are no certainties for the first Test," Ponting said after the squad's training was cut short by light rain. "Although we're happy with where [Siddle] is at and we've decided to give him a game off, right now the spots are still up for grabs as far as I'm concerned."
The only man who can be ruled out is the swing bowler Ben Hilfenhaus, who will not play in Worcester and was overlooked in Hove. Everyone else is under scrutiny from Ponting, the coaching staff, Andrew Hilditch, the chairman of selectors, and their team-mates.
Rather than build gradually towards the main event like they would on previous tours, Lee and Clark have found themselves in the strange situation of wanting to push for wickets every ball in an attempt to regain their spots. All the bowlers felt the internal pressure in Hove - Johnson didn't play - and Siddle left with the highest rating.
"We were very happy with what he did last week," Ponting said. "We're happy with where he is at and the workload he's got under his belt. He's got a few days off and we will have a closer look at a couple of other guys."
There was not much chance for bowling in the Worcester nets on Tuesday, with rain cutting down the optional session. Lee was the only Australian not to train, preferring the hotel gym to the mizzle, and Clark had a short, sweaty spell from an abbreviated run-up. The weather also delayed Shane Watson's return to batting and he completed more laps of a training oval.
Clark is returning from elbow surgery while Lee, who bowled 14 no-balls against Sussex, is back after ankle and foot operations in January. Ponting will consider Lee's form, fitness and 310 Test wickets alongside the surface in Cardiff.
"His record speaks for itself and he's a great bowler, no doubt about that," Ponting said. "It's another good opportunity to have a look at him up close and he can build on last week."
There is also a concern over Nathan Hauritz, especially as Ponting is certain the Cardiff pitch will offer turn. He has been trawling through the statistics of county spin bowlers at the ground, ignoring Monty Panesar's 2 for 149 to focus on the work of Danish Kaneria, the Pakistan and Essex legspinner. "[Hauritz] is playing again here, that was the plan right from the start, to make sure we gave him two games and for him to get some good quality bowling under his belt against good players in these conditions."
He battled against Sussex, returning 1 for 158, and his offspin will be challenged again by the lift in competition provided by the England Lions. "Last week was a good blowout, his first time back playing four-day cricket for a while," Ponting said. "He's been starved of four- or five-day cricket for a while and that game should have done him the world of good."
For a man who has already been away from home for five weeks, Ponting was fresh, calm and not weighed down by the decisions ahead. There were some jokey responses to questions - he thinks he might need a wheelchair if he comes back in 2013 - but whenever he thought about the make-up of the attack he became more direct.
"We've got three bowlers in our side bowling 90mph, and Hilfy who can push that," he said. "When you've got that sort of speed and reverse-swing, I don't care who is batting, it's going to be difficult."
Australia's top seven is settled but will face some difficulties against an England Lions squad that includes Steve Harmison, Sajid Mahmood, Graham Onions and Tim Bresnan. "It's good to have that calibre of opposition as our last game," Ponting said. "Their quicks have all played international cricket, so it will be good preparation for us." More rain, which is predicted, would add to the dangers for the visiting batsmen, but assist their twitching fast men.
Australia squad: 1 Simon Katich, 2 Phillip Hughes, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Michael Hussey, 5 Michael Clarke, 6 Marcus North, 7 Brad Haddin (wk), 8 Mitchell Johnson, 9 Brett Lee, 10 Nathan Hauritz, 11 Stuart Clark.
England Lions squad: Ian Bell (capt), Tim Bresnan, Joe Denly, Steven Davies (wk), Steve Harmison, Sajid Mahmood, Stephen Moore, Eoin Morgan, Graham Onions, Adil Rashid, Vikram Solanki.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo