Upbeat Clarke happy with preparations
The sky might be falling in on the Australians ahead of the Cardiff Test, but Michael Clarke is determined to retain a positive outlook. On a day in which Brett Lee was ruled out of the first two Ashes Tests with an abdominal injury and Australia's training session was curtailed by heavy showers, the vice-captain maintained that his side's preparation for the Ashes series had been "spot on" and even compared the new-look squad to the great Australian teams of the past decade.
The Australians had hoped to carry their momentum from Worcester into Cardiff, but encountered problems before the first training session at Sophia Gardens had even begun. By far the most serious development on Monday was Lee's abdominal tear, sustained during the England Lions practice game, which will at the very least rule him out of the Cardiff and Lord's Tests. Depressing, too, was the local weather, which severely interrupted Australia's morning training session, but had cleared by the time Andrew Strauss's men arrived at the ground.
Despite the tourists' trials and tribulations, Clarke adopted a brave face when addressing the media on Monday. "What we learned in South Africa was when we are at the top of our game, confident and playing good cricket we're as good as any team I've been a part of for Australia," Clarke said. "We certainly feel that if we're at the top of our game we can beat any team in any conditions. I feel our preparation has been spot on. It's just about, over the next couple of days, getting your head right and making sure you're mentally ready for what's going to be a wonderful series."
Mental preparedness aside, Australia's most immediate priority will be to configure a new-look bowling line-up in the wake of Lee's injury. Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle and Stuart Clark would appear to be certain starters, leaving Ben Hilfenhaus and Nathan Hauritz to duel for the final berth. Neither have overpowered in their tour matches to date.
The Sophia Gardens wicket is expected to assist the spinners after day three, but Hauritz's returns of 2 for 260 from 68.2 overs against Sussex and England Lions will have done little to inspire the confidence of selectors. Hilfenhaus, meanwhile, claimed three wickets on a flat Hove pitch last week - albeit at a cost of six runs per over in the second innings - and made a steady contribution to Australia's recent series victory in South Africa, but whether that will guarantee him entry into the XI for the Cardiff Test remains uncertain.
"I think the fond memories of (the) 2007 (Ashes series) and also our recent tour of South Africa ... will hold us in really good stead for Wednesday and throughout this whole series," said a defiant Clarke. "I'm very positive, I'm very confident that we can win this series. I'm confident we're playing good cricket already and I think we will continue to improve throughout this tournament.
"We've got our own identity. We proved that in South Africa. It's nearly two years now since Warney and Glenn (McGrath) retired. It's been a long time. It's great they're still spoken about because they are and will always be legends of cricket, but I think as a team we're continuing to gel. We've performed well in South Africa and got to know each other very well."
Clarke, though, was wary of a resurgent England following their 2-0 home series victory over West Indies. Despite this ostensibly being a battle between the first and fifth on the ICC Test rankings, the Australian vice-captain is bracing for a tight contest.
"I always say that England are a very hard team to play against, but they're even harder in their own conditions," he said. "They're coming off some good cricket against the West Indies, they've got some confidence and I'm certain it's going to be a wonderful series. I hope this series in similar to 2005, but I hope the results are a little bit different. I didn't mind 2007 either. That was a nice result."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo