Ponting says Australia have turned the corner
Australia never seemed likely to erase their 1-0 series deficit at Edgbaston, but a bullish Ricky Ponting believes enough positives were drawn from the third Test to indicate his side had finally turned the corner ahead of the final two matches at Headingley and The Oval. The apparent deterioration of Andrew Flintoff's knee, the revival of Mitchell Johnson and a stoic fifth-day batting performance have convinced Ponting that, despite an unconvincing first-innings performance, Australia are finding their rhythm after a month of frustration and disappointment.
"I'm sort of feeling now that things today went a bit more to plan than they have at other times in the series," Ponting said. "Some of the guys who missed out in the first couple of Tests got some results going their way, and that should probably put us in a good frame of mind going into the next game. Losing two days from this game and being in the position we were, could have developed into a really good game. It would have been hard to bat. We've done what I expected us to day today and we've kept England in the field for a full day, which is a really good thing for us."
Astonishingly, the tourists possess four of the five leading wicket-takers and five of the six leading run-scorers after three Tests, but have thus far fallen short in the key moments due to form, confidence, experience and team balance. Key to those failures have been the performances of Johnson who, after a horrid July, appeared to find some semblance of form during 21 straighter overs at Edgbaston.
There is no overstating Johnson's importance to Australia's planning. Earmarked as the leader of a youthful pace attack prior to the tour, Johnson's wilting in the Ashes spotlight was Australia's single greatest area of concern after the first two Tests, and played a role in the move to drop Phillip Hughes for the more versatile Shane Watson after Lord's.
But after finding direction, swing and, until his last spell, a fuller length at Edgbaston, Ponting is confident Johnson would prove less of a liability and more of an asset at Headingley.
"Mitchell was a different bowler altogether than he was the last couple of Tests," Ponting said. "Not having the new ball might have made it easier for him, not running in trying to swing the new ball. That's helped him, using him in slightly different ways. It was good to see him get another couple of wickets and look the bowler we know he can be. Hopefully he backs it up for another good game in Leeds."
Ponting was not the only player at Edgbaston to notice a marked improvement in Johnson. "Certainly when the ball was swinging he looked useful," said Andrew Struass. . "He looked to be a bit more aggressive. It wasn't a wicket for masses of short balls really but he did bowl a few and maybe as his rhythm came back a little bit more he was a bit more aggressive."
Australia, for the first time this series, will enter a Test match with a full complement of fast bowlers to choose from. Ponting hinted that Peter Siddle's position in the Australian line-up could come under review, with Stuart Clark the bowler favoured to be drafted in if change is deemed necessary by the selectors.
Brett Lee has bowled extensively in the nets since arriving in Birmingham, but Ponting would presumably be loath to risk him given he has not played a match since the tour match in Worcester prior to the first Test. Lee has struggled through recent Tests in Melbourne and the early stages of the 2008 tour of India with injury and illness, and he is unlikely to be exposed in the international arena before playing the tour match against Kent prior to The Oval Test.
"The selectors and I have shown great faith in [the fast bowlers] because we know what they're capable of," Ponting said. "We've been waiting for some of their best bowling to come out. At different times in the series they have bowled particularly well. I'm really happy with what Mitchell has come out of the game. Siddle has a little bit of work left to do, but he was the one who had the initial breakthrough the other day. He is better to left-handers than to right-handers and [England] have two at the top, so there are lots of pluses for this group of bowlers at the moment. But we'll keep and eye on Brett and we know what Clark is capable of. It is my job and the selectors' to work out the best attack for Headingley."
Ponting was enthused by Australia's second innings batting effort at Edgbaston, during which they limited England to just five wickets in 112.2 overs.
"It's great to see Mike Hussey get some real good quality time in the middle, certainly in the last three quarters of his innings he looked particularly good," he said. "And Marcus [North] and Michael [Clarke] led the way with a terrific partnership.
"I've always said about Australian teams that when we face the most adversity, generally we play our best cricket. I'm very confident that we've got a squad of players that if we play our best cricket we are going to be ultra competitive. When we have played anywhere near our best it's been excellent cricket, we need to have longer periods of good cricket in our next game, then you'll see a very competitive team."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo