Nielsen gives Lee hope of final Test recall
Tim Nielsen has not discounted the prospect of Brett Lee making a surprise return for the Ashes decider at The Oval should conditions prove conducive for reverse swing. Hot and dry weather is predicted for London for the three days immediately preceding the fifth Test - an ideal forecast for "Irish" movement - and Nielsen said Lee's old ball prowess could yet count in his favour at the selection table.
Reverse swing played a major role in England's Ashes triumph four years ago, but has hardly figured over the course of this cooler, wetter summer. By far the most potent display of old ball movement this series was that obtained by Lee in Australia's pre-Ashes warm-up against England Lions, during which he claimed 6 for 76 in the first innings, but an injury sustained in the latter stages of that match has thus far prevented him from playing any role in the Test series.
Ricky Ponting, writing in a newspaper column this week, observed that The Oval was the one English venue at which the Australians anticipated reverse swing, "especially if we have a dry, hot week." Nielsen echoed those sentiments on Monday, prompting speculation that Lee could be contender for Australia's final bowling berth.
"I think if it does reverse he'll very much put his hand up," Nielsen said. "Historically it's a drier surface that does bounce and carry a bit and those sort of conditions can help the ball get scuffed up, which everyone knows helps it reverse. When that's happening Brett is as good an exponent of [reverse swing] as anyone in the world. As long as he's fit and gets through the next three days and the conditions suit, he'll very much come into contention to play."
Lee was Australia's leading wicket-taker during the most recent tour match in Canterbury, although appeared somewhere short of peak form in his first competitive outing in six weeks. He struggled for rhythm in his opening spell on Saturday evening, but found both speed and movement the following day to finish with figures of 3-37 from 16 overs.
"He bowled with good pace, swung the new ball away then had some success reversing it in Canterbury," Nielsen noted. "All the things he brings to the table are really positive. He's very much putting his hand up for selection.
Lee will presumably battle Stuart Clark and Nathan Hauritz for Australia's fourth bowling slot, both of whom bring compelling cases to the selection table. Clark played a leading role in Australia's first innings rout of England at Headingley last week, providing the accuracy and veteran presence lacking on tour to that point. Hauritz, meanwhile, has taken 10 wickets at 32.10 at Sophia Gardens, Cardiff and Edgbaston, and would offer the Australian attack an added dimension as The Oval pitch deteriorates.
Nielsen said the final decision would be strongly influenced by surface conditions. "The team that played so well at Headingley has obviously given us a real quandary," he said. "It's a nice one, obviously, to be able to go into a Test match with our full squad available and playing well. We'll have a look in the wicket today. Over the next two days we'll see how it does change and once we get a feel on it we'll make a decision on what the squad will be.
"We're trying to be sensible and calm and make the best decisions about what the best team is for the conditions we play in. I expect that if the wicket looks like it will bounce and carry it will bring the fast bowlers into the game. The big thing is to ensure that we've got the balance right for a wicket that will obviously deteriorate over the five days. My understanding is the forecast is pretty good so with a bit of sun around it will dry up over the time of the game."
Clive Stephens, Surrey's operations director, predicted The Oval's veteran groundsman, Bill Gordon, would produce an even, well-grassed surface that would assist batsmen over the first three days and deteriorate thereafter. Stephens was not, however, optimistic that reverse swing would play a major factor in the fifth Test.
"I don't think so this year," said Stephens, when asked whether old ball movement had been prevalent during Surrey's home games this season. "Whether reverse swing will come into it, I don't know, but we're aiming to do out there is to provide a great wicket and a great outfield that sets the stage for a great competition."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo