July 6, 2009

Australia strong even without Lee

Their latest setback notwithstanding, the visitors' bowling still stacks up favourably against England's

A rib injury on the eve of the Ashes is tragic news for Brett Lee. He felt sore towards the end of the tour game in Worcester last week, and if he's got an intercostals injury - fast bowlers call them the grunt muscles - then he'll be out for four to six weeks. Lee has worked so hard to get things right and now he won't be bowling in Cardiff. He's probably the best-prepared player I've seen and for this to happen after such a great game against the England Lions, is such a shame for him.

The team will move forward after this but they will be disappointed to miss their main strike bowler. Lee is a Test legend and they will be crossing their fingers that whoever comes in can do the job. There were a lot of questions hanging over Lee entering the tour and if he was up to a five-Test series in England. I didn't ever have a problem with his fitness, but I did wonder about his form. He wasn't in the greatest touch before he was injured in December, and his record in England, with 29 wickets at 45 in 10 Tests, is not the best over two tours. Then he took 6 for 76 in the first innings in Worcester and added another wicket in the second. He was back and now he's out.

His absence leaves a lot of options. It looked like they were going to play four quicks until now and the injury may lead them back to picking the offspinner Nathan Hauritz in a more traditional make-up. Or they could bring Ben Hilfenhaus, the outswing bowler from Tasmania, in to do the job with Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle and Stuart Clark. Or play the three quicks and Andrew McDonald, the allrounder.

I was a bit uncomfortable with the thought of them going with four fast bowlers even when Lee was fit. I'm always loath to go into a game without a spinner, but the selectors seem to think differently. In the Sussex and England Lions games the batsmen attacked Hauritz's offspin, and it would be interesting to see if they do the same thing in the Tests. In a five-day game you need a spinner, but they need to pick the guys who they think will be able to take 20 wickets.

Fortunately, any of the fast bowlers in the squad could do the job. The attack will still stack up favourably with England's, even without Lee. Johnson could become a Test legend in the future, Clark has done well, and I reckon Siddle will be the X factor. He's a fantastic bowler who delivers a heavy ball, and like Andrew Flintoff, bowls deliveries that hit the bat consistently harder than the speed gun shows. He clips the top of the bat or the splice often, and has a simple, repeatable action that allows him to bowl very straight.

Hilfenhaus pitches up and swings the ball away from the right-handers, and anyone who can do that at 140kph is a handful. He's capable of long, long spells - I've seen him bowl through to lunch with Tasmania - and is a big, strong lad. Ricky Ponting plays alongside him sometimes at Tasmania and knows what he can do.

Even though Australia's bowling remains strong, I expect England's openers to get off to a good start. I like the look of Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss, and the Australians will have their work cut out to get through them. But I can't go against Australia. I reckon they will win 3-0. There'll be a bit of rain, probably at Cardiff and Headingley, and some thrilling draws.

A lot has happened since 2005; it feels like a decade ago. The last tour was a great experience and went a long way to saving Test cricket. It was disappointing for the team to lose and I was disappointed with the way I played - I just didn't adapt to the change. There were no real practice games for us, but there have been two first-class matches this time and there will be no excuses from this squad - even without Lee - over a lack of preparation.

Jason Gillespie is sixth on Australia's list of Test wicket-takers with 259 in 71 matches. He will write for Cricinfo through the 2009 Ashes