Concerns surrounding Shane Watson's Ashes availability have been partially allayed, with scans clearing him of a serious knee injury. Watson, who was ruled out of Australia's tour-opening practice match against Sussex with knee soreness, was diagnosed with a low-grade quadriceps strain and is now in line to play against England Lions at Worcester, beginning July 1.
"We expect this injury should resolve quickly," the Australian team physiotherapist Alex Kountouris said. "His return to play will be guided by progress in the next few days."
Despite the positive prognosis, Watson will be acutely aware he has missed a prime opportunity to impress the selectors in his bid to dislodge Marcus North from the No. 6 Test position. The allrounder was desperate to begin the Ashes tour on a positive note - not least because a hamstring injury ended his 2006-07 campaign before the first Test - and his absence from the Sussex match will do little for his confidence, or that of the team.
Watson was struck down with back stress fractures during the most recent Australian summer, and only made his return to competitive bowling during Australia's truncated World Twenty20 campaign. Speaking on the eve of the tour-opening match at Hove, Australian captain Ricky Ponting hinted at the nervousness within the team over Watson's fitness by discussing the possibility of bringing in a shadow player as cover.
"We might have to do that," Ponting said. "That has been some of the discussion this afternoon, particularly if we happen to have a batter hurt themselves in this game, we could be a little bit short. We certainly have to consider that. Shane was probably picked as the spare batter on the tour anyway, and someone who could give us some valuable overs if required, so it could get to the stage if someone happened to get hurt in this game that Shane could probably come in and play as a batsman if required anyway.
"Hopefully within a couple of days he's right to start working back up on his bowling and hopefully he plays the Worcester game at 100% fitness. For him it's obviously a setback. He's disappointed he wasn't available for selection in this game. I don't know if it harms his chances any more for the first Test match, but it's an opportunity that has slipped out of his grasp I guess."
The Australians have thus far refrained from calling in injury cover for Watson, although Victorian coach Greg Shipperd has already commenced the campaign for Brad Hodge to be next in line. "If they choose to replace a batsman for a batsman ... Hodge would be an ideal replacement for him and the right one," Shipperd said.
Watson was joined by Graham Manou, Andrew McDonald and Mitchell Johnson on the sidelines for the 12-a-side tour match against Sussex, although none of the latter three are understood to be burdened with injury. Johnson's omission is a clear indication that selectors now view him as Australia's premier paceman, leaving Brett Lee, Peter Siddle, Stuart Clark and Ben Hilfenhaus to fight for the remaining fast-bowling slots for the Ashes series.
"We have got the right to play twelve players in this game, but that does not mean we will be using it as practice," Ponting said. "We will be using this game to get used to the conditions. We believe this wicket will be the most like Cardiff anywhere in the country, so it will be a good opportunity for us as batsmen to get used to the pace and bounce, maybe a bit of spin."
Watson was in buoyant mood at Australia's open media day in Hove on Monday, despite missing the day's training session. Though admitting he had pulled up "a little stiff" the previous day, he gave a strong indication that he expected to be back bowling shortly.
"I'm not exactly sure what the selectors are thinking," Watson said. "But my bowling has been progressing really well. The Twenty20 was the first time I had bowled in a game competitively since Christmas time. The things I've done technically are definitely going to help me improve a lot."