Australia will almost certainly enter the series finale in Sydney next week with a vastly inexperienced attack after learning Brett Lee faces a month out of the game due to a foot injury. Lee has been out of form and was unable to improve his series figures of 1 for 200 when the problem kept him off the ground for the entire third day against South Africa at the MCG.
Lee has what the team physio Alex Kountouris described as a stress reaction - "on the way to being a stress fracture" - in the fourth metatarsal in his left foot. While there is a chance Lee could bowl in the second innings, it could take as little as one ball to turn the small crack into a stress fracture and a four- to six-week layoff is probably required either way.
"I don't think he'll be able to play the Sydney Test," Kountouris said. "We'll wait and reassess at the end of the game but if he's got what we think he's got and it's been confirmed by scans that he's got a stress fracture, it'll probably mean we're going to have to rest him for a period of time to let it settle. We'll probably get a specialist opinion but it will be something between four and six weeks I think."
That would rule Lee out of Australia's ODIs against South Africa and New Zealand and would mean a potential return in the Test series in South Africa that begins in late February.
Kountouris said the injury was caused by overuse and was not uncommon in fast bowlers. Lee has also had problems with his left ankle and has had four operations on the joint, the most recent of which kept him out of last year's World Cup.
Lee's lack of penetration has been a concern against South Africa and he leaked 68 runs from 13 overs as the pain increased throughout the second day at the MCG. Losing him for the Sydney Test would take the heat off the selectors to justify his inclusion but it would also leave Mitchell Johnson in charge of a young attack. Michael Clarke, the vice-captain, said a lack of Test experience in the bowling group would not be a major worry.
"I think I look at it the other way," Clarke said. "I remember when I got my opportunity to play Test cricket, it's a great feeling and you really look forward to that day and I think whoever - if somebody does come in for Brett Lee - I know they'll be looking forward to that opportunity and hopefully they can get hold of it with both hands."
Peter Siddle and Nathan Hauritz are each in their third Test and the candidates to replace Lee include the uncapped Ben Hilfenhaus, who joined the squad after the WACA loss. The Sydney local Doug Bollinger will also come into the equation, as will Shane Watson, who filled in as 12th man while Lee rested in Melbourne.