The Ashes: Leaving out Brett Lee shows how strong Australia are for the Oval
England's selectors can only envy the depth of talent that allows Australia to consider omitting Brett Lee for the final Test, even after he proved his fitness with the best figures of the match at Canterbury.
According to the visiting coach, Tim Nielsen, Lee is "probably the best exponent of reverse-swing in the world". And yet he remains an outsider to push past the established pace quartet, who destroyed the English batting order so spectacularly at Headingley, for the fifth and decisive Test at the Oval on Thursday.
Nielsen did his best to talk up Lee's prospects. "Brett bowled 16 overs at against the England Lions at Canterbury,and came through it well," he said. "He had good pace, swung the new ball away and then had success reversing it, so all the things he brings to the table are really positive."
But Nielsen also indicated that the three quicks who have appeared in all the Tests to date – Ben Hilfenhaus, Peter Siddle and Mitchell Johnson – were in no danger of losing their places. "Their form in the series has been pretty good," he said. "We're pleased with where they're at." Here, after all, is Australia's fast-bowling future.
The one plausible candidate for ejection is Stuart Clark, despite the fact that he helped trigger England's disastrous first-day collapse at Headingley with the wickets of Alastair Cook and Paul Collingwood.
A horses-for-courses argument might seem to favour Lee. While the pitch at Headingley can encourage the ball to nip around, the Oval tends to be a true surface with plenty of pace and bounce. Strangely, though, Lee's record in Kennington verges on the disastrous. He takes wickets there at an average of 127 apiece in Test cricket, and when he dropped in for a Twenty20 international in early June, Chris Gayle kept smashing the ball into the surrounding brickwork.
Whatever the Australian selectors decide, the mood around the whole camp has lightened visibly since their landslide win in Leeds. At Monday's press conference, Nielsen talked about fostering a sense of enjoyment among the players – something that is much easier after a thumping win such as in the fourth Test.
"For us, this match is like an AFL [Australian Rules football] grand final," Nielsen said. "When you walk out, a tingle goes down your spine, and our challenge is to enjoy that. I would love to talk to players in 10 years' time and hear them say: 'How much fun did we have that week at the Oval?'
"Obviously every match means a lot but when you get a special one like this, you have to embrace it. These are the sort of games you remember at the end of your career. Great friendships can be made because you go through it all together. It's what you play international sport for."